23 March 2016

What Are They? Why Are They Here?

The Shadow People have been an enigma for ages, spanning from ancient folklore to modern accounts of sleep paralysis. People argue about what exactly these beings are: Are they simply malicious ghosts? Demons? Perhaps they're some ethereal hominid, born without a physical body? Of course, you know where this is going. 

A Game of Mystery

The Shadow People of Shadows Peak want something from you. In fact, they want it so badly, they kidnapped your fianceé right in front of you in order to persuade you, complete with dead birds falling from a blood-red sky. So what do they want? Souls, of course!  This already sounds like another one of those cheesy throwaway titles, right? Not quite.

Presentation

Sure, the premise starts out pretty silly, but Shadows Peak makes up for it nearly immediately. When you wake up, you find yourself alone on the pier, confused and looking for answers. However, you have no guidance. All you have is a forked path back onto the island and a mysterious message. That's right; Shadows Peak does nothing to steer you toward your goal. In fact, you won't even know what your goal is until you've already finished roughly a third of the game! This is Shadows Peak's greatest strength. On its own, the island feels intimidating, yet mysterious and intriguing. In one direction, you see a lighthouse shining into the gloom. In the other, a pair of decrepit houses peak from under a natural archway. For lack of a better idea, you pick a direction and walk, hoping that you stumble on something, anything, to tell you what happens next. This complete lack of direction is something that usually fuels frustration and hair-ripping rage (I'm looking at you, Obscuritas), yet here it works to flawlessly immerse you in the mystery all around.  

The island, daunting as it first appears, is surprisingly easy to navigate. There was never a point in which I felt annoyed or lost. On the contrary, I found myself almost joyfully searching in every nook and cranny I could find, for which I was rewarded with an extra save point, a newspaper snippet, or even a medkit. While these incentives don't really provide any substantial benefit, it's refreshing to play a horror game that encourages curiosity rather than punishing it. In addition, Shadows Peak likes to play with you. The observant player will note several instances where a shadowy figure will dart around your periphery or even observe you from afar, like G-Man from the Half Life games or the ghosts from Dear Esther.

Gameplay

Unfortunately, not all is well with Shadows Peak. Particularly, there's not much you can do besides explore. Eventually you find a knife, but it's practically useless: You can't harm the incorporeal Shadow People, and anything that can be harmed can be easily handled either by avoidance or with a nonviolent item (such as throwing a dog a bone). In addition, while there is the occasional light puzzle, these tend to be overly simplistic, with only a "find X and use it at Y" format (such as the aforementioned dog). To be frank, I'd claim Shadows Peak to be what people call a "Walking Simulator."  There's a basic story, with basic mechanics and interactibility, but the vast majority of the game lies in exploring and soaking in the ambiance.

Sound

Shadows Peak takes a fairly minimalist approach to its sound design. Music tracks consist of sparse, somber piano melodies reserved mostly for important areas or moments. Beyond that, the only music is an ambient track reminiscent of the caves of Skyrim or Oblivion. Though nothing special, these tracks fit the mysterious nature of the game. However, the sound effects are heavily hit-and-miss. Traditional effects such as water and falling rocks sound fine, but the effects used for swinging your knife, as well as the samples used for animals and the Shadow People are downright bad or out of place. 

Visuals

Like the sound design, visuals here are a bit meh. They're not bad by any means, but they are outdated, looking like a more polished example of PS2 graphics. Think Dear Esther before it became a standalone and you'll have a good idea what I mean.

Of course, I'm typically less interested in how good things look and more interested in how well they work. In that case, the Shadows Peak's visuals perform well. The geology of the island is believable and generally pretty. While the whole island is cast in a hazy grey, there are occasional splashes of color which feebly break through, giving the world a dying, draining feel. And the Shadow People, bad as they look up close, are legitimately intimidating from a distance, as they silently glide along the ground searching for you.

Overall

Shadows Peak has its issues: The lacking gameplay makes it boring for anyone expecting a traditional game, sound design is merely average at best, and the ending -- though certainly unexpected -- is hokey and unfulfilling. However, I still recommend that anyone interested in a more moody set-piece give this a go. It's only $8 on Steam, and you'll be able to get around two-and-a-half hours of enjoyment out of it. Plus, if this first part is any indication, future parts may work to create a story reminiscent of the X-Files.

About the Author

Jacob D. DeVore

Recruit Editor

http://www.twitch.tv/shmumbler

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