Coming from fledgling studio Bad Blood Studios, Old Gods Rising has had a fair amount of attention thanks to the involvement of former Bioware art designer Hayden Duvall. Those coming to the game expecting some trace of this heritage may well be disappointed however, as Old Gods Rising is a full on walking simulator with a handful of puzzles and a whole lot of wandering.
A description such as this shouldn’t be immediately read as negative, and I have a lot of time for the immersive narrative genre when it’s done well. Playing a story can be hugely effective, but it relies on a careful balance of exposition and exploration, and not just a cool idea. Old Gods Rising is ultimately a cool idea in search of a decent gaming experience.
Old Gods Rising doesn’t give the best first impression. At first launch I was greeted with one of the most barebones menu screens I’ve seen in a while, with basic graphical presets and restrictive options for the controls. Fortunately this kind of game doesn’t require quick reactions and the defaults are fine. Starting a new game brought up a warning that I would lose my latest autosave; which was odd and didn’t instil me with confidence. The mouse also didn’t work until I clicked a button even though there was no action on screen to click, something that happened every time I reloaded. Given the game is only a couple of hours long, I wouldn’t have needed to reload at all were it not for some awful bugs, of which I’ll speak more of later.
You play as a disgraced History professor who has been found guilty of constructing fraudulent evidence on which to base his most recent book. After this ignominious fall from grace, Thomas Winston receives a surprise phone call asking him to act as consultant for a new movie being shot at the mysterious Ashgate University, but upon arrival, he finds the campus deserted and quickly becomes uncertain as to whether what he sees is true or not.
It is this central uncertainty that would be the basis for a great episode of The Twilight Zone, as the game takes loose influence from Lovecraftian cosmic horror and combines it with the paranoia of a world in which everything is being filmed. The narrative ebbs and flows and you join Winston in not being sure whether you are at the mercy of the Elder Gods or an unwitting victim of an elaborate film prank.
This narrative hook can only go so far, as the actual gaming experience is uninspiring and mostly dull. I’ve explored numerous university campuses through work and socialising over the years and none have the sterile and lifeless feel of Ashgate. The most interesting things here are the statues that litter the grounds, but these are largely just an excuse for some pop culture gags and offer nothing in the way of gameplay. There is also little in the way of lore or information as the main interactable objects are dull clipboards. Collecting phone numbers from posters and then ringing them does give some extra detail, but this mainly makes sense during replays rather than upfront.
The document hunting aspect of games is often overdone, but there is little encouragement to explore the grounds without it – not that the linear path really allows for much exploration. There are a few atmospheric moments in caves filled with Lovecraftian architecture, but the game deliberately undermines these by hinting that they are movie sets. If you can make it past the deliberate but underwhelming emptiness of the game then you will find some nice touches, such as the ironic university PR adverts which perfectly skewer the business speak of modern marketing.
The atmosphere is generally unsettling rather than horrific, with the most terrifying parts being the glaring bugs that I encountered. Updates since launch have improved the game, but the frame rate can still drag and stutter around save points, and more intrusive are texture loading issues taking too long to resolve themselves when trying to enter a new area.