I woke up in my bed, a vibrant fog surrounding anything outside of my reach. As the alarm sounded to wake up, my sight rippled with visibility – each pulse of the klaxon created a wave of clarity showing a classic room, lined with record player, old-fashioned CRTV, and a seemingly blood-splatted card. As I turned the alarm off, my foreground faded back into fog as it crept up once more.
But the alarm wasn’t the only sound echoing through the house. In a distance, the soft melodies of piano hum through the house giving some dull perception. As I croaked “Hello?” and approached the balcony, I noticed a woman – my wife – deep in concertation while working at the keys. I rushed down the stairs to meet her, but as I turned the corner she vanished… replaced instead by a child’s ragdoll. And as the room fell silent, my vision re-blurred again, losing sight of the piano, the room, and then the doll. “Hello?”
Welcome to Stifled by novice developers Gattai Games – PlayStation VR’s latest game, with the unique spin of echolocation as a primary feature. The focus around a deaf protagonist is far from unheard of, with similar techniques and styles implemented within 2016’s film Hush even this year’s Perception. However, unlike Perception or the other medium’s equivalents, the game takes an experimental edge where players act as the sound with the use of external microphones.
For instance, using the PlayStation camera, I would be wandering around dark sewers of Stifled with the occasional dripping or pipe-clanging illuminating the nearby area. However, whenever I wanted to tempt fate I could give a few clicks, whisper, or – my standard response – screaming a string of expletives. Every time I made a sound, the area around me would be illuminated with a wave of sight, reminiscent of echolocation. Meanwhile, for those not equipped with a microphone, you can simply push a button to make a noise in-game.
Of course, this mechanic isn’t the solution for every situation. While you are trying to find yourself literally in the world and in the amnesiatic storyline, you are being stalked by horrifying creatures that look like a mix between Five Nights at Freddy’s animatronics and Sid’s toys from the original Toy Story. And as you make sound – whether it is cursing or even the slight movements in-game – the world will illuminate with a deep red, a piercing scream, and the enemy will charge for you.
Stifled‘s balance between risk and reward on making these movements and sounds is typically satisfying. You never know what is a foot in front of you, which is legitimately terrifying and the only way to find out is via a gameplay mechanic that draws in foes.
More captivating than the gameplay mechanic is the smart auditory and level design peppered throughout Stifled. In a game where you are enveloped in complete darkness, it is amazing how little you get lost. While everyone will likely stumble and lose themselves once or twice in the three to four-hour experience, slight visual cues as well as the occasional drop of water, shriek of something terrifying in the distance, or ruffling of leaves will point you in the direction you should be heading.
While both the actual functionality and level design for the game are brilliantly conceived, in action the game falls far from expectations. Or perhaps, too close to the indie survival-horror trope expectations of anyone who has touched games like Outlast or Slender in the last decade. Fact of the matter is, Stifled often feels a little too close to the chest, often feeling beat-for-beat like a game from yesteryear.
After your first couple of deaths in the echolocation segments of the game, you tend to lean more towards frustration rather than fear. It wasn’t uncommon to replay sections multiple times because of some wonky UI, or a misplaced step into puddles that seem unfairly scattered. Once the initial novelty of the echolocation wears thin, little is added to that dimension to keep it fresh or interesting, even in the short playtime.
A bit more terrifying are actually the Layers of Fear-like surreal segments that focus on full-textured environments; like my story in the beginning, these (few) parts of the game resonated the most to me, offer exploring visual illusions and some real terrifying situations. It’s a bit strange that the scariest parts of the game typically come outside the boundaries of normal systems and play, but I feel it is more attributed to the heavily scripted nature of these sections – less so a statement about the core gameplay.
Last but not least, I would be remiss to not mention the free VR functionality of Stifled which makes a terrific value for anyone with PlayStation VR. While I got my fair share of frights and jumps with just my headphones and 4K television, I became downright terrified in virtual reality. Sure, I’m a baby-man that can’t handle most horror games in the VR dimension, but it does offer some compelling replayability to those equipped for that style of play.
Stifled is absolutely not the best indie horror game on the market, but I have to respect it for what it brings to the table. While the game is short and the frustration can – at times – be palpable, Stifled is a smart and satisfying game (especially for anyone invested in VR setups). Although we are out of Halloween and horror season, any fan of the VR medium and the indie horror scene should take a chance on this game and see… or, not see… what it has in store.