True horror games, games that focus on being strange and alien and frightening above all else, are relatively rare these days. Survival horror games are a dime a dozen, and plenty of games walk the line of horror. There was a resurgence of the genre a few years ago, thanks to games like Layers of Fear and the Silent Hills Playable Teaser.
For the most part, though, horror has become something of a niche genre these days. And it is within that exact niche that Those Who Remain seeks to carve out a space for itself, blending psychological and atmospheric horror together into a frightening whole.
And when it comes to that central goal, Those Who Remain is actually quite successful. The game does an excellent job of building suspense, keeping you on edge for nearly the entire experience. Often times, you’re scaring yourself more than the game itself actually is, which in this case is a compliment. It shows that the game does a good job of building the tension throughout its levels, keeping you uneasy and constantly like you’re in danger.
This is helped by some generally strong visuals. The art direction works to the game’s advantage well, and the lighting really helps add to the scary atmosphere of the levels you’re exploring. The whole thing, visually at least, reminds me somewhat of the Xbox 360 cult classic Alan Wake to an extent. The emphasis on safety in the light and danger in the dark, the mysterious, shadowy enemies that constantly stalk you, and it’s use of wind and weather effects to hammer home the atmosphere all evoke that game in my mind, to good effect.
This theme is directly carried over into the game’s narrative, which is easily the strongest part of the experience. Players take on the roll of a man named Edward, sitting alone at a desk, when all of a sudden his phone goes off with a text. The message is from the woman he knows.
When you arrive at the hotel, it’s abandoned completely, with no sign of guests or employees. When someone steals your car, and you’re forced to hoof it on foot in the dark woods, the scares come out, and the story gets going.
From there, the game weaves a fascinating tale, combining small town vibes (always a fun horror staple), a grieving mother, and a touch of body horror into a compelling story. Edward’s tale combines well with the central tale of Annika, a teenaged girl whose death kicks off a series of nightmarish events for the small town the game is set in. The game does a good job of slowly progressing both narratives, tying them together into a larger whole.
A major aspect of the narrative is the presence of certain moral choices, where a mysterious figure prompts you to choose to condemn or forgive select characters in the story. Oftentimes a whole level will be dedicated to learning about their actions and their motivations. The game does a good job of making both choices feel valid; or rather, making them both feel equally poor. Most of the things these people do are awful, and yet they’re simultaneously understandable, motivated by real feelings and emotions. It makes the choices feel hard, lending them the much needed weight to make something like that succeed.
Unfortunately, while the game’s narrative is strong, the actual game it is built around is decidedly less so. That’s not to say that the game is bad, per se. Playing the game, I was reminded of those small-scale, independent horror games, the ones that were so popular with Youtube Let’s Players for a while in the early 2010s. This isn’t a bad thing; many of those games had some great scares and great stories, and Those Who Remain follows in those footsteps.
But it also features the clunkiness that was so common in those games. At its core, this is a puzzle game, at least from a mechanical standpoint. Each level usually requires you to find an item or two, usually to manipulate your environment in a certain way to allow you to succeed. The major problem here is that the puzzles tend to be either too difficult or way too easy. For the most part, they’re the latter; mind-numbingly simplistic turn the valve puzzles make up a solid chunk of the gameplay.
There’s also a few stealth based sections, that involve you making your way through an area while stalked by a horror you are powerless to defeat. These can be really intense, but the game’s stealth mechanics are slight to say the least. There’s no crouch option, so your hiding places are limited, and more than once I was detected by the monster seemingly through solid walls.
Then there’s the poorly placed checkpoints, which means getting caught at the end of a section often sends you all the way back to the very beginning of it, requiring you to start the whole thing all over again. Nothing kills horror like familiarity, and nothing breeds familiarity like replaying the section for the second or third time because of poor stealth mechanics.
The game also suffers from some technical issues. The game has a constant grainy filter effect on the screen, which can make spotting fine details difficult. The initial turn sensitivity is also astonishingly slow, something that can exacerbate the control issues, especially during chase sequences. Some objects also have much larger hitboxes than they seem like they should, which can cause similar problems. But the most troubling issues are the glitches that I ran into.
Some are relatively minor, like the time I saw some invisible cars in a parking lot, noticeable only through their hitboxes and their floating license plates. Much worse was the time the game hard crashed on me when I died at one point. Checkpoints are already hit or miss, but they have another issue; they only apply during your current session. If you leave the game mid-level, or in this case are forced to restart, you have to play the entire level over again, from the very beginning. Needless to say, I wasn’t thrilled.
This isn’t to say that Those Who Remain is a bad game. Quite the opposite, in fact. Despite its issues, I actually really enjoyed this game. I was interested in the story and characters, and my desire to see it through kept me playing. But I’m fully aware that the game’s appeal is limited in that regard. If, like me, you value story and atmosphere highly, Those Who Remain has a lot to offer.
But it comes with clunky gameplay, dated design, and some rare but sometimes major glitches. I was able to reasonably enjoy the game despite that, but your mileage may vary. If you’re interested in a game with a good story and frightening atmosphere, give it a shot. If you’re looking for something to deliver in the gameplay department, Those Who Remain is a hard pass.
This game was reviewed on the Xbox One.
Excellent atmosphere builds tension and facilitates some great scares; a compelling narrative keeps the game interesting.
Clunky and dated gameplay holds the experience back; some glitches can be seriously frustrating