My favourite gaming joke is the old Marcus Brigstocke one about how ludicrous the idea of behaviour being changed by gaming is: “If Pac-Man had affected us as kids, we’d all be running around in dark rooms, munching pills and listening to repetitive electronic music.” This is now nostalgic in all sorts of ways considering I am far too old to go clubbing anymore, let alone the current closure of all such public gatherings. However, I do still remember the particular joy to be had from listening to ear-shattering techno in sweaty clubs, although beer rather than pills was always my choice. Combining this sensory overload with the trappings of horror seemed such a fantastic idea that I booted up Strobophagia with real excitement.
First things first, although not released as Early Access, the current build of Strobophagia clearly needs some work. To be fair to the developers, the pause screen contains a clear admission that fixes need to be made and that they are working on them. On the one hand, hats off for the honesty, but on the other this really feels like an Early Access product, complete with some sluggish controls, unclear signposting, and an overall lack of polish. This may sound like damning criticism but it is worth pointing out because the core idea of Strobophagia has such potential that I really hope the developers stick with it.
The most striking thing about the game is its amazingly lurid visuals. Somehow managing to capture the essence of a music and substance-infused fever dream, the terrifyingly masked human figures gyrating around you convey a sense of unease and barely contained dread that makes your navigation around the rave site a genuinely uncomfortable experience. The fact that you’re never really sure what is going on only serves to cement this. On the technical side, the visual style is particularly clever as the eye is drawn only to the highlighted aspects and so less effort and processing power is needed for finer details.
Given the setting of the game, I was fully prepared for some truly epic dance tunes but unfortunately the music here is just generic and feels massively anti-climactic. This issue is most apparent during one stage that requires you to follow the beat to navigate but that involves a forgettable tune with no clear beat to guide you. Everything is surprisingly quiet too, feeling more like a summer fete than a hedonistic rave.
Your interactions with the world are limited, but deliberately so. You can pick up a few objects, such as beer bottles and glowsticks, but most of your actions revolve around your mobile phone. You pick this up at the entrance to the rave and must connect to various wifi points to pick up more hints and progress the story, such as it is. These wifi points also serve as signposts as you can judge your position by the strength of the signal. This is a nice gaming conceit and fits the whole theme of the game perfectly. There is also an appropriately satirical effect in that many of the other ravers are simply standing still staring at their phones. Wouldn’t have happened back in my day…
Your travels take you through various stages of the rave, from the beach to a Gothic-tinged nightclub with a mysterious labyrinth beneath. These areas are not necessarily all that distinct, however, as everything is so dark that you’ll spend most of your time shambling towards whatever light source you can find. This gets old pretty quickly, and even though the current version is short (I got to an ending in just over an hour) I still felt that a lot of that time was meaningless wandering rather than gameplay. The wider narrative about weird rites and unnatural beings feasting on the dancing youth feels too much like set dressing and the result is simply a lot of fumbling around in the dark. There appear to be multiple endings to seek out but I am inclined to wait until the build is in a better state before diving back in.