The shadows gather around us once again. Take our hands and wander with us into the darkness where the monsters gather. We’re bringing you 31 horror reviews in October. Whatever you do, don’t let go of our hands lest you find out what truly goes bump in the night.
Hello all, welcome to my first contribution to this year’s The Witching Hour series. Last year, we had a ton of fun with it and we hope you enjoy the journey with us through October again this year. Isometric video games have always presented an interesting framework for horror, often times in very subtle way, although occasionally with direct and overt impact as well. The top down or angled, overhead presentation allows for a unique sort of immersion in video games, providing a sense of detachment while still becoming an apt format for evocative and imaginative story telling.
Subtlety and sublime horror is something few get right. For example, the entire premise of the Baldur’s Gate series, which is widely considered the crown jewel of the CRPG genre (Technically CRPG is Computer Role Playing Game, but it’s accepted as the means to describe isometric role playing games), is a story steeped in horror. You play as the son of the god Bhaal, Lord of Murder. Bhaal, knowing his demise was certain during The Time of Troubles, wherein the gods were brought to mortal form and slain, impregnated many mortal women who gave birth to “Bhaalspawn”.
The sole reason for a Bhaalspwan’s existence is to provide Bhaal with a means for ressurection and re-entry into the mortal world. Bhaalspawn don’t necessarily know their true purpose, and you, as one of the Bhaalspawn discover your heritage and try to prevent your body and those of your fellow Bhaalspawn from being used as a vessel for Bhaal’s ressurection. I mean, if that isn’t horror, I don’t know what is, but the subtlety of its telling allows people to overlook the horror by embracing the adventure itself. Pretty brilliant way to get non horror fans to enjoy the genre without the tension and stress that is typically paramount in horror. The series obviously progresses from there and heads into the Icewind Dale series seamlessly as well.
Planescape: Torment is arguably the best written CRPG of all time and is another isometric example of horror being presented as more of an adventure with the actual horror being a slow burn easily missed despite also being in your face. In Planescape: Torment, you play as the amnesiac “Nameless One”, who wakes up in a mortuary on a death slab surrounded by other slabs containing cadavers. After escaping the mortuary, you head off on a journey to find out who you really are, following a trail of clues left by….yourself! Since you are basically a resurrected being, you can take a lot of punishment, and many of the dialogue options in the game include or insist on self mutilation to find the answers you seek.
Your body also happens to be covered in tattoos, which are a very important aspect of the clues you left for yourself. It turns out you are an immortal who has lived many, many lives, each one while pursuing the reasons for your immortality and the mysteries surrounding your lives. Along the way, you come to look into the darkness of your soul in hopes of finding the very nature of man itself.
Horror is present everywhere in Planescape: Torment. The City of Doors, Sigil, where you find yourself, is a hub for all the planes of existence and as such, you will travel with a demon, a floating intelligent skull, and plenty of other interesting characters. Sigil itself features devils, demons, humans, orcs, elves, and pretty much every other species in the multiverse, all living together in the ultimate social melting pot, where good and evil are often indistinct and every choice can lead to your personal damnation or salvation, often by simple virtue of a single response or decision. In a sense, this is the ultimate in horror, but presented in a whimsical and adventurous way that allows you to compartmentalize your disgust of terror. Did I mention that you, the Nameless One, had already been worked on as a cadaver and all your organs removed?
More recently, the game “Stasis” released. This was more of a straight horror in the vein of Pandora or the Alien series of movies (a mix realistically) while also paying homage to other sci-fi horror luminaries like Event Horizon. Stasis has you, John Maracheck, awakening from said stasis. Unsure of your surroundings and realizing your wife and daughter are missing, you gone on a search of the facility in which you have awaken to find them. Along the way, you explore a space station where all hell has fairly literally broken out and almost every person has been killed and often consumed by terrible creatures. Stasis is no holds barred horror with the unique presentation that only isometric overview can provide. Again, while you immerse yourself in the story, you can still retain that sense of detachment that allows for more approach-ability in the genre.Our full review of Stasis can be read here. The free follow up to Stasis, Cayne, continues on where Stasis left off, only this time you play as the pregnant Hadley, who will also face a horrific scenario in a medical facility.
Other luminaries of the genre include recent titles like Darkwood (survival horror) and Distrust (recently reviewed here, and which takes you on a horror adventure reminiscent of John Carpenter’s The Thing); I Shall Remain, which is an isometric survival zombie horror game; Grim Dawn, an ARPG (Action Role Playing Game) which puts you in a world where horrors from another dimension have slowly started taking over in positions of power throughout the realm, opening portals to another dimension, and allowing the terrors from within to invade and largely destroy the world; as well as the classic isometric horror game, Sanitarium, which might be where it all really began. Sanitarium is often listed as a point and click game, but it’s very much the same presentation as games like Baldur’s Gate, and is the epitome of isometric horror at its finest.
In Sanitarium you play an amnesiac thrust into a morbid, really creepy universe. After a car accident you wake up to find that instead of lying in a hospital, you’re in an asylum with your head wrapped in bandages. Who the hell am I? What am I doing here? How do I escape? There endless questions eating away at you, and so too are the many puzzles you’ll need to resolve throughout this immersive, captivating adventure.
As you can see, isometric horror comes in many different genres and unique approaches to story telling and allows for greater depth due to an emphasis on story that you just don’t get with a lot of the more classic horror games. There are plenty of other great examples of isometric horror out there. You really should look into the genre, and look more closely at the CRPG genre specifically, as you will be surprised by the horror prevalent within the genre as a whole.
So, when looking for some good horror video games to play this month, don’t overlook the isometric horror games. They often craft unforgettable experiences that you will remember ten, twenty years down the line. These are games that really cling to your sub conscience and remain present from that point on in your psyche.