by Vincent Chandler
reviewed on PC
Are you afraid of the dark?
Old decrepit buildings, long abandoned and housing a horrible mystery that the locals dare not speak of. An amnesiac protagonist, taunted via radio messages from an enigmatic yet charming antagonist. Puzzles to solve, mysteries to uncover – all from the first person perspective; dimly lit and covered in a pervasive sense of dread. You would be forgiven for thinking The Crow’s Eye fit neatly into the first-person horror genre popularised by the likes of Amnesia, Outlast and most recently, Resident Evil.
But The Crow’s Eye is a unique animal. Beneath the first impressions garnered from the exploration of an abandoned medical university in the dead of the night, lies a unique puzzle-platformer that owes as much to Bioshock and Portal, as it does to The Dark Descent.
You assume the role of an unnamed protagonist, who awakens within Crowswood University – your role and reasoning for being there is unclear at first and serves as primary driving force in the game’s narrative. There is a dark secret hidden within these halls; a story of missing university students and experiments gone wrong can be uncovered through heavy-handed and poorly written exposition found in notes and audio logs found throughout the environment.
As you descend further and further into the dilapidated building you are taunted by messages left by Dr. William Holtwick, a mad genius best described as a combination of the infamous Andrew Ryan and Sander Cohen of Bioshock fame, only if they were channelled through a poor-man’s Mark Hamill impression. Maniacal cackling and nonsensical ramblings suffer from a complete lack of self-awareness and ham-fisted delivery, which leads to the performance being cringe-inducing. On occasion the voice actor responsible will randomly screech or whisper words mid-sentence, adding emphasis with little rhyme or reason. It is less “unhinged-mad-scientist” and more “baby’s first mad man impression”.
Are you afraid of… jumping puzzles?
Dr. Holtwick has devised ‘tests’ and ‘experiments’ that feel all too much like the challenges posed by Portal’s GLaDOS, only if they were submerged beneath a thin veneer of survival horror tropes. The stuffy, dark corridors and medical theatres eventually give way to impractically designed testing facilities complete with moving platforms and high-tech puzzles. As the game transitions from horror aesthetic to whimsical science-fiction puzzler your trusty lighter is replaced with an electromagnet gun that proves integral to the completion of the trials ahead, whilst the slow, plodding exploration gives way to frustrating platforming sections and puzzles involving switches and the moving of cubes and other familiar puzzler mechanics. The puzzles become increasingly intricate, and are definitely fun even if quite simple to solve. However, the gameplay is heavily marred by the necessity to indulge in first-person platforming. I don’t think you need me to tell you that this platforming is the weakest part of the whole affair, with it rarely being a good idea within the confines of the first-person genres. As much as The Crow’s Eye’s gameplay is fun and functional, begging to be compared to that of Portal’s, it simply isn’t as masterfully crafted and the platforming is cumbersome at best, and downright not fun at worst.
In some vain attempt to harken back to a romanticised retro survival horror setting, the save points are dotted about at relatively large intervals. This means that the frustrating platforming is made all the worse by their difficulty causing you to retread sizable areas of the environment if you fail. At times you will need to re-complete already finished puzzles before being able to hop, skip and jump your way across some moving platforms suspended above a void, all from a fixed first-person camera. It’s all a little tiresome. I thought we, as a medium, learnt this lesson circa 1998 on our expedition to Half-Life’s Zen. And whilst comparing it to the infamously bad ending sequence of Valve’s classic is a little bit harsh, at least Half-Life had a quick save option to help alleviate the stress and frustration.
Are you afraid of… dated graphics?
3D2 Entertainment have succeeded in creating a dreary sense of atmosphere. Although the game looks dated (for lack of a better word), the smaller development team have done very well with instilling the Crowswood building with an ominous and at times overbearing visual tone. In some ways, the fact that the game looks like something from 2007 only serves to emphasise the comparisons to Bioshock. The whole aesthetic is rounded out by an eerie string score that transitions into up-tempo action whenever a puzzle presents itself – a strong and clear signal to the player to adjust from the tentative exploration of the game world to a more focused puzzle mind-set.
However, all of these comparisons to classic games within Video Game canon is a little misleading. Crow’s Eye just doesn’t hold up to the greats. The juxtaposition of horror mystery against puzzle-platformer gameplay is jarring; as if gameplay and storyline were drawn up independently and then forced together during early design meeting. Perhaps the first-person puzzles were the intended focus of the title, but horror-genre theatrics proved more popular during limited focus testing, steering the development team’s world building and scripting down a weirdly counterintuitive path. I will admit that does seem like an oddly sceptical look at the game’s make-up, but it simply doesn’t feel organic. Serviceable gameplay mechanics are clouded by a confusing and unimpressive horror aesthetic that do little to elevate the proceedings above a quaint distraction.
It’s cheap and unusual; Strong sense of atmosphere, at least at first.
The game feels cheap; Voice acting ranges from bad to mediocre; Platforming is crap; Terrible anti-climactic ending.