Reviewing games from small independent teams is sometimes difficult. Balancing the experience of playing a game with the knowledge that it didn’t have a huge budget or dozens of people working on it can lead to you overlooking issues that would be unforgiveable in a major release. This was at the forefront of my mind while playing The Piano, an interesting mystery horror game set in a weird version of historical Paris which, despite clearly being a labour of love from Mistaken Visions, doesn’t quite live up to the promise of its atmosphere and setting.
Your character, John Barnerway, is a failed pianist haunted by the ghosts of his three brothers. These Barnerway Brothers were a hugely successful piano trio, and the instrument features heavily in both the imagery and mechanics of the game. Grand pianos appear throughout the various parts of post-war Paris that you explore, serving both as savepoints and puzzles. Each part of the game is separated by a piano playing minigame and this carries through to the game’s ending.
It’s a shame that the piano playing only involves quickly pressing the action button with no variation or rhythm involved. The limitations of this minigame quickly make it feel repetitive and it becomes a real lost opportunity. Even the slightly abstract approach taken by the violin playing in Distortions (reviewed earlier this year) meant that there was some skill and involvement, but piano playing here is an entirely detached experience.
Graphically, The Piano is a successful use of various Unity assets (all properly acknowledged in the lengthy credits) and shows that contemporary game engines and resources can enable even a very small team to produce something of a good visual standard. There is a coherent feel to the aesthetics that has more than an echo of Silent Hill in its foggy and mysterious atmosphere. Whilst clearly not as impressive as a big budget release, this part of the game is perhaps the most successful.
Exploring the streets and buildings of Paris is where the game began to fall down for me, as the controls felt woolly and unresponsive at times. My character would sometimes lurch off to the side, or move backwards when I had stopped moving the stick, as if some sensitivity options were incorrectly calibrated, and this wasn’t my only issue. Mistaken Visions were remarkably approachable and worked hard to solve these issues so that I was able to finish the game for review, but even this most recent build didn’t feel as responsive as it should. My compliments to them for such fabulous commitment, but ultimately my enjoyment of the game is still hampered as it releases today.
While The Piano is billed as a survival horror, it doesn’t really fit in that genre. It would be more accurate to describe it as a stealth horror game, as you don’t have weapons or resources to manage aside from healing items. The stealth is reasonably implemented for the most part, apart from the aforementioned control niggles. One area in particular, though, was so badly balanced that I nearly put the game aside out of frustration.
Late in the game you find yourself in a hospital with various crawling enemies to avoid. They proved to be uncannily good at detecting you even through walls and the auto-respawn system led to death loops that went on for several minutes. The lack of any kind of map meant that navigating this area was one of the low points of the entire game.
The combat that occasionally took place was equally annoying, consisting of button mashing or timing a single button press with little logic as to which was involved. Given that this combat was not possible against the enemies that were actually visible throughout the levels, this whole aspect could have been removed as it added nothing to the game.
Much of your time in The Piano is spent looking for clues in the form of letters and newspaper cuttings. These are usually fairly easy to find which prevents too much repetitive backtracking and wandering, but the fact that these parts are so well designed and paced really shows up the combat as an afterthought. Other puzzles involve finding and combining objects in traditional adventure game fashion. The standout puzzle sequences, however, see you finding the playing order of keys on the pianos. This puzzle felt the most appropriate to the game, even if the actual playing was a somewhat detached affair, with the keys being mapped to the controller in an unintuitive way. More of this integration between gameplay and theme would have elevated The Piano as a gaming experience.
The Piano is an ambitious and interesting project that doesn’t quite meet its potential. The setting, story, and atmosphere are well realised and show that the writers have talent, whilst the game itself illustrates what a small team can achieve. Unfortunately, the glaring design issues in actual gameplay hold it back, and it becomes another game that may actually have benefited from being more of a walking simulator. The combat is entirely unnecessary, the stealth can be wildly unbalanced and unfair, and the piano mini-games need some kind of actual musical mechanic to justify their inclusion. Hopefully Mistaken Visions can polish off the rough edges and produce a more tuned experienced next time.
Available for PC