Song of Horror might just be the surprise horror game of the year. With an episodic structure that feels built into the game’s narrative, an escalating threat through the series and an original take on permadeath, this is a game that deserves far more attention than it’s received.
Taking clear influences from the weird horror of HP Lovecraft, Song of Horror focuses on the disappearance of famous writer Sebastien P. Husher and the subsequent investigations to discover what happened to him. The prologue reveals that a sinister music box may be at the root of the horrific events, and so the scene is set. Whilst this may sound fairly conventional, the path that Spanish developer Protocol Games take from there is anything but.
The decision to release in episodic form is often a problematic one, as players wait for the full season to be available before purchasing. Whilst this may affect Song of Horror’s early appeal – it’s certainly flown under the radar since its initial Halloween release – there is enough to keep you entertained if you treat each episode as almost a standalone game, not least due to the interesting cast of characters.
Eschewing the usual savepoints of survival horror, Song of Horror features a novel form of permadeath. The spectre of death looms over your character, giving the game a survival horror feel as their story can end at what feels like any moment. However, should they die, you don’t have a save to fall back on, you instead choose a new character to step forward and pick up the investigation right from where the deceased left off. It feels similar to Until Dawn in a way, but with a single narrative path that multiple characters wander down, each giving a different slant to the story.
Each of the characters offers a unique relationship to the story and separate abilities. Admittedly the character stats, including stealth and strength, didn’t really come into play during the first episode, but the evolving nature of the threats you face promises more of an effect as the game develops.
Your attempts to uncover the mystery brings you into conflict with the Presence, a Lovecraftian horror that manifests in evolving forms throughout the game. Protocol Games promise that the AI of the Presence will adjust to your playstyle and offer different threats as the story develops. The first episode features madness effects that recall the classic Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem and more direct confrontations with a darkness that threatens to consume you.
The minigame mechanics of these encounters are a little unclear at first, a factor that is exacerbated by the aforementioned permadeath. Combined with a few scripted deaths reminiscent of Until Dawn, it is easy to find yourself running out of characters. Fortunately if this happens then replaying is a fairly quick process given the focus on puzzles rather than combat.
Judging from the first episode, the puzzles in Song of Horror are a great mix of survival horror key collection and more brain teasing riddles. It is imperative that you find all of the notes and clues to help you work out some challenging problems. If the following episodes can maintain this quality of pacing and writing then the full game has all the potential to become a bona fide horror classic. Whether you get in early on the episodic structure or wait for the full season to drop in March 2020 is up to you, but Song of Horror deserves to be played by all horror fans. I for one am eagerly awaiting the continuation of this nightmare.