Home Sweet Home Review
With Home Sweet Home, Bangkok-based developer Yggdrazil Group have brought aspects of Thai folklore to life in a brutal and unnerving way. You’ll be familiar with a lot of the key elements here — ghouls, bloodstains, creaking doors, and abandoned buildings all being par for the course in any horror game — but the cultural specificity of the setting freshens the experience, giving the player some helpful new ideas of what to be scared of the next time something goes bump in the night. And there's not a zombie in sight.
First off, you can choose from the main menu whether to play in standard mode or in virtual reality, which is a great option to have. Can’t quite take another neck-snapping jump scare in VR? No problem, unplug your headset and take it down a notch for yourself. There aren’t monumental differences made to the experience of Home Sweet Home, as it doesn’t support motion controllers or the like, but some parts are clearly made with VR in mind, as there’s some fiddliness examining in-game items when you can’t use your gaze to select an object. Other than small quality-of-life details, you’ll have the same playthrough — although the scares themselves are obviously a lot more intense in virtual reality.
You’ll spend the majority of your time in Home Sweet Home cautiously tip-toeing along the narrow corridors of a derelict school, eyes and ears straining for any hint of danger. And danger there is. Although your character, Tim, is searching for his missing wife, Jane, you’ve unwittingly stumbled into the realm of a vengeful ghost, a student who prowls the dingy corridors in a blood-stained school uniform, armed with a box-cutter. She’s a terrifying adversary, able to travel through blood stains on walls in any room, and will attack the moment she sees you. An attack from her means either instant death, or a quick time event which will leave you bloodied but just about alive, and able to hopefully limp to safety.
Home Sweet Home builds atmosphere constantly through effective sound design. The ghost girl growls disturbingly under her breath, and my nerves were shredded by the clicking of her box-cutter being extended and retracted while she stalked me. Background music is little more than quiet ambience, allowing you to be alone with Tim’s heartbeat and the sound of slowly approaching footsteps. Radios crackle fuzzily and doors distantly slam, but nothing succeeds quite as much as the jarring violin stabs which sound when you’ve been spotted by the ghost.
Hiding in lockers and watching the spirit pacing back and forth through the metal slats is exhilarating. As you pass through different areas of the school, you’ll gather breadcrumbs of narrative, filling you in on both the disappearance of Jane and the appearance of the ghost girl. Early puzzles have simple stealth solutions, but as you progress new items will be introduced, along with accompanying extracts from textbooks to ground them in the world. The occasional door is sealed with magic, which can be dispelled by extinguishing ritual candles, and holy water can be picked up to create areas safe from attack. A new enemy type is brought in at around the halfway mark, ghouls of Thai folklore called ‘pretas’. They act as sentries who will alert the ghost girl of your location should their glowing red eyes fall upon you, but can be distracted if an incense stick is lit in their vicinity.
They’re not on the same level of foreboding as the girl with the blade, but do bring a small amount of variation to the levels when they pop up. Disappointingly, outside of the first time you encounter them, the pretas are human-sized and don’t move, only rotate like a grim security camera. The first preta Tim meets is as tall as a building, and the grotesque design is only emphasised by its immense scale. It peers in through the windows searching for you throughout one of my favourite sections of the game, and instantly kills you rather than summoning the girl ghost. The chapter is more like hiding from a T-Rex than it is the smaller, more insidious threat of being chased through the stained hallways and classrooms of the main game. It was different from the sections before and after it, and worked as a great change of pace and approach, while managing to maintain the special sense of dread.
Besting the massive preta, only to be dumped back into the school with the box-cutter ghost again, is a bit underwhelming. Home Sweet Home tries to mix up the gameplay with little puzzle sections here and there — find the code to this padlock, restore power to this fuse box — but it always reverts to you, the ghost girl, and a locker to hide in. There’s nothing wrong with the basic gameplay loop, but it isn’t intoxicating enough to justify doing the same thing over and over again. The environments are good, the puzzles are fine, and the ghost girl is an ear-splitting adversary who made me jump far more than I would have liked — but crucially, only for the first couple of hours. Horror games can only freak you out when you don’t know what’s going to happen, and so the extent to which the lack of variety blunts the element of surprise is a shame. It’s like the girl in The Ring crawling out of the television, only to find that her would-be victim has popped off to make a cup of tea because they got a bit distracted.
Home Sweet Home an intense experience, but never one that fully rewards you for persevering. I was fascinated by the spirits and rituals so rarely touched upon in games that make it to a Western audience, but the repetition of scenarios across the five or six-hour length is a real setback. Picture how Resident Evil 2 would play out if Mr X were the only enemy in the game, and you’re some way to understanding my frustration.
Home Sweet Home will serve as the opening installment of an ongoing game series, the follow-up to which is due out later this year. If Yggdrazil Group can build on the successful elements of this first chapter but branch out in its gameplay, there could well be a cult horror franchise in here somewhere. As it stands, samey cat-and-mouse puzzles dominate proceedings, causing Home Sweet Home’s well-realised setting and excruciatingly tense atmosphere to fizzle out — expect your nervous squeaks to be replaced with exasperated grunts by the end.
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