In the course of seeking out games for BT, I play a lot of PS1-style horror, of which little is ever good or interesting enough to be worth your interest. So let that be a measure for my including the very engrossing Fears To Fathom games.
Released episodically, Fears To Fathom began with last year’s free Home Alone chapter, a 20 minute story about a 14-year-old staying home alone for the night while his parents are away. It’s definitely worth playing, managing to capture that spookiness of having the house to yourself for the very first time, and then of course delivering on those fears. It’s interesting because of the various ways it can end, even with your character’s survival. But most importantly, it caused me to yell out loud in two different places in two different plays through.
The focus here is on episode 2, Norwood Hitchhike, which just came out yesterday. Double the length, but still coming in under an hour, this is again about teenage firsts – this time about a 19-year-old girl called Holly driving alone long-distance, at night, in her father’s rickety old car.
I should say that both games make very smart use of filters to allow the decent graphics to appear both old-fashioned and photorealistic. I realise that sounds like a contradiction, but the fuzziness causes an ambiguity that caught me off guard a fair few times. Then add to that the oddly boxy character models, and you’ve got the PSX horror vibe that you kids like so much.
Norwood Hitchhike took me by surprise at the start by offering a short first-person horror game that also includes driving. I’d assumed the car would drive itself, but instead I was in control, pootling this old banger down a dark road in the woods, as Holly attempts to return home from a gaming convention. And wouldn’t you know it, but not far into the journey, her petrol light begins to blink.
I loved how free I was here. You can pull the car over, get out, and start walking if you want to. It’s not a good idea though – better to drive the car until you find a gas station in the middle of nowhere. Pull in, go inside, and you can ask the guy on the register for $10 of petrol. Oh, and chat with him about why it’s a very bad idea to pick up hitchhikers in the area. Things aren’t what they seem, he says.
I shan’t spoil the story, but it’s good to know that what follows is nowhere near as trite or expected as you’d imagine from that. And yes, I ended up yelling out loud all over again.
I really enjoyed how hands-on the game is. When you need to get your luggage out of your car, it’s not a screen fade and done – you need to open the boot, and pick it all up by hand, run a couple of times with your arms full, chucking it where it needs to go. It makes the world feel more real, the action less inevitable.
There are some issues. In the first free chapter, I had key prompts get stuck on screen. And it’d be really good if it’d stop telling me to press C to crouch every time I go near a window in either chapter. It’s also a shame that each game launches a menu that shows the other released chapters, but you can’t load them all from the same one.
However, for the occasional jankiness, there’s a lot of extra detail that makes these games feel much more than so many in the genre. The radios have more than one station, and play snatches of tunes, but will distort as you move around. Characters will react negatively if you behave weirdly, like throwing stuff from the shelves around the gas station. And doing obviously dangerous things will get you killed in various different ways. There are even text messages that come into your phone from various other people, giving the story more colour. Oh, and there’s a TV that shows a Fleischer Superman cartoon!
Again, as with the first chapter, I found two really satisfactory endings. One that bloody scared the bejesus out of me, and another that I’d consider a “good” ending. All extremely worthwhile. And yes, because people always ask, it does have jumpscares.
Yes, these are rough around the edges, but that’s a big part of the charm of these sorts of horror games. However, these have a lot more going for them, mostly because of a far greater amount of freedom (mostly to fail) within the tight, short stories, and the extra level of care and detail that goes into conveying it all. I’m looking forward to the next three chapters.