Uncanny Valley(UVa), what can I say? It stands above the Steam Greenlight breeding grounds for cash grabs and horrifying attempts at video game design, but how far does it stand?
Uncanny Valley is a horror/psychological thriller developed by Cowardly Creations. Much in the same way Lone Survivor plays, Uncanny Valley is side-scrolling, pixelated, and utilizes an atmosphere of darkness, solitude, and symbolism to evoke feelings of dread in a kafkaesque nightmare.
You play as an unassuming security guard for a decommissioned worksite conveniently located in the middle of nowhere with little information and less-than-lethal torch.
Sounds safe enough, right?
I love pixelated art, horror games, and an enthralling adventure story to boot. For this review I’m going to splitting coverage into those three sections because something that came quite apparent through my playthroughs was the eerie gap between the elements of design, and the increasingly terrifying way they try and fit together.
The first thing you’ll notice about Uncanny Valley is the exceptional art design. Pixelated art is a very rough medium to transcend, but when you understand the fundamentals, it’s only a tip-toe away from staging scenes that pronounce synergy and fluidity. All the models, backgrounds, and what-have-you’s matched up very quaintly, especially when the environment radically shifted.
The scenes were painted together so that the ebb of concentration was never undermined by imposing graphical conundrums, and when the occasional error did spark up, I was so engrossed in the environment that my double-take became a venial afterthought. That may be subject to game design, but when I walked into a room, I didn’t feel as if I was simply walking from A to B, engrossed in nothing more than my character, I felt as if the room presented itself to me and told a unique story of its own.
The rooms themselves are probably the most interaction you’ll get the entire game. There’s only a few NPCs muddling about, and each of them are just as disinterested in you as they possibly can be, so there’s incredible moments of introspection or, adversely, deep-seated boredom.
Now, as far as horror goes, it stands to reason that scaring people is incredibly difficult through whatever artform you’re exploiting, especially if the audience has witnessed the tropes, knows the tells, or are generally someone who is undaunted (we all know they are secretly wetting their pants).
If you came here for horror, then I’ll assume you go to Vine for comedy, iTunes preview for your music, and Costco sample tables for your meals. Don’t get me wrong, Uncanny Valley wields the juggernaut sword of terror in the most imposing ways possible. I mentioned earlier the kafkaesque world, and when you combine that with eldritch undertones of unnatural, Gothic narratives, Uncanny Valley lives every word up to its name.
Let’s take the level design for instance. There’s a lot of head space in many of the environments juxtaposed by incredible silence. It’s just you walking around in an open space, expecting something to come out of the thousands of possible places. It’s comparable to the enormous size of a leviathan in the sense that something so great and powerful should not exist, but instead of an imposing monster, we pale in comparison to the great expanse of the void, thereby making the player character seem insignificant.
The lighting is equally ambient, and therefore doesn’t serve the purpose of masking unseen horrors as much as it’s used. It feels rather like the gristle on an unfinished steak.
All that being said, UVa is great at serving me bite-sized horror. There are moments of impending doom in which I panicked, most of them to be exact. I was scared for various reasons, intent on not being enveloped by pilfering shadows, and UVa does this perfectly! Kudos! Listen, if you want to make a horror game, the unseen is always worse than the enemy you can see, however, when the enemy approaches so quickly that you have no time to comprehend what they are, this promotes just as much regret when you accidentally run the wrong way.
They kind of dropped the ball the second half, trading the adrenaline exercise I was having with shock terror and dystopian set pieces for a Dead Space/Silent Hill gore factor, one I admired but didn’t particularly agree with.
Here’s where we unveil the horrifying truth of UVa, unfortunately.
It feels clunky, and not in the way most indie games usually do. It really is uncanny the way everything else fits together, but the controls and button prompts are neither decisive nor accurate. Some bugs I was particularly disenfranchised by included not being able to use my inventory and the inability to leave rooms while talking to someone for fear of the game crashing. These were pretty major, but I managed to look past them and see the even more upsetting features.
Now, if you don’t understand the story by the halfway point, I can only imagine you happened to run past all the computer monitors littering your workplace, laden with exposition, or perhaps you didn’t read them because you were turned off by the awful input prompts, or lack thereof.
I distinctly remember approaching a story item at one point, pressing ‘E’ to interact, and reading some text. I hit ‘Esc’ to back out because I wasn’t ready to commit to exposition. This brought me to the pause menu. I hit ‘Esc’ to get out of that, to no avail. Turns out a game marketed around the keyboard utilizes the mouse in the most exclusive ways possible.
Imagine doing this for multiple computers, items, and people, unable to skip dialogue and unsure of what the interact button is. Granted, I got used to the controls, but even then I was still hitting roadblock after roadblock, my immersion wearing down like the tread of my adventuring tires.
The story itself is pretty mundane, but they did make room for replayability and variation. There’s not much to interact with, but if you can bear through the hamfisted dialogue and the few diminished or droll sequences a few times over, then maybe you can bring some colour to those poor, lonely Steam achievements.
In games like this the ending is never as satisfying as the game itself. I loved the first half, expecting to find myself in a city, surrounded by people, but feeling more alone than ever. The experience went from being inside the painting to simply looking at it.
Gamers, here’s my advice: wait for a Steam sale or pick this up in a bundle. I really admire what this game was so close to doing. I can tell there is immense talent within these developers, but from what I can see it wasn’t utilized to its full potential.
I’m keeping my eye on them, ready to reach out my hand for when they decide to step out of their own uncanny valley.
Uncanny Valley is developed by Cowardly Creations and is available on Steam or their website for $8.99