Whether you’ve been isolated from friends and family, quarantined inside and struggling to remember what the wider world has to offer, or simply resolving the violent and traumatic deaths of your home’s previous occupants, Visage will have something for you to relate to this year. This new horror/exploration game from SadSquare Studios shows clear influence from the Amnesia series (and the gone but never forgotten P.T.), challenging you to navigate a claustrophobic house where keys are hidden, darkness creeps, and ghouls scuttle out of sight as you round each corridor’s corner.
Visage has perhaps one of the most unpleasant opening scenes I’ve witnessed in recent memory, which blows the doors off ‘horror’ and settles down into straight up ‘horrible’ territory. It’s a queasy start which I found uniquely unsettling, and definitely earned (in my book) the content warning which preceded it. From there you’re let out to wander an empty house and piece together the events which have transpired, both for you and the three previous generations of residents. Initially restricted to a single segment of the property, the house slowly opens itself up to you — from labyrinthine basement to pitch-black attic — through careful exploration and macabre puzzle solving.
The bulk of the game is made up of three chapters of sorts, sharing a common ground in the house, but exploring different horror elements and character stories in each. Relentless backtracking through the same house for the ten-hour playthrough could have been stifling, but different chapters’ own versions of the house puts a new spin on the environment each time. Areas and locations are twisted around on themselves, and annexes closed off in one time period are newly accessible when exploring a different lost soul’s memory of the house. Whilst finding clues and solving puzzles to unlock the story in each chapter — told through snippets of audio and dreamy visions — you’ll be stalked by the phantasm at the heart of each, causing instant death if you walk blindly into their path. This threat is more final but less effective than the general atmosphere of dread, which Visage maintains well throughout; already flickering light bulbs can explode, plunging a room into darkness and leaving you scrambling in your inventory for a lighter, and doors slamming shut as you approach them are nervy reminders that you’re never as alone as you think. Encountering the human antagonists moving around the house was my personal highlight though, as turning on a lamp just in time to see a figure bolting behind a piece of furniture can be enough to put the wiggins up the staunchest horror fan.
Whilst you don’t have a health bar (any attack sustained means instant death and being kicked back to the latest checkpoint), an icon of a brain in the corner of your otherwise empty HUD fills up with red if you remain in the darkness for too long. This is your sanity meter, and as your character becomes more stressed, the frequency of paranormal events rises until a jump scare attack is only a matter of time. Pill canisters can occasionally be found to help keep the panic at bay, but more often than not you’ll be able to stand in an illuminated space until your sanity returns to normal(ish) and it’s safe to continue.
There’s a purposeful lack of hand-holding in Visage, but this doesn’t always work in its favour. Whereas some of the puzzles are quite straightforward to piece together, bizarrely, finding where to go in the first place is not. The early sections of my playthrough were fraught with directionless blundering to try and find something to do, as some events are only triggered by specific and precise actions, with no indication when you’re on the right track or not. Trial and error brute forcing became my solution to some of these segments, which becomes more and more galling as you explore more of the house. In one such instance I had inspected every innocuous object in an overflowing room before finding the ‘correct’ item, but then I was back to square one and searching the entire house for the next step to progress — bumbling around in the dark with no end in sight. The omission of a minimap healthily encouraged me to find my own routes, but when Point A is stumbled upon by chance, and Point B could be any one of the hundred other rooms in the game, I often wished the narrative could have been used more helpfully to suggest a goal to the player.
As you spend ninety percent of the game in varying levels of darkness, it’s a good thing that the lighting graphics are effectively implemented, showing you just enough to be concerned about your surroundings. Cigarette lighters are scattered around the house and can be used to ignite candles and illuminate a small area — the warmth of this light is reassuring enough to let you catch your breath and restore some of your sanity meter, but the candles themselves become few and far between as you progress. Alternatively, you can equip the lighter for a flickering view of your immediate vicinity, but use them sparingly: the fuel will eventually run out, leaving you helpless without a backup stashed in your inventory... better still is a camera with a built in flash and a small cooldown period, which gives you a brief bright glimpse of your route ahead. The camera also seems to work to repel some of the pursuing ghosts, as if you were a guilt-ridden paparazzo feverishly warding off the vengeful spirit of Princess Diana. Popping off a flash to find yourself face to face with an intestinal mound of pure horror is a welcome jolt if you’re in an aforementioned slog of frustratedly searching for the next puzzle.
Visage is an interesting game to a certain point, and its relentlessly unsettling subject matter makes for a visceral experience — a few scenes in particular I’m happy to put behind me. Having said that, the scariest elements of the game can at times be muted by the free-form nature of the experience. Areas in the first two chapters can be explored in any order, but my trail often unwittingly went dead as I hadn’t yet found a key item from one area or a significant scrap of paper from another, which should apparently have been discovered first. Clunky missteps like this lead to significantly more scouring and shuffling around in the dark to pad out the experience. Your experience may vary, and what I’m describing may just be the sort of free roaming horror you’ve been looking for — but I feel that a tighter control over some of the sequencing and a better sense of curation could have worked better to ramp up the tension.
Visage’s reluctance to spell it all out for you from the off makes the various plot points more compelling, but also generates some issues with fiddliness and obscure progression which I could honestly have done without. Despite this, the mechanics and spooky puzzle-solving logic which you pick up along the way does all make sense in the end. If you can make it past a bit of aimless meandering here and there, the rest of the game does have enough to make up for it with an engaging and occasionally intense horror experience.
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