All You Need is Lovecraft
When reviewing games, you’ll often come across something that can be reviewed in a fairly standard manner. “I liked thing A, thing B, and thing C, but didn’t like things D through F,” and so on. You can still do fun things with the material at hand, of course, but you might find yourself developing a routine. But once in a while, a game comes along that challenges a writer’s usual way of doing things simply by how the game is structured.
The Last Door was originally a chapter-based episodic game, launched via Kickstarter and released in four parts over the course of 2013. Not only was the game episodic, but the now complete package is actually only the first season of what is planned as a larger adventure. As such, I’ll be reviewing The Last Door: Collector’s Edition in a somewhat unusual manner.
With the recent trend of episodic games in the last couple of years, the common movement has been to review each episode individually, rather than giving a ranking to a whole season. What we’ll be doing with The Last Door is similar, giving a small, spoiler-free review of each chapter, giving it a score, and then looking at the season as a complete package. I hope you’re not paranoid about bird flu, because we’re about to get rowdy with ravens (and subsequently covered in feathers) with the Lovecraftian point-and-click horror of The Last Door.
Chapter 1: The Letter
The Last Door is set in Victorian-era England, and follows a man named DeVitt looking into the whereabouts of a friend from his youth, Anthony Beechworth. After receiving a mysterious letter, he winds up at the seemingly abandoned manor of his friend, leaving the player to unravel the mysteries surrounding the house and the whereabouts of its missing owner. All you know for sure is that Anthony seems to have gotten in over his head in something much bigger than himself. For all you know, you could be pulling yourself in with him, simply by investigating the matter. Dark things surround Anthony, and you’re about to come face-to-face with four chapters of them.
This first chapter demonstrates one of the most important facets of The Last Door as a whole. It’s a horror game, and is successful in being scary, but there’s a particular reason why. The Last Door is a series heavily inspired from the writing of H.P. Lovecraft, the horror author responsible for the popularity of Cthulhu and the concept of cosmic horror. With the Lovecraftian vibe comes the idea of greater beings existing in other worlds just beyond the fabric of understanding, often with malicious or chaotic intent. More importantly, however, it also involves playing with the imagination of the reader, or in this case, the player.
The Last Door immediately does a good job of building a feeling of uneasiness through both what we do see and what we don’t. The use of space is great in chapter 1, giving us a large and empty house that feels big without becoming a pain to navigate. Notes can be found that provide hints as to what’s been going on, but your imagination fills in the blanks. There are one or two jump scares, but they actually add to the atmosphere in how they affect the environment. When you re-enter a room to find it covered in crows, it stays covered in crows as you walk through. They just stand there, watching you. Perhaps they like your dapper, Victorian attire.
In the end, chapter 1 is setup. There is a smaller plot contained within the episode, but what’s gone on is pretty clear from the opening. However, this chapter does a good job of introducing the elements that will shine through the series as a whole. The chapter is atmospheric and tantalizingly spooky, and provides a backdrop and basis of understanding without feeling pandering or padded in the slightest. It’s predictable as a singular story, but works fine as an opening act of a greater story. Chapter 1 gets 4 loud and ominous crows out of 5.
Chapter 2: Memories
In episode 2, we begin to learn more about our protagonist and his relationship with his old friend. They were both members of a boarding school, which we see in flashbacks repeatedly throughout the episode. As DeVitt makes his way to the old boarding school to try and reconcile his memories, we begin to understand what went on in his youth with Anthony and their friends.
Chapter 2 is arguably the best in the whole package. This chapter broadens the scope of the mystery perfectly, giving the player a new location that is just as unsettling as the first, but in a wider variety of ways. There are more people to interact with this time around, and the whole setting offers a bit more to soak in than the chapter before it.
The main reason chapter 2 is as good as it is comes in the form of narrative. At a few points, the protagonist will flash back to his youth at the school, giving bits of context to his surroundings. At a certain turning point in the episode, things get trippy and delirious, and this is where the chapter shines brightest. There is a feeling of impending doom that grows over the course of the episode, as you learn more about your location and its history, specifically your history with it. This dreamlike sequence might be the single most chilling segment of the entire season, using intense audio, unsettling visuals and grotesquely beautiful colors to the fullest. All this drives the plot at a surprisingly quickened pace, leading to a payoff that both satisfies the story of the chapter and sets up the threads to come. The episode ends on a great cliffhanger that leaves the player with a sense of escalation and excitement, as well as some things to dwell on.
If there’s one complaint to be made with chapter 2, it’s the path of entry. This chapter commits a common crime among point-and-click adventure games, in that it throws a whole cornucopia of items at you at once, with no indication of where to begin. It’s not too hard to figure out what goes where once you get into the swing of things, but it can be disorienting at the outset, to say the least.
Overall, chapter 2 comes out very strong. It expands both the main character’s backstory and the larger plot, giving us our first real sense of what’s going on, and why all these dark and mysterious things surround DeVitt, Anthony, and the old boarding school. It’s the most noticeably stylized chapter of the bunch, going from vaguely haunting to truly chilling, and to somewhere a bit silly when needed. It suffers from a classic case of too-much-at-once when you first begin, but once you’ve found your sea legs, you’re in for a time good enough to earn this chapter 4.5 empty graves out of 5.
Chapter 3: The Four Witnesses
Chapter 3 is a bit disconcerting from the start. This chapter finds Mr. DeVitt in Old Nichol, a dark and depressing slum district in London. How he wound up here is never fully explained, a sizable oversight considering how the previous chapter ended. We have a vague idea of part of the story, but important details seem to have either been left out or hidden so well as to make them imperceptible. Sadly, this is never resolved.
