One Case Where I’d Actually Prefer to Leave than Remain
Those Who Remain is set in the cursed town of Dormont. It starts off with the protagonist Edward driving to a sleazy motel to end an extra-marital affair. It all goes a bit pear-shaped though when he sees his car getting stolen and finds himself trapped in Dormont in a world where reality has been warped by an existential force seeking retribution and judgment.
One of the core concepts of the gameplay is the titular “Those Who Remain” themselves. Dormont seems to be in a state of perpetual night, meaning any areas not illuminated by fire or electrical light are shrouded in darkness. Within the darkness lurks shadowy beings who stare ominously at you, their eyes glowing through the murk. This was admittedly really creepy the first time I encountered them. However, once I found out how the vast majority of them can be dispelled by sneaking cautiously into a doorway and flicking on a lightswitch, they quickly started to lose their intimidating aura.
Character models resemble monsters or people but are weirdly blobby, shiny and lacking in detail to the point they look like they’re made of plasticine. One monster in particular (let’s call it Handylight because its head is a hand holding some sort of a spotlight) is a mishmashed humanoid phantasmagoria of limbs, faces and jagged metal. It’s meant to be really scary but it kinda looks like a Silent Hill monster made of play-doh.
Oddly, the protagonist’s voice actor, who’s meant to engage us emotionally in the horror, sounds less like he’s nervously navigating a town suffused with supernatural terror and more like he’s doing his tax returns on a wet Wednesday afternoon.
I loved the tired, languid way he responds to Handylight appearing with an exhausted sounding “Oh, it’s you again?” with the same passive-aggressive sass as the rolling eyes emoji. However, since Handylight’s stealth sections are some of the most boring parts of the game, I could certainly relate to Edward here!
The best horror games disincentivize the player looking at the monster for too long, because psychologically the unknown is scarier, and because you should generally be running or hiding in fear from the monster. Sadly, everything is so bloody dark, you actually need to look directly at Handylight half the time to see where to go, his spotlight illuminating the dark.
There’s generally one or two places to hide and wait while Handylight slowly lumbers past and if you do anything other than wait in exactly the right spot, it just gives you a slow motion slap before the screen fades to black, which was more than a little underwhelming.
There was another section a little later on where I needed to carry some lion statues to a platform while avoiding a giant mud monster, except the walls of the maze are about four feet tall and the monster is about twenty feet tall, meaning it’s easy to see him and avoid him at all times. Instead of the stealth sections being a tense test of your ingenuity, they’re either just too easy or frustrating for all the wrong reasons.
Those Who Remain is unpleasant to look at. You’ll find an immersion-killingly high number of high-res assets mixed in with low-res ones. When you’re looking along walls, you’ll see blurry pixel-soup posters alongside crystal clear high res ones. There’s an abandoned Diner where half the food is on plates and half of it is just lying on the table. The lighting is pretty funky too. Everything is either so dark you can’t see shit or glistening like a mirror under a floodlight. This makes the endless scavenger hunting for keys that much more irritating.
One puzzle required me to turn a series of valves in a certain sequence to set off a sprinkler system. The sign, hanging neatly over a row of three valves tells me to turn two valves in the right order. I tried every combination of the valves I could possibly find, but it didn’t seem to work. I wasted loads of time searching through the entire level thinking there was something I’d missed. Then I found another entirely separate valve outside the row, the dark grey of the valve melding in with the inky blackness of night. Of course, even once you’ve found all the valves beneath the murk, it’s just a terrible puzzle because there’s no clues to work out or logic to solve beyond simple trial and error. You’ll have to wait a long time for a few moderately entertaining physics puzzles, though these are seldom more complex than moving some boxes around, putting boxes on platforms or throwing boxes at other boxes. You’ll be lifting around more boxes than a teamster working overtime.
It’s not as though there’s nothing about Those Who Remain that works. There’s a Silent Hill style concept wherein there’s a mirror world where everything is grey and monochrome and all the furniture starts flying around. There are moments when you can switch between these worlds allowing you to move through clearings in the mirror world to traverse through obstacles in the real one. These sequences were actually kind of cool, and I wish the game had just committed to more involved puzzles using this interesting mechanic rather than spreading itself too thin with bland, anemic stealth sections and scavenger hunts for tiny keys.
One thing Edward is repeatedly called upon to do is to judge the sinners of Dormont. At the end of each “level”, which usually reveals some insight into a particular character’s background, I was presented with a choice of whether to forgive someone’s moral transgression or to cast their soul into hell. This was a cool concept that actually did make me feel legitimately torn. This was particularly so with the first choice, where I had to judge the fate of a boy who’d bullied a young girl to the point of causing her death. However, it’s insinuated this was an accident – a prank gone too far – and the boy was only acting out because of his older brother’s demise. Do I commit him to torment or give him a chance to grow up and change for the better?
It was after this first test though that I started getting frustrated with the concept.
I didn’t actually get to talk to these characters, hear their side of the story, or – most importantly – find out if they were actually repentant for their actions. Also, I didn’t really have much idea of what the “forgive” choice actually meant. Is it just sending them on their merry way without so much as a slap on the wrist? Pretty much all of the characters deserved some sort of punishment and to make amends for their wrongdoing, but not to burn in hell for all eternity. Having to make such an extreme black and white choice on such morally grey issues with an absurdly small amount of information to work with didn’t so much leave me with a heavy moral weight on my shoulders but an itchy irritation at an interesting but poorly executed concept.
Though these choices do effect the ending, they effect it with a sledgehammer-like lack of subtlety and nuance. The storyline presents itself as being a complex, murky dive into the proverbial heart of darkness where morality is relative, but if you expect this to be reflected in the ending, you will be sorely disappointed.
Those Who Remain is a Frankenstein of cool concepts lifted from other horror games and shoddily reconstituted into a mishmash of mediocrity. It’s got some of the ingredients of a good horror game, but they mesh together like pizza and ice cream. Though the game doesn’t deserve to be cast into hell for eternity, it definitely has some mistakes that are hard to forgive.
Final Verdict: 3/5
Available on: PS4 (reviewed), PC; Publisher: Wired Productions, WhisperGames; Developer: Camel 101; Players: 1; Released: May 28th, 2020;
Full Disclosure: This review is based on a copy of Those Who Remain given to Hey Poor Player by the publisher