Note: This review does not include aspects of the VR version released on PSVR
For years the horror genre has mirrored that of movies and has added common game systems to that basic structure of story and jumps scares. Resident Evil 7: Biohazard, for example, was a game that took the found footage genre and creepy Louisiana setting and combined them with its more than average gameplay. It turned out great, as many horror games often do when developed with the idea of scaring in mind, as systems which run the experience chug in the background to make this illusion of fear work. This can be a compromise sometimes, too much of a video game feel and you’ve lost the pure horror fans, too much movie-like jump scares and your game becomes a cheap movie knockoff. But no horror game, and I mean none, has combined a truly unique mechanic and gameplay so well as Stifled.
Developed by Gattai Games, Stifled offers a twist that might not sound startling on paper but manages to creep me out to the same point any other horror game has. You play as a visually impaired character who can use a sort of echolocation to reveal his surroundings. When starting off in Stifled, the world is as dark as your tv screen when it’s off, but with a couple of flicks of the controller, you begin to outline the settings around you. Through picking up some random things in front of you or through making sounds into your headset (a feature I found exhaustingly gimmicky), white borders detail rocks, trees, and other environmental formations. These inanimate objects hide frightful humanoid creatures that pulse their own creepy sounds in red around the same type of stuff. This created a new kind of horror, a deep and intimate level of stirring that drove me insane. I loved it.
Upon entering the first sewers of Stifled, I was shocked with the pretty narrow options of travel. Gattai Games wanted to craft an experience that was structured in a way that meant the modern feel of a survival horror was missing. Though there were a lot of points of backtracking, there was still some openness that let you decide how you wanted to go about the terrible situations you’ve gotten yourself into, and the moment to moment gameplay felt okay given the insanely cool mechanic you’re first introduced to. That mechanic got a little too samey near the latter half of Stifled but still amazed me with how uniquely intense it made the horror aspects of the game feel. Part of this was how the game was designed, another was the immense amount of work put into the sound quality of Stifled.
That first half is important. For every “this is so scary” moment, there was a build up. Every time I was scared from my head to my toes, there were three moments before that which teased me. This building of momentum, the steady pace before every little climax, meant that Stifled ended up being one of the more finely tuned linear horror titles of the year. Sure, it’s no Resident Evil 7 or even The Evil Within 2, but Stifled manages to slice out its own unique flair to the genre through pacing that legitimately creeped me out. A big part of this also has to do with the fact that the sound design in Stifled is some of the best I’ve experienced in a while.
Sound can be overrated sometimes. Even in some big AAA games, I find myself often laughing at how the sound design took last precedence over graphics and gameplay. Well, in Stifled it makes sense that the sound should be front and center as both the graphics and gameplay technically depend on it. Without saying more, play this game with some quality headphones. I’m not overreacting at all when I say that Gattai Games has nailed the creaks and metal clanks of their horror title. Every squeaking mouse, every tumbling pebble, everything that made any noise attracted me in some way. Through hearing my voice echo down a long sewer tunnel, I was instantly transported to a place where every move was mapped out through sound alone. This extreme amount of sound sensitivity meant that my own steps sometimes startled me, my own voice sometimes detailed monsters I didn’t want to see, and the screams of monsters themselves made me realize I had no way of escaping their clutches. Something that is remarkably overlooked, organic moments of horror, outweighed cheap jump scares and made Stifled a more thrilling ride. I can go on forever about how insanely detailed Stifled’s sound design actually was, but the shame is that many will overlook the game as a whole because of its obscurity both in graphical style and in its creators’ place in the gaming industry. This doesn’t at all affect the impact it had on me, however, and I will remember the immense work put in by Gattai as a measuring stick for all future games, whether they be indie darlings or triple A blockbusters.
The impeccable work put into sound on Stifled could’ve also been put towards the story of the game as well. Though it wasn’t anything too bad, the pop in, pop out aspects of your character are somewhat amusing at best. Throughout the course of my playthrough, I learned about the significance of the sewers I was traveling in and collectected clues to the overarching story within Stifled. This style of narrative is one that I always shy away from for several reasons. One reason is that character development and the relationships they build are often left useless if not elaborated on in full or visually implemented. Video games, like movies, are a visual medium. They have immense tools to guide one through a series of meaningful developments within a certain time limit. Stifled is one game (like many in the genre) that favors unique gameplay over a narratively interesting story. If you’re looking for narrative, do not pick up Stifled. That said, most people probably aren’t looking for a greatly crafted story in a horror game, of all things. Though there are others in the genre that can do gameplay and story at a great degree, Stifled is a game that I can forgive for its lack of a meaningful story in exchange for the awesome sound and gameplay it offers up. If you’re somebody who can’t make with that compromise, then Stifled sadly isn’t for you.
Stifled turned out to be a double-edged sword. Though it was amazing at impressing me with its incredible sounds, it lacked sorely in areas like a long lasting gameplay loop and a meaningful narrative. This didn’t make much difference for me. It still managed to give me exactly what I wanted: a quant night of spooky pleasure. It did this by crafting a well-paced rhythm of finely tuned scares and left several other moments of horror to the combination of pure sound and graphical simplicity. It was almost like watching an old school slasher film; I didn’t see all the bloody gore or the blood spewing from the monsters in my way, but I didn’t need to. Stifled executed on everything I wanted it to be and not an ounce more.
Developer: Gattai Games
Publisher: Gattai Games
Platforms: PS4, PSVR, PC, Mac
Release Date: 31st October 2017