Chapter three makes something of a trade-off. It sacrifices the building momentum from the end of the previous chapter in favor of atmosphere, with the grimy and shadowy streets of London producing an overlying sense of eeriness not quite matched by the rest of the chapters. The desolate city isn’t exactly inviting, but it creates a sense of hollowness, bordering on aimlessness, that fits perfectly. This atmosphere also allows the development of some pretty good environmental puzzle mechanics, opening up to the one and only puzzle that had me stumped for a significant period of time.
Chapter 3 is also unique in the ways in which it breeds unease. We’ve talked about the ability of all four chapters to use the player’s own imagination against them, using what we don’t see as an obstacle more palpable than what we do. Chapter 3 does its fair share of this like the rest, but it also adds to its atmosphere by adding unusual things to the environment. It’s one thing to put smears of blood on the walls and shock the player with jump scares, but its something else to see things in the environment that add to the fear simply by questioning why they’re there. Identifying something as not only not belonging, but having very frightening implications from its presence, is a clever way to add to the atmosphere of horror that we seldom see used enough.
Chapter 2 had a lot of great story development, so what of this? Sadly, chapter 3 feels like mostly filler in the story department, stringing us along a thread of unrelated story in order to finally come back to the grander matter at hand. There’s some mystery within Old Nichol, to be sure, but it’s not enough to satisfy the burning sense of urgency still lingering from the end of the chapter before. The end of chapter 3 puts us back on track, however, and manages to pick that buildup back up by its final moments.
Chapter 3 may slow down, but it’s impressive in its atmosphere, puzzle design, and ingenuity. It doesn’t quite have the story draw or sense of urgency that chapter 2 left us with, but it still achieves enough to earn it 4 grimy, sickness-ridden streets out of 5.
Chapter 4: Ancient Shadows
The fourth chapter of The Last Door is not a good finale. There it is, plain and simple. It’s disappointing, it drags, and it’s the weakest chapter in the game. Let me explain.
Chapter 4 takes the new information from the end of the previous chapter, gives us a short wrap-up as if saying “oh yeah, all this happened but you’re not interested, right,” and plops us down suddenly and with a great deal of confusion into the meat of the episode. Said meat consists of traversing a desolate house in search of clues as to the fate of one of your fre-
That’s right. The final chapter of The Last Door not only pulls the emergency brake on whatever climax was being reached for the season, but it also proceeds to drop us in a completely derivative environment. It’s not just the overall type of location, but even some of the scares feel ripped right from earlier chapters. There are original puzzles, of course, but some of these are so contrived that they have to be explained by the plot, and are done so poorly. No revelation feels necessary or interesting, because all anyone wants at this point is to find out more about the overarching story, which seems to be all but ditched until the end of the episode.
A good season finale often sets up a first taste of the deeper mysteries to be found in the forthcoming season, and chapter 4 makes an attempt at doing so. However, it’s hard to tell whether this attempt is really much more than filler to add something else shocking to an otherwise mellow episode. Even if it’s planned to come back in season 2, it still feels like a needless complication that pales in comparison to the larger things going on in the story. When those larger things only seem to happen at the very ends and beginnings of chapters, though, I guess you need to stuff as much into the meat of the chapter as you can. It really feels like the developers had run out of ideas, and threw a dart at a board to decide what to throw into the last episode as a big, shocking twist.
Chapter 4 is lacking in atmosphere until the very end because it feels like all stuff we’ve already seen by that point. It does nothing new, and it’s simply not very interesting. The imagination-based horror kicks in around the last ten minutes, but this is small comfort after an hour of bland, contrived puzzles and too many aimless attempts at shock and drama. The season ends with a big twist that will make you excited to see what comes next in season 2, but they seem to have forgotten beforehand that they had to actually generate content for the chapter leading up to that end point. What we get feels like a filler episode, completely unfitting of a season finale. Chapter 4 is mechanically sound, but loses some of the charm and intrigue of the chapters before it. There’s no bad puzzle design to speak of, though, and for the technically-minded adventure game player, it may be just fine. All in all, chapter 4 gets 3 ominous bird calls out of 5.
So, what, then, do we come away with in The Last Door: Collector’s Edition? At its best and worst alike, the game is a fine point-and-click adventure game with great atmosphere and direction, an absolutely killer soundtrack, and solid writing. The collector’s edition features some extra side-stories that add a little bit of expansion to the world of the game, and it won’t be hard to find yourself immersed in the Lovecraftian nature of the experience. Each chapter is around an hour long, giving you a decent-sized story in a point-and-click package covered in black feathers. It smells like a dead body. Yo, you don’t have a rosary on you, by any chance? Okay, it’s cool. We’ll probably be fine. Probably.
From a gameplay perspective, The Last Door is very standard point-and-click adventure game fare. You can investigate objects, add some to your inventory, combine them, and so on. Finding notes left around your environment is important to both following the story and understanding certain puzzles along the way. In a game like this, though, the gameplay doesn’t need to be exceptional as long as it does its job, and The Last Door does that without any particular issues.
The Last Door’s story starts out intriguing and gets more interesting, rising high before taking a disappointing plummet earthward near the end, only to rise up to gain the player’s attention and interest right as the curtain falls. Everything is well-written if slightly confusing in-between episodes, and everything falls more or less into place (albeit somewhat messily) by game’s end. It gets creative in its world design in a lot of great ways, and the good points of its gameplay and story alike outweigh the negative points in its narrative flow. When all is balanced out, The Last Door: Collectors Edition gets 4 witnesses to the eye of the great cosmic crow god out of 5.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: PC, Mac, Linux; Publisher: Phoenix Online Publishing; Developer: The Game Kitchen; Players: 1; Released: May 20th, 2014; ESRB: N/A; MSRP: $9.99