Saturday, 31 October 2015

Game Review - 'The Park'

The Park starts off with a fairly straight-forward premise. A single mother, Lorraine, and her young son, Callum, have just spent the day at the Atlantic Island Amusement Park - but, now, the park is closing and they are on their way home. Unfortunately, though, Callum seems to have lost his favourite toy, a stuffed bear, and he doesn't want to leave until it is found. While Lorraine is at the information desk asking for help, Callum takes it upon himself to run back into the park - leaving Lorraine with little choice but the follow.

It all seems simple enough - but, once Lorraine makes her way into the amusement park, things take a much darker, and stranger, turn. As Lorraine desperately searches for Callum, it becomes clear that there are supernatural forces at work - supernatural forces that seem determined to keep Lorraine from finding her son.

From the moment that the player, taking on the role of Lorraine, first steps foot in the Atlantic Island Amusement Park, it is made painfully clear that there is something very wrong going on, here. Within moments of entering, reality itself will seem to twist and change around the player, leaving them stumbling about in the dark, in a park that now seems abandoned and derelict. This will be the first of, perhaps, many times that the events of The Park may bring the Silent Hill franchise to the player's mind.

As you progress, though, the story also begins to turn inward - becoming as much a reflection on Lorraine, herself, as it is a straight-forward horror experience. While I don't want to spoil any of the details, here, I will say that, despite the horror of the situation, it is Lorraine, herself, who quickly becomes the most fascinating aspect of The Park. Through her, the game is able to explore more serious issues of self-doubt and parental resentment - all of which is presented to us through some great writing, and a fantastic performance from Fryda Wolff.

As something of a character study of Lorraine, herself, I would have to say that The Park is a fairly convincing success. With Lorraine's voice being the one that the player will become most familiar with, it would probably be fair to say that much of the game's success can be credited to Fryda Wolff (and, the game's writers, of course). She is genuinely great in the role - fully able to capture the mixed feelings of motherly concern, anger and resentment, and fear that the character experiences over the course of the game.

As a horror game, though, I do have to admit that The Park is less successful. If I were feeling generous, I might be willing to accept that The Park isn't actually trying to scare the player - that, instead, the game is much more concerned with creating, and maintaining, an unsettling atmosphere. That might even be true, to an extent, but even the game's deliberate attempts to shock the player with classic jump-scares often come across as a bit weak - more often than not being clearly sign-posted well before they occur. Although, I will that the fact that the developer's were able to create any sense of fear and tension in a game that lacked any chance of failure, or fear of death, is actually fairly impressive.

In saying that, though, I also have to admit that I don't actually regard the game's failure to scare me as the great failure that it might have been - thanks, again, to the engaging qualities of the story I was following. There are other issues that crop up, though. While the game being so short isn't really a problem, on its own, there do seem to be moments when the game's pacing is working against it - such as, for example, the trip through the tunnel of stories that you can take early on. The story of Hansel and Gretal does turn out to be thematically important to the events that take place in The Park, of course. So, the tale's inclusion, in some form, is entirely appropriate. But, I do have to question whether devoting so much of the game's comparatively short play-time to a drawn out recounting of the entire fairy tale was actually necessary.

Similarly, while the game's mechanical gimmick of allowing the player to have Lorraine call out for her son at the push of a button was put to good use throughout much of the game (even if it was a mechanic that brought to mind the 'Press X to Jason' meme from Heavy Rain), there probably needed to be a bit more variety in the tone of Lorraine's responses. There were moments of fairly glaring inconsistency which were a bit distracting - such as moments of unnatural calm after an encounter with a supernatural entity, presumably because the 'script' hadn't moved her into 'panicked tone', quite yet.

There are, really, two ways that a player could find their way to The Park. First, you could simply be a fan of horror games who thought that the idea of one set in a haunted amusement park sound interesting. For these players, the game (obviously) needs to provide an entertaining horror experience. It needs to establish an immersive, and atmospheric setting, and tell a story within that setting which can hold the player's attention - all while, of course, finding room for the occasional scare.

The second entry-point for players, though, is as someone familiar with Funcom's dark, urban fantasy MMORPG, The Secret World. The Park is, after all, intended as a single-player spin-off of that much large game - one that takes place in the same fictional setting, and shares its impressively complex lore. These players (who also happen to make up the group I include myself in) want the same as the more general audience, for the most part - they want the entertaining horror story. But, they also want to know how that story fits into the broader one of The Secret World. They want to see the references and connections that would allow them to put it in its proper place.

Obviously, as a self-contained product, The Park needs to find way to appeal to both groups - though, fortunately, that isn't the difficult task that it could have been. The primary purpose of The Park is, after all, to tell the story of Lorraine and Callum, and their encounter with something strange and unnatural - and, the links to The Secret World, while certainly present, are kept non-intrusive. The general audience doesn't actually need to know that the woman who gave a witness testimony you could find during The Park, for example, is also the same woman who gives you a few missions in The Secret World - but, the connection is still there, regardless.

One of the most unusual aspect of The Park is that there is, technically, already a sequel available. The Halloween event currently running in The Secret World includes a newly added mission, called The Seven Silences, which draws Lorraine's self-contained setting back into the setting's broader lore. While that quest does add interesting new details to the story, anyone interesting in The Park shouldn't feel like they will also need to purchase The Secret World to make sense of it, though. While doing so would, certainly, add to the experience for interested player, The Park was also intended to stand on its own as an entirely self-contained experience.

The Park may have its issues, sure, but it's still something I would consider to be well worth the time of any horror fan. As a game, there really isn't a lot to recommend it, sure (the phrase 'walking simulator' may be unnecessarily insulting, but it's also accurate) - but, as a story-telling experience, it's very impressive. The Park might even be enough to convince some players to make the jump over to The Secret World - which wouldn't be a bad thing, at all, as fair as I'm concerned.

(Warning: The trailer below comes with a seizure warning, due to its use of strobe lighting effects. Keep that in mind, if that's likely to be an issue for you)

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