If Amnesia and Blandness Had a Baby...
I find it safe to credit the current revival of the survival horror genre on only a handful of titles from the last few years. Many of which spawned from PC's ever-expanding indie scene. Namely, it was Amnesia that catapulted the otherwise shelved genre back into the minds of gamers at large, re-inventing the genre into the slow-paced, tension building one that many see it as today.
Though with popularity comes imitation and, contrary to how things were just a few years prior, the survival-horror genre is now flooded with its share of releases; good, bad, and everything in between.
Astray, the first major release from Aegon Games – a two man (brothers) development team based out of England – does not shy away from naming Amnesia as a major inspiration for the title. As much as I loved the game, I've been known to throw my fair share of criticism its way in terms of its obtuse take on puzzle solving; something that many titles in the genre suffer for in turn.
While I am happy to say that Astray avoids such trappings, leaning more towards your basic logic puzzles than grinding searches and trial and error guesswork, it, unfortunately, brings with it it's fair share of issues, making it little more than a lackluster, if solidly built, first attempt from the team.
The game rolls out in text, providing the brief backstory for the events going forward. It has been over a week since hearing any word from your museum owning uncle. With the family worried, you've set off for the museum, hoping to find out just what is going on.
The white text on black screen then opens up to a hurried scene of the nameless player character desperately running from . . . something. The creature, and even the chase itself, is never explained or spoken of going forward, so I guess it's up to the players to fill in the blanks there.
The chase quickly ends with a slide down a hill, and an expertly handled roll that leaves the player just a stone's throw from the museum in question, and the beginning of this admittedly short adventure.
The game doesn't take long to throw its first obstacle at you, tasking the player with bypassing the lock sealing the gate to the museum itself. Luckily, the means to opening it is sitting just a few feet away and getting past this obstacle really isn't a problem. Unfortunately, this holds true through almost the entire experience.
As much as I am not a fan of the head-banging, sometimes entirely random logic often administered by similar titles, Astray simplifies it all to such an extent that the puzzles on offer feel almost . . . patronizing. Only once did I ever find myself stuck on a specific puzzle. Even then, with clue in hand and a good idea of where to go, it was a lack of attention that ultimately made me waste the time on the section that I did. Less so the complexity of the puzzle itself.
If the answer to the puzzle wasn't sitting just a hop and a skip away, you can rest assured that it's plainly spelled out for you on one of the random pieces of paper not being used to provide a semblance of context to the otherwise characterless and story-lite experience.
Suffice to say, the puzzles range from either not fun, to simply not engaging. And with such titles come a heavy reliance on puzzles, atmosphere and, most importantly, scares.
Well, the developers don't quite have the science behind worthwhile puzzling down, so it's obvious that the game's strong suit is the world on show, right . . . Right?
Well, not quite. I will give the developers one thing: they delivered a setting that allowed for many different types of locations to fit organically with one another. On the other hand, they did very little with overall aesthetic, meaning players are given a list of varied locations to explore, though none of which will serve to draw the player in to any real degree. They're just plain and uninteresting.
Even from a technical standpoint, the game is nothing to write home about. While (mostly) well put together, the sparse environments and overly clean look does little to impress.
At the end of the day, this is still a horror title. Seemingly everything so far is redeemable, as long as they handled the scares well. Again though, even the overall scare factor the title provides doesn't well meet "par for the course" even. Throughout the short two hour campaign, there's nothing to be found in the way of a genuine scare. The game, while well paced at first, proves just too short, and the content too limited, to properly build the tension within the player to drive them forward.
Players are met, face to face, early on with the game's one and only enemy. And while you would hope such a case would mean it was at least a properly engaging one, it isn't.
The zombie-like creature is slow, dumb, and really just the furthest thing from intimidating I would ever expect to see in a horror game.
It's not especially dangerous, what with its line of site being incredibly short. As is it's attention span. The only real way to set these things off is to shine your rechargeable flashlight on it. In one of the few instances where I did grab its attention, a quick jog away from the monster would end in it giving up the chase, even with the player character still in view. There's just nothing to be found in these confrontations to ever warrant any real sense of fright in the player. At least in the crowd that would be interested in this title in the first place.
What I can say though is that the game is technically sound. With a i5 3570k, paired with a single GTX680, I was able to run the game at 1440p, everything maxed and with high levels of AA without breaking a sweat in all but just a few choice areas. So anyone with even moderately modern rig shouldn't have a problem running this one fairly well. Again though, that's in regards to a title that is by no means a looker.
It does have to be said that I did run into a number of issues while playing the game, namely in the way of the player character clipping through the environment. The game requires players to duck through things such as air vents and nooks in walls on a fairly regular basis throughout. Often times this results in players being shoved outside of the barriers of the game world, seeing everything the developers created from the outside in. While this was never game breaking, still allowing for me to navigate the passages on the way to my goal, issues like this did a lot to pull me out of an experience that was already fighting just to keep me interested in the first place.
This was addressed by the developer, however, as a random bug not everyone should be experiencing, and that they would be addressing it going forward. Only time will tell. It doesn't matter the size of the team, nor the price of the game. If this is a more widespread issue when it comes to the full release, then that's the mark of an unfinished game. Be sure to check the Steam forums before you purchase.
All the negativity aside, It was a good first try for such a small developer. I have seen bigger teams with obviously larger budgets take on similar projects and not do nearly this well. Still, with a long list of similar, though much more engaging experiences to be had, it's hard to recommend this one simply because it's cheap. It's not a terrible experience . . . just a lackluster one.
Hopefully the developers could use this as the building blocks for something that much better down the road. It's easy to see they have down the basics for creating a solid survival horror experience. But whether it be just lack of experience, or even the manpower needed to realize it, what they have on offer is a rather flat experience that simply doesn't live up to the titles that popularized the genre as of recent. I do hope they give this a second shot though. I certainly see potential here, especially if they manage to add the needed talent to the team.
Until then, however, we have Astray and, eh, it's a game.