Review: The Park — A Circus of Horrors
The Park is a short but effective game which manages to get under your skin and deliver an unsettling tale of a mother and her son. Developer Funcom smartly withheld from putting scares around every corner, which gives the times they do appear a much stronger reaction.
Based around the now dilapidated Atlantic Island Park, you take the role of Lorraine, a mother traveling with her young son Callum. Too excited to stay in place upon reaching the park, Callum rushes into the park and you, as any dutiful mother would, follow him — only to discover the park is a much more sinister place than you remember.
As you progress through the park’s rides, which serve as backdrops for dread and bookmarks between Lorraine’s narration, you will find various documents and clippings that slowly reveal more about the park creator’s true intentions, as well as Lorraine’s background. This isn’t her first time at the park, and the reason for her return isn’t as that noble as the player may originally think.
The documents convey an actual world that Atlantic Island Park occupies — one full of people with dark intentions as well as horrible accidents that continue to occur, despite their gruesome outcomes. One of the documents is also the trigger for one of the few jump scares, and (while the game telegraphed what was going to happen) I engaged with it anyway in my desire for more information about the park’s background — even if it cost me a heartbeat or two.
Thanks to The Park introducing doubt as to the player character’s interpretation of reality, via the somewhat stereotypical avenue of mental instability, it can mess with your vision to great effect. I don’t want to spoil the frights for you, but just know that The Park does not revel in the violent, gory, B-movie horror. Instead, the game is much more set on getting under your skin by placing objects and people just out of view. It is the lack of awareness of your surrounding, or what is truly going on beyond the times your pace slows and the visuals begin to blur, that really cause your skin to crawl.
Thanks to the linear nature of the rides, as well as your restricted ability to act, the powerlessness often felt in horror games really seeps in when you’re behind the bars on a roller coaster, or sitting in the passenger car of a Ferris wheel. This is when the game takes advantage of you, forcing you to confront the ghastly figures you’ll encounter often in Atlantic Island Park. There aren’t many terrifying stalkers, but each is effective at instilling unease.
The chipmunk/squirrel character Chad (who is staring into your soul in the feature image) is inherently creepy, not only because all animal costumes are but also due to his red eyes and muteness. Another figure you’ll frequently catch glimpses of off-camera is at the same time both a humanoid, yet entirely something else. His proportions are all wrong, with a disfigured face and arms that are more Jekyll and Hyde than Slender Man.
Something else that greatly helps place you into The Park is the audio, with both the score and ambient noise putting you on edge. Sometimes whispers will phase in and out, making you question what is around you. The game recommends wearing headphones at the beginning for maximum effectiveness, though even without them the sounds coming from the speakers is still something to make you feel like you aren’t alone in the room. Other times the score will simply embody your uneasiness, building at the right moments and fading away when you need to catch your breath before the next bout of terror.
Graphically the game can be rough when you are viewing another character, as their movements are stiff and unnatural, but not in a way that it could be playing into the overall theme and purpose of The Park. Instead I suspect it is simply due to the limited time and personnel behind this project. One of the best examples is in the opening scene, as Lorraine’s hand clips through her hair. Some pop-in can also occur when you are jogging through the park onward to the next hellish ride. Setting those problems aside, the game runs quite well on Xbox One, and I was never brought out of the experience due to a frame rate drop or problem with the visuals being presented.
A highlight of the gameplay is the one of the attraction, which sees you placed in a P.T. situation with Lorraine repeatedly making her way through the same hallway. As you walk through it again and again, things begin to change and warp, as you get closer and closer to the climax and final resolution. It is not a complete lifting of P.T.’s brilliance, but instead a smart iteration on it, as there are no puzzles to solve, only the need to move forward and read some documents for insight. The game presents no challenges, besides the breadth of collectibles for you to gather and read. Nonetheless, when I finished I knew there were some things missing and a potentially different outcome evidenced by my unearned achievements.
While the ending is open to interpretation, there is enough of a conclusion that I was satisfied with the entire experience. There is a certain vague shadow over the entire course of the story, from Lorraine’s motivations, to the mystery of the true purpose of the park, and the identities behind the characters you see. It is not the type of mystery that you feel was created because there was no clear answer ever behind it. Instead it is something that will be made more clear by those who work to piece together the otherwise unrelated text scattered about.
Yes, some may complain about the overall length of The Park, as you can make your way through it in little over an hour depending on your play speed. However, despite the short length, I had intense and satisfying anxiety throughout. Even when divorced from the fact that this was a game made in a short time span with a few personnel from Funcom, it is still a great horror game.
The Park is a great piece of psychological horror, one that doesn’t dip into jump scares or excessive grit. Instead it introduces a playable protagonist you can’t rely on, in a discomforting situation that smartly paces itself and holds back from excess. For anyone who wants to feel perturbed and have a hard time sleeping immediately afterwards, The Park is definitely for you.