Enter The Black Lodge
The marriage of the horror genre and virtual reality has been a dream of mine ever since hearing about Stephen King’s 1992 film The Lawnmower Man. At the time, King was the “King” of horror, and virtual reality was nothing more than whatever my teenage mind could conjure up, as VR was still an unknown medium. The thought of strapping on a headset to be transported to an uncharted world was as futuristic as futuristic could get. After The Lawnmower Man’s 1 hour and 48 minute run-time, the disappointment set in that the film wasn’t the futuristic glimpse into virtual reality horror that I thought it was going to be. And here I am, 24 years later, still waiting on a medium to satisfy my teenage craving for a truly immersive horror experience. Enter Here They Lie.
Developer Tangentlemen have found a way to subject players to a fully interactive virtual reality game. Unlike other VR games that warp the player to a destination by way of highlighted areas on the ground, Here They Lie grants you full control of motion. Overall, this is both a blessing and a curse. On the curse side of things, those new to virtual reality locomotion who haven’t quite earned their “VR Legs” will get motion sickness as soon as they begin to travel by way of the left thumb-stick. When I first jumped into the demo on launch day, I immediately felt sick the second I pressed forward on the stick. To keep from hurling, I had to remove the headset and take a big gulp of the ginger ale that sat by my side during my first VR session. I didn’t return to Here They Lie for a week. In the meantime, I slowly let myself get acclimated to VR by taking long breaks in-between playing every demo that was included with the PSVR’s launch bundle. Something clicked after a week’s time and most of the motion sickness that I felt during my first session with the game’s demo seemed to have dissipated. Feeling confident in my ability to handle a VR game that granted me full control, I decided to give the full version a chance, and I’m so happy that I did. I consider that a blessing.
Here They Lie opens up in a train station, where a sexy woman in a glowing gold dress greets the player. The damsel on the platform seems to be second-guessing a recent breakup that she seems to feel is ultimately her fault. She tells the player to come see her whenever he makes up his mind. Once the player boards the train it’s on to nightmare land in a jarring transition that goes from a sterile, grey-tinged utopia to a murky, gritty environment very reminiscent of a 1980’s New York City subway train. Blood splashes cover the walls and numerous piles of garbage can be seen throughout a now post-apocalyptic world that strange golem-like creatures inhabit. None of this receives a proper explanation, and that’s the beauty of the story developer Tangentlemen have created. Finding cryptic notes and photographs littered around the bizarre nightmare world sporadically unravels small glimpses of what little story is here. Random payphones will ring, and that’s where the VR’s 360° audio really starts to shine. Finding and answering the payphones is key to progressing though Here They Lie’s story, as the caller on the other end will give the player info on the beautiful woman in the gold dress, and more so, what kind of person the player is.
Not all of Here They Lie’s story is that of horror. Halfway through my 5-hour playthrough, those odd golem-like creatures we were introduced to in the story’s opening moments are replaced with strange humans donning large animal masks. Again, there is no explanation as to who these people are or why you’re in their world, but I found it more exciting not knowing what’s going on. Walking through the city’s “red-light district” in VR made me feel like I was in a nightmare, as all the masked people beat the hell out of each other – with some even brutally murdering one another. Watching this play out right in front of me felt very voyeuristic, that is until they noticed me watching them fight and then they would turn their attention to me. I honestly felt like I was in some sort of bizarre dream that I didn’t want to wake up from. I can only explain this feeling by referencing The Black Lodge from Twin Peaks. I knew I shouldn’t be in this world, but I wanted to search every nook and cranny to piece together some sort of explanation. I loved every minute of it.
You’re probably asking yourself, “How do you actually “play” this game?” Well, it’s part walking simulator with an emphasis on stealth. The world is very open, and several paths throughout the city to explore. These paths mostly lead to the same spot, where the player must either answer a phone or find a letter or photo that will open a new area to traverse. If you happen to see or hear a creature, it’s best to totally avoid it since they will beat you to death if agitated. You have no weapons or way of fighting back, so stealth is key when getting past these things. Looking at them, walking into them, or shining your flashlight at them will piss these things off pretty quickly, and once the heat is on, it’s almost impossible to get away. Speaking of your flashlight, several batteries can be found in the game and as long as you stay on the main path, you shouldn’t ever run out of juice. Here They Lie is full of dark alleyways and tunnels in which your trusty flashlight will be your best bet to keep your sanity. Walking is done with the left stick and flicking the right stick either left or right will make the player do a quarter turn, which greatly helps with motion sickness. Flicking back or forward on the right stick will turn the player 180° making quick turns a possibility. It will take a few moments to acclimate yourself with the controls, but once you understand how to utilize them to cut down on motion sickness; you’ll be a happy VR gamer.
To date, I’ve played just about half of what’s available on PSVR. And you can definitely see how the bigger companies are able to push the hardware to it’s graphical limits. Here They Lie has been created by one of the smaller developers and you can no doubt differentiate its visuals to, say, those of developer Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham VR. Overall, Here They Lie looks blurry, and you will notice several jaggy graphics once the game first throws you in it’s world. But once you’re fully immersed in the experience, you’ll quickly forget about the game’s graphical shortcomings. Interiors mostly look good, with peeling paint and rotten floorboards. But the same blood splotch repeats in almost every room I’ve entered. I find it hard to ding Here They Lie due to the graphics, because even though they weren’t pretty, I still felt like I was part of the game’s decrepit world. VR no doubt help’s this experience.
There are a few flashbacks sprinkled here and there in the story that gives the player a moment to breathe, and taking in the large clean city during these scenes is simply breathtaking. Just looking up to get an idea of how large the city is, fully immersed me and I can honestly say I felt like I was in a real city. VR is all about new gaming experiences, and these flashback sequences really made me feel like I was doing something I’ve never done in a video game.
Again, the 360° audio plays into Here They Lie’s world beautifully. Screams of creatures can be heard a few alleyways away, alerting the player and that it’s probably a good idea to find another path. The Red Light district’s music pumps and the quietness of the city during the flashbacks are eerily beautiful. The voiceover’s that play when a photo is found sounds like they were taken from real therapy sessions and felt totally genuine. I have absolutely no complaints about any of the audio in Here They Lie.
I really hope that any players that jumped into Here They Lie waited until they got their “VR Legs” so they could see the story unfold from beginning to end without the need for a barf bag. I know I’m extremely happy that I decided to give this surreal horror story another chance, because I nearly missed out on one of the most amazing gaming experiences I’ve ever had.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: PS4 (reviewed) ; Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment America ; Developer: Tangentlemen, SIE Santa Monica Studio ; Players: 1 ; Released: October 13, 2016 ; ESRB: M for Mature; MSRP: $19.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a retail copy of Here They Lie purchased by the reviewer.