Let’s spend our Christmas evenings in an abandoned asylum: Nyctophobia
Games of the horror genre have always exploited the primal fear of the dark, building worlds and painting pictures in which our minds fill in the blanks where our eyes cannot see. This fear of darkness is literally the name of the game in Outlast-inspired Nyctophobia: Devil Unleashed, released July 2021, brought to you by Filipino solo-dev Solitary Games.
You play as a woman who lives alone, looking to find an interesting way to spend her lonely Christmas. Being the thrill-seeker you are, you settle on the idea of exploring the nearby abandoned asylum late at night – a reasonable plan any person of sound mind would come up with. However, what is first an innocent trip to trespass the local abandoned property quickly turns into an involuntary mission to unravel its sinister history.
The game only truly begins when you step foot in the abandoned Karlheinz Asylum. Armed with only a flashlight and a camcorder equipped with night-vision, you are left to explore the inky darkness within with the initial intent of sight-seeing and whimsical investigation. The game expects you to look for keys to locked doors around the Asylum, which upon being unlocked expand the areas available for exploration and prime new events to trigger in certain other regions in the game.
However, the game doesn’t exactly tell you that you are supposed to do any of that. While this might have been intended to enhance the horror experience – it quickly becomes a source of frustration, especially when the literal keys to progress through the game are small and difficult to see in the dark. (Shocker!)
The Nyctophobia experience is incredibly reliant on its exploration as the plot only serves its purpose of driving the player forward and there are no puzzles to solve, if we disregard having to look for keys and the doors they unlock. On the other hand, however, the environment, particularly the Asylum interior, is well-designed; the gritty hospital features, attention to small details, and the disorienting darkness of the setting all come together to build an eerie and suspenseful atmosphere that persists until the end of a casual playthrough.
That’s to say nothing of the game’s music and sound design. The background pieces and audio effects are always appropriate to the situation – scene transitions are accompanied by uneasy or oddly peaceful melodies, while ambient noises like unexplained footsteps and creaking wood make otherwise calmer moments especially distressing.
That being said, the staging for the actual jumpscares is decent at best. There are many scares in the game where there is a lack of visual focus on the actual monster, but this is made up for by the audio cues and pre-scare build-up, which are usually done well enough thanks to the good sound design and excellent atmosphere.
I did find that more often than not, the creature that’s supposed to scare the pants off of you will likely be poorly-placed with respect to your position, leading to either the monster’s model clipping right through yours, or you looking at something else when the scare-soundbite plays and missing it entirely. There are better spooks, however, especially those where you’re forced into running right into the monster as you make attempts to escape.
However, this seems to be where Nyctophobia’s strong points end. The tension-building atmosphere and adequately-executed scares can only carry the horror experience so far; the outlandish nature of the horror genre demands world-building that can provide suspension of disbelief, which was personally lost on me due to certain technical shortcomings of the game’s design and the poorly-delivered story of the game.
There actually are quite a few nitpicks to be made about the game’s systems, including the lack of direction and an explicit objective even before you’ve entered the main scene, the Asylum. From the very first stage, there are certain arbitrary objects you have to interact with without any prior indication to do so to progress the story – which led me into the false mindset that I would have to interact with everything that looks even remotely interesting for the rest of my first playthrough.
Finally, we should discuss the game’s narrative. My hopes were that the quality of its story would balance out Nyctophobia’s solely exploration-based gameplay, but I’d admit that it was a letdown. From the main character’s insistence to visit an abandoned Asylum for no better reason than a “good Christmas experience” to their refusal to acknowledge any signs of danger or their own explicit sense of dread, I was unable to relate with them fully and immerse into the experience, which is a pity given the game’s first-person perspective.
There was clearly an attempt to deliver the plot in an intriguing manner. However slow, the game eventually has the player discover through notes, flashbacks, and unexpected transitions between scenes that our protagonist – who is initially presented to find themselves in the wrong place, at the wrong time – is implied to have actually participated in the events leading up to the Asylum’s current state of dilapidation. Though not as obvious in their design, players might come to understand how the numerous horrors that torment them throughout the game might be delusions borne out of trauma experienced by the main character.
Reminiscent of the plot-execution and themes of the Silent Hill franchise, this method of storytelling-by-game-design could have set the scene for sly foreshadowing and stunning twists but ultimately fell flat because of a lack of proper delivery.
Perhaps one of the worst sins Nyctophobia commits in terms of telling a narrative is first giving us the impression that the story is unraveled by lengthy exploration of the main character’s psyche as a parallel to our investigation of the Asylum’s secrets – only for the game to deliver the climax by fading to black and dumping the rest of the otherwise-cryptic story on the player as a wall of text.
For a game made by a one-man team, it’s far from terrible. Nyctophobia shines (haha) when it comes to the overall spookiness of its atmosphere, even without an incredibly unique aesthetic. The writing definitely needs work, and the replayability suffers from the lack of substantial gameplay elements. Still, other than that, the game is rather polished technically, lacking any significant game- or immersion-breaking bugs.
It’s definitely worth a try if you’re trying to scratch an itch for exploring scary, abandoned buildings without the added stress of having to manage inventories or solve puzzles to progress.
Download Nyctophobia: Devil Unleashed now on PC via Steam or itch.io. This review was based on a free copy played on a Windows computer.