Reviewed on Sony PlayStation 4Also available on Sony PlayStation 4, Microsoft Xbox One and PC
PT hit gaming culture like an atom bomb. Not since Resident Evil has a horror game felt so seismic in its influence for the short time it was available to us; what followed was an influx of horror games trying to recapture what PT did in its absence.
Many of these games fail at their objective. One of the first games I reviewed for The Digital Fix was Infliction: Extended Cut, where I said: "simply reminding people of PT is not enough to earn a game the same level of success, it only makes people sad that they can no longer play PT."
Visage very much feels like PT in its choice of setting and its design philosophies but manages to create its own unique experience. Visage is one of the first games to come in PT's wake that feels like it learned all the right lessons.
It opens with an intensely disturbing first-person sequence of a man, presumably the father of the household, loading a game while the muffled cries of a woman can be heard. We soon realise this woman has been tied to a chair, alongside two young children. The man, with a horrific calm, shoots the woman in the head, the muffled screams and sobs of the children intensify and clawed their way into my head. The performances in this scene were disturbingly authentic - and the game's camera makes sure you take in just enough visual detail, too.
This could have so easily been exploitative but it works. The cold, dispassionate presentation mixed with the raw, visceral performances (albeit behind mouth gags) ensure the scene is disturbing in a way few horror games can achieve. The most profoundly affecting horror has no interest in playing it safe, by its very nature, it must be confrontational. Look at films like Hereditary or Kill List, for example. Of course, it is possible to tell those stories while flinching away from the uglier concepts, but forcing the audience to lock eyes with the full scope of their horror is why these movies succeed.
Visage is very much in line with that thinking, it would be possible to tell this story while looking away from the worst parts and just indulging in jump scares, but that is not enough. Visage wants to get under your skin. It wants to claw at your bones.
Visage creates an atmosphere of dread in the most mundane of settings. The early stages of the game are largely set within the house, although future chapters will expand beyond those walls in mind-bending ways, the sense of discomfort is always palpable. It is a much longer game than PT so it is paced far less aggressively, it does not need to escalate to the horror quite as quickly. The horror begins as mere creeps, the sound of floorboards moving upstairs when you know you are alone, the sounds of wheezing that could be static. There are also flashes of things stood in corridors, presented without any musical fanfare, so you cannot be certain you saw something or if you were just imagining it. Sometimes it is nothing but a trick of the light mixing poorly with your heightened unease, sometimes it is far too late before you realise your mind was not playing tricks on you and something IS stood there.
The dark is not your friend in Visage. Much like the Amnesia games, being trapped in the darkness for too long will play tricks on your mind. The worse your fear becomes, the more tangible the terrors will become, escalating from a suspicious shadow to a horrible apparition. To cope with the darkness, you need to make use of your available light sources. Lighters, candles, fixing broken lightbulbs, even the flash of a camera, it all helps stave off the darkness and the madness. Medication can also come in handy. The more enhanced level of threat that comes from lingering in the shadows helps motivate you to keep the lighting mechanic at the front of your mind when exploring the house, and it makes sense. If you have ever spent time in a dark room after watching a scary movie or reading a spooky book, the more time you spend in that dark, the more real those weird shapes become to you. This takes that basic facet of human fear and gives it some extra impact, confirming those fears.
Rather than following PT's design approach of an unending loop of the same setting, the location of Visage shifts around, and the layout of the house changes. Sometimes it is very apparent, and you find yourself in another part of the world, sometimes it is similar to something in The Shining where the architecture does not always make sense and your spacial equilibrium is thrown out of sync. It may lack the unnerving simplicity of PT but so much thought has gone into how your exploration will affect your mood, going from unease to sheer terror. This is what really makes Visage stand as its own creation and not a mere PT clone, this is the work of people who know how to get under a player's skin.
Visage's story is split into chapters, each focusing on a different character, and your investigations will unearth new secrets and terrors each with a specific theme. It ensures each chapter has its own identity, its own visual mood, and the style and intensity of the scares change to suit each chapter. This is so important and something a lot of horror game designers overlook; the scares need to make sense in context, just throwing spooks at people is not enough to leave a lasting impression. Silent Hill 2 worked so well because the horror was tied to characters and their own trauma, PT worked so well because the horror was initially unknowable and strange but it was unravelling a story. Visage does the same thing, the scares may not always make sense at first, but the further you dig, the more the truth comes to light and the more deeply they affect you. It is a game more concerned with unravelling disturbing truths than building to some dramatic crescendo. Things can go from subtle spooks to nightmarish body horror and it all fits together surprisingly well.
The gameplay has some issues that are often inherent in indie titles, especially when they are ported to consoles. There are problems with precision movement that may be less apparent on a PC, which makes collecting objects or opening doors and containers tricky. Button mapping isn't the most intuitive on consoles, so I found myself struggling to remember how to ignite my lighter or open my inventory and would sometimes find myself swapping hands rather than doing what I wanted to do. Thankfully, the game does not require a lot of snap decision-making that could fall foul of inelegant controls, this is not like an Outlast style game, this is a far more patient and methodical kind of horror.
While many players opine the loss of PT from wider circulation, Visage is here to present you with a very compelling and equally scary alternative. Visage is the perfect horror game for anyone with a lot of patience (for both the slower pace and the occasionally frustrating controls) and equipped with a healthy, receptive imagination. If you are willing to let it then it has all the tools to mess with your head and scare you silly.