by Quinn Levandoski
reviewed on PC
Tough to Adapt
Despite being one of the most prolific horror writers of all time, H. P. Lovecraft’s works have repeatedly proven to be extremely difficult to adapt to the videogame medium. If you’ve read any of his works, though, it makes sense. Instead of zombies, serial killers, or any of the plethora of other horror staples that most horror games fill themselves with, Lovecraft deals with the horrors of the cosmic unknown. How can a developer present his monsters when many of them are described as being indescribable?: What kind of gameplay fits with ancient gods who’s mere presence drives any mortal beings to immediate insanity? It’s undoubtedly a tall task, and it’s one that Lovecraft’s Untold Stories does about as good of a job rising to as I could ask.
As far as actual plot goes, Untold Stories plays out like a greatest hits of Lovecraftian horror cliches. That’s not really a bad thing, though, as the game’s retro-pixelated look complements the 1920’s detective-noire vibe that permeates this top-down twin stick horror shooter. As the game starts you only have one character to play, the tough detective with a penchant for gathering information and blasting things with a shotgun. After searching for his mentor and friend, only to find him dead in a cult-infested mansion estate, our protagonist hops through multiple locations trying to learn more about the strange ancient gods that he discovers are approaching.
The game isn’t really centered on plot, though, more concerned with building atmosphere than telling a particularly nuanced story. In this regard it largely succeeds. With randomly generated rooms in each level, there’s always a nice sense of not knowing if through the next door you’ll find resource caches, a swarm of enemies, or nothing at all. The low-detail graphics manage to work better than you'd think at keeping things spooky, and the writing accompanying various objects and scenes is well enough written that I always took the time to take in what they had to say.
Exploring and Keeping Your Wits
Something that’s always made Lovecraft hard to adapt to video games, at least faithfully, is that many of his stories don’t have much violence at all. Or, at minimum, the actual acts of violence that there is is unseen or psychological. This being the case, I was happy to see that knowledge gathering is an important part of Untold Stories. It’s possible to clear many of the levels relatively quickly if you happen to find the right room fast enough, but it’s important to try and hit as much of the map as possible to interact with the environment for knowledge and items first. I do with there was more emphasis on knowledge, though. While great in theory, the knowledge pickups really do just function like a currency that lets you buy more weapons and equipment, which is a bit disappointing. Something like clues letting you know how to beat a boss, or even helping you find ways to avoid the conflict all together, would have minimized dissonance between the game’s tone and gameplay.
Insanity does play a sizable roll in the game. While exploring, many of the object in the environment will not only affect your health, but also your brain. Often times these items come with a choice, though the end result is rarely a surprise. Looking more closely at disfigured statues or mutilated corpses drives you closer to the mental edge, while taking the time to appreciate a beautiful piece of art will likely restore a bit of your humanity. Like knowledge it doesn’t really function in the game differently than already established mechanics (in this case health), but it does work to solidify the atmosphere. It can sneak up on you, too. On more than one playthrough I thought I was doing well, only to suddenly drop to a knee and take my own life because I didn’t pay attention to the purple tentacles growing more prominent over my player portrait.
Unfortunately gunplay in Untold Stories is a huge detractor, both mechanically and thematically. It’s not that it’s actively terrible or broken, but rather that it’s incredibly plain and narratively inconsistent. When the bullets (or magic, or energy, etc) start flying, all sense of atmosphere and unknown go right out the window. Most combat consists of the player entering a room, a swarm of enemies spawning, and the player kiting them around blasting them with guns and explosives. It’s repetitive, the combat mechanics aren’t particularly smooth, and it directly contradicts the slow methodical pace that the exploring otherwise has. I’d have rather seen fewer enemies and weaker weapons instead of rooms filled with sprinting baddies that momentarily turn the player into Duke Nukem, breaking my immersion and beliefs in my scared, frail protagonists.
Overall I appreciate Lovecraft’s Untold Stories for being a procedurally generated roguelike that stands out from others in its genre with a unique atmosphere and spooky tone. Being more concerned with resource management and exploration than twitch bullet-hell gameplay was a smart move, even if that falls apart a bit when the combat does come around. While it has its flaws, this is a game I won’t have a hard time recommending to those interested in the genre- a perfect little game to fire up know and again late at night with the lights turned off.
Minimalist graphics are used well, in-game text is suitably disturbing, emphasis is placed on exploring and sanity.
Combat is disappointingly plain and contradicts the tone established by the rest of the game.