by Quinn Levandoski
reviewed on PC
The Sound of Music
Back in my younger days, I was no stranger to music festivals. At a minimum, Iíd hit Lollapalooza in Chicago every year, and I was always down to see some live tunes no matter the genre. Twangy country at a local bar? Letís do it. Alt-rap downtown Milwaukee? Sign me up. Thumping electronic? Iím there. Thereís something about sharing in a communal experience between artists and fans thatís hard to replicate in any other way, and each genre brings with it a unique vibe thatís easy to lose oneís self in. Strobophagia takes the contrasting senses of freedom and group think that often permeate dance clubs and music festivals and spins them into something more sinister, and I just wish that its execution was able to live up to its ideas.
Strobophagiaís beginning sees the unnamed protagonist arrive at a mysterious EDM music festival in the woods, and it becomes immediately clear that this isnít a regular, casual get together. To start, thereís no talking allowed inside of festival grounds. Instead, everyone is given a proprietary cell phone capable of proximity-based messaging based on which Wi-Fi network itís connected to. Itís this phone that drives most of the narrative and much of the gameplay objectives. While things change up a bit in the later stages of the game, the majority is a sort of walking-simulator with light puzzle elements, and clues and objectives are discussed and submitted by sending photos to other users to see what they have to say. The general gameplay loop sees the player enter an area, find the QR code to scan to join the Wi-Fi, read the group messages, submit any photos that youíve taken, see if any of them garner useful information from the other festival attendees, then move on to the next area and repeat. With these discussions, it becomes clear that the hosts of the festival have sinister intentions, and the payer-character is set to play a pivotal role in the incoming madness. This more detective-esque gameplay is the gameís strong point, and I wish the game would have fleshed it out and used it even more than it did.
Timing is Everything
My biggest problem with Strobophagia is that it doesnít quite have the narrative chops to make the most of its premise. The plot and the setting, on paper, are pretty cool. EDM festivals, complete with their rhythmic music, neon colors, and often elaborate outfits, are already a little bit creepy and an interesting match for cult-based occult horror. Narratively, though, the game muddles things. Visually, itís a horror game from the get-go. The opening moments see the player face to face with black-clad festival attendees, complete with creepy neon body pain, that have a penchant for getting right up in the playerís face and staring ominously. Pretty early on, the hosts of the festival, mysterious folks walking around in plague doctor outfits, send out a message saying that everyone at the festival is going to die. There are odd, disfigured people in the woods that will chase you down and try to kill you if you leave the main festival areas (which run away if you slap them, oddly enough). The festival is named Headless, for goodness sake. What this all means is that the game plays its cards too soon.
When everything is played as scary, thereís no contrast with which to actually build shock or surprise. A bit later in the game, when things take a tangible turn for the worse and blood and dead bodies start to show up around the festival grounds, would have been a lot more impactful than it was if the game hadnít tried to lay hard into its horror atmosphere from the beginning. There needs to be some build. The other festival goers shouldnít look and act like monsters if the game wants us to sympathize with them as the scared, vulnerable party folk that they sound like in chats. There should have at least been a facade of normalcy to make the turn to horror surprising or climactic.
Looks Cool, Sounds Boring
With its neon colors and flashy lights, one might be tempted to jump into Strobophagia just to experience the looks and sounds of a wild EDM party, and one would be only partially justified in doing so. Visually, thereís a lot to like about whatís going on. The festival, including its colorful attendees, bright lights, and unsettling environments, are done well. Itís a perfect game to play on a bright monitor at night with the lights off, and, in this way, it sells the ďexperience of the un-selfĒ that tends to permeate these kinds of events. Unfortunately, for a game that takes place at a music festival, the actual music was surprisingly annoying, and Iím saying this as someone who enjoys this genre of music. I wasnít keeping a physical tally, but there are only a few different beats (I wouldnít call them songs in the sense of something that has a beginning and end) that play on repeat over and over, and I eventually turned down my volume a bit just to give myself a break. I understand licensing real-world released EDM music comes with a price tag that may have made it unrealistic for this game to include, but the music absolutely needed to be a strong point given the gameís setting, and it isnít.
Strobophagia is a game that looks cool and has an interesting premise, but it fails in successfully building and delivering on its narrative of horror. While the use of a cellphone and proximity-based chatting made for some fun detective-like segments, the run-from-the-monster gameplay is much more of a bore. While the visuals are generally good, the music is disappointingly bad for a game focused on a music festival, and I was left feeling little more about my time spent playing than ďmeh.Ē
Cool neon visuals, fun cultish plot.
Muddled atmosphere, overly-repetitive music.