A dark haunted mansion, atop a lonely hill, has to be one of the top horror genre cliches. Nothing, it seems, is as scary as being left in darkness, and horror games tend to exploit this fact with little forethought. In the horror world it is always night, and your torch is always going to break, and the electricity is always on the blink. These are factors we come to expect of the genre, because the scariest thing a game can do is make it difficult for you to see.
The team behind the first person narrative horror Perception, The Deep End Games, take this fact and push it to somewhere unexpected; our protagonist, Cassie, is blind. Plagued by dreams of an old ruin, Cassie is determined to investigate the abandoned house in Echo Bluff, and she is going to let no-one and nothing stop her from finding out just what happened there.
Perception deserves real credit for the way it includes, and integrates, Cassie's disability into gameplay. Her blindness isn't an extra obstacle to overcome, but instead, the enhanced hearing it causes positions Cassie as the perfect character to roam around the dark ruin. It is because of Cassie's heightened sense of sound that she can navigate the haunted house so well.
The game introduces Cassie first and foremost through these talents. In a brief clip at the beginning of the game, we are a younger version of the protagonist, listening to a mentor as he wills Cassie to see via listening to what is around her. From these lessons, with every tick, drip of a tap, or hum of a radio, she can situate herself within a room.
In gameplay, these sounds are represented through waves and pulses of light. When Cassie taps her cane, an addictive action from the beginning, the world lights up briefly to reveal the surroundings. When it does, the player is created by slightly worn and bulky graphics, but what the game design lacks in intricacy of textures and details is easily explained away by the fact that for Cassie, these details don't exist.
Before the game begins, the player is given the option of two different modes: Chatty Cassie and Silent Night. We played on Chatty Cassie, attempting to gain the most out of the scripted narrative, but if you're looking for fewer narrated reactions and more scares, Silent Night is for you.
Spun out across four chapters, the game centres around the four families that lived within the house throughout history. Each chapter focuses on a different family all of whom have a tragic story for Cassie to discover. The characters in each of these small stories are troubled to begin with, but in each tale it seems that the house itself makes things worse, twisting the minds of its occupants to send them to even darker mental spaces. As the casts of characters switch between chapters, the house itself changes too, adjusting to different time periods with historical props and alterations to its layout. These set changes are usually quite predictable (the introduction of barbed wire and hospital beds in Betty's WWII story, for example), but the way the house twists and changes is always interesting to explore.
Exploration is the predominant action in this first-person adventure game, and through it, Cassie finds evidence to piece together the stories of these unfortunate residents. Their histories are more unnerving than scary, but the game's sound mixing and the intermittent introduction of ghostly figures does its best to try and make you jump. When you discover a new room, you are often assaulted by the beginning of sudden narration. Alongside the appearance of a wispy ghost, the narration serves to detail more about each of their lives. While the voice acting is excellent, the scenes are forgettable, adding almost too much detail to stories that would be spookier without.
However it can become aimless at times, as the game wants you to pick up certain objects or enter certain rooms to forward the plot, but Cassie's ''sixth sense'' helps speed things up. This tool lights up the doorway or object that the player needs to head towards, and even turns the camera in the right direction. This is an easy side-step for when exploration gets dull. In each room, new letters and tapes can be found to reveal more to complete each chapter's mystery. Yet, the term ''mystery'' can be used loosely here. Each narrative feels more like being dragged through an experience than a mystery, and they aren't sufficiently puzzling to gain a sense of having triumphantly solved anything.
When the game isn't detailing the domestic lives of sad individuals, it is attempting to shoehorn in the supernatural. Aside from Cassie's 'sixth sense' which works well throughout, symbols and features that attempt to wrap the world further in the supernatural often feel needlessly added, and not properly thought through. The main enemy in the game falls foul to this also. A Grim Reaper-like figure, aside from a few cutscenes, our enemy ''the presence'' only appears if you tap your cane too many times. If you get too vigorous with trying to light up your way, text appears with an accompanying cacophony of vaguely scary mutterings, to warn you that the house is listening.
At first, this does produce a tense atmosphere, but it was easy to forget about it as the game goes on, and we only encountered ''the presence'' twice. With the main enemy seeming quite benevolent after the first chapter, and the stories falling flat, there isn't much left to keep you feeling motivated to finish the game.
The game attempts one drastic change of pace in the form of chapter three, the story of an old inventor who animates female dolls. The dolls are dotted around the house in various static positions. Stumbling across them in the dark is always unnerving, but when the girls begin to move about the house and shoot at you, they're just really annoying. The girls were more bratty than scary, and being shot at in an exploration game was a jarring gear shift.
Instead, what continues to be interesting is how Cassie navigates this world. Her use of technology to read and have images described to her was fascinating. On her phone, she uses an app called Delphi to read out the text on old letters and she also uses an app called Friendly Eyes, which gets her in contact with people on the internet who can describe images to her.
These features were fun to play around with, but even with these there were inconsistencies that let it down. For the majority of letters, Delphi was needed to translate them, but some provoked narration without it, with no clear distinction. With the house switching time zones and twilight zones, we were left wondering how she was getting enough 3G and signal to communicate with the outside world and how, in a waterlogged basement, her very annoying boyfriend was even able to call her?
It is because of the more interesting innovations, and promisingly atmospheric ghost stories, that Perception's issues render it so disappointing. After its initial scares and exciting concept, it all begins to fall flat. The big reveal for how the stories were all connected felt muddled and underwhelming. The game seems to sacrifice vital narrative development in favour of inconsistent and misplaced atmosphere building. With as much thought put into the execution, as was clearly put into its concept, this game may have been something special, instead it haunts the realm of mediocre.