After a lengthy process of episodic releases, Spanish indie horror game Song of Horror is now complete. I previewed the game after finishing the first chapter way back in November last year and was hugely excited about its creepy take on survival horror. Having now played through all five episodes and looked deep into the abyss, I’m happy to say that the full game lives up to my anticipation and goes down as one of the most effective horror games in recent years.
First things first, it’s probably best to point out that Song of Horror isn’t a survival horror in the Resident Evil sense, as there’s no combat or weaponry to speak of. Instead it takes a huge influence from the atmosphere and puzzles of titles like Silent Hill and combines it with a fixed camera view that successfully conveys a feeling of dread and claustrophobia. The detached nature of your interaction with the character is a real departure from first person hide-em-ups like Outlast and Alien: Isolation, but is perfectly suited to the sense of fate and dread in this Lovecraft-inspired tale. Obviously, any mention of Lovecraft requires the usual caveats about his world views but, given the inspiration is very loose here, and the cast of playable characters is refreshingly diverse, there isn’t any need to delve deeper here.
You begin the game as Daniel Noyer, a disgraced ex-publisher who uncovers the mysterious disappearance of horror writer, Sebastian P. Husher and his entire family. The only clue is a creepy music box, the weird tune of which seems to trigger hallucinations and nightmares. Noyer quickly becomes dragged into a terrifying battle with an entity called The Presence, and his attempts to solve the ensuing mystery provide the backdrop for five chapters of terror across a range of iconic spooky locations, from deserted mental hospitals to an abandoned abbey. The sheer range of genre references, Easter eggs, and classic influences make the entire experience a disturbing joy for fans of horror in all its forms.
Graphically, Song of Horror is pretty good. Locations are detailed, interactable objects stand out and the sense of griminess is brilliantly conveyed – particularly if you turn on the film grain effect in the options. Character models and animation are functional rather than outstanding but certainly good enough to not distract. There are some unintentionally terrifying teeth in some of the facial models which can be a little unsettling. The overall aesthetic is perfectly pitched and the gradual descent into madness and the accompanying shadows blend into the settings in a wonderfully uncanny fashion. Combine this aesthetic with surprise madness effects straight out of Eternal Darkness and you have a winningly creepy mix.
Gamecube classic Eternal Darkness also seems to be an influence in the multiple character approach of Song of Horror. Whilst Noyer is the central figure around which the story revolves, each chapter introduces other figures who join his investigation – intentionally or not. As mentioned above, these characters are diverse, ranging from a middle-aged black publisher to a Hispanic art professor and a white female psychologist. There isn’t a huge amount of extraneous character development with each of these playable choices but instead you find out about them through their responses to the game’s environments. This feels really natural and provides an incentive to replay chapters from a different perspective even if the basic puzzles remain the same.
Alongside hiding from The Presence you have to solve a wide range of item and environmental puzzles. Some of these are on the basic level of finding keys or taking an object from one place to another whilst others are reminiscent of genre classics like the piano or Shakespeare riddles from Silent Hill 1 and 3. Most of the time these are relatively self-contained but make sure that you read all the documents that you find very carefully. There are a couple of overly cryptic puzzles at present but Protocol games are working on making these more accessible – the main offender is in Chapter 5 so should be sorted by the time new players get to it.
I enjoyed having to actually make notes with pen and paper, although the game allows you to switch between puzzle and relevant documentation pretty easily, and there was a definite sense of achievement when you figure out the link between objects or the hidden information in an innocuous looking document. There is a clear influence here from classic point and click adventures, and one that feels more fitting than the ‘medals hidden in books to access the hidden base’ school of Resident Evil puzzles.
The real star of the show here, though, is the aforementioned Presence. This terrifying and enigmatic entity stalks you throughout all five chapters, taking on an assortment of forms and approaches. Some of these will require you to hide from skeletal hands, whilst others see you having to hold your breath to avoid revealing your location. Each different method of attack – with each chapter introduces at least one new one – requires a QTE minigame that offers a real change of pace. These can be a little unintuitive at first, although, again, new players will benefit from incremental changes here, and they can result in unfair deaths. This, especially when compounded by some gotcha style instant kills could prove frustrating given the game’s focus on permadeath.
If you lose a character to The Presence they are gone for good. This effectively gives you limited lives for each chapter, although if you lose Daniel then it’s game over straight away, whilst surviving characters may return in later chapters. This is a cool idea but doesn’t quite work with the sudden deaths that can happen. There is an inconsistency as to whether a yes/no option will be safe with no real indication as to the outcome. This adds to the sense of dread but I would have preferred either scripted deaths for narrative purposes or limited restarts. Fortunately the most recent build of the game introduced a new difficulty level in which permadeath is removed. This may not please hardcore genre purists but I feel it is a worthwhile addition for gamers who may want to immerse themselves in the atmosphere but don’t want to have the frustration of replaying lengthy sections due to seemingly random deaths.