White Noise Online [Review]
Multiplayer and horror aren’t exactly concepts that go hand-in-hand. I play horror games with my friends when I want to have an easier time with them; the banter and presence of people I know helps make me feel less alone. They also provide enough distractions that it keeps me from immersing myself in the game’s fiction to the point where I really scare myself. I figured playing White Noise Online, a new multiplayer horror game from Milkstone Studios, would have the same effect even though I was playing with strangers. Without all of those kind people I walked around with online, though, I never would have experienced the terror you feel as you watch your party get picked off, one by one. I think I know what a henchman in a Batman comic feels like now.
For those who are curious, the game plays a little bit like the Slenderman games that were so popular not too long ago. You’re tasked with poking around the woods looking for a couple of cassette players, all the while hoping you don’t make eye contact with the monster in the woods that’s stalking you. The fun part is that the monster can’t move as long as you’re staring at it in White Noise Online, but looking at the thing for too long will kill you. It forced me to strike up a neat little balance as I tried to keep my eyes on the creature as long as I could stand it, preventing it from moving forward while I made my way out of sight. If you somehow manage to keep the creature at bay long enough to get all of the cassette players, you win…maybe? I don’t know, as I’ve yet to survive for an entire match.
Hey, it’s not easy to get all of the cassettes in a single run. They’re scattered all over the game’s maps, and those maps are HUGE. Not Skyrim huge, but they are big enough that it can take five to ten minutes to walk from one side to the other. Somewhere within these maps are a handful of landmark locations that stand out quite a bit from the regular trees, grasses, and rocks. These are almost always where the cassette players are hidden, something you can tell by the hissing sound they make as you get closer. Luckily, they’re pretty loud so they’re hard to miss if you’re in the right spot.
Finding that right spot isn’t all that easy, though. While the landmarks do stand out, you only have a weak flashlight to guide your way through these giant maps. It doesn’t light up a whole lot of your path, so it makes for a nerve-wracking walk as you continually scan the area with your thin beam of light. Unless that beam falls on something important you’re just going to blow right past it, as everything outside of the beam’s light is pretty much pitch black. You only get the slightest hint of a silhouette if you crank your television’s brightness as far as it will go, but beyond that it’s absolute darkness outside of your flashlight. I can’t even count the amount of times I’ve circled around an important location because I couldn’t see it.
You’re not just giving the monster more time to catch up to you when you miss those locations, either. Your flashlight battery has a limited life to it. You’re almost never dumped into complete darkness (I was going for over forty minutes in one section and it still hadn’t gone entirely out), but it will get to a point where it is just about useless. It starts to flicker and almost looks as if you’re viewing things through a grainy night vision filter as it runs low on power, making it very hard to see any of the important locations you’d need to find. Given that you need to successfully explore these areas to beat them, it added another thing for me to worry about as I was running around; increasing the tension.
Please don’t play the game on easy difficulty. You might die on that mode if you make some truly idiotic mistakes, but otherwise it’s very hard to lose. In one match, I lost my temper at having spent forty minutes wandering the woods without finding the final two locations and killed myself out of frustration since the monster didn’t seem to have any interest in doing it. I barely saw the thing on easy, and when I did I could just turn until the thing was off-screen and I’d be fine. You want to be playing on Hard or Nightmare difficulty to get the true experience for this game. In those modes it doesn’t take a whole lot of exposure to the creature to get you killed, and the creature is also more persistent. It’ll keep you from playing the same level for forty minutes, that’s for sure.
This game feels like the world’s worst Easter egg hunt without a persistent monster. On higher difficulties, it’s the appearance of the monster and his damaging gaze that make this game really interesting. The creature can basically show up whenever and wherever it likes, and there is no logic or reason to it. I’ve had it appear out of thin air as well as seen it come slowly into view. The game indicates that the creature is nearby by making your screen go fuzzy (this also indicates your sanity, as the screen also gets fuzzier as you are close to death), but sometimes it can appear right on top of you when things look like they’re clear. The latter is very rare (typically only happening if you’ve had several close calls with the creature already) but it still can happen, making sure I never felt safe.
The game uses some good sound to keep you scared and to help guide you. Whenever you catch a glimpse of the monster, even if it’s so minor you didn’t pick up on it yourself, the game plays a very loud tone to get your attention. It scared me each time, but I was still thankful for it; it made sure I knew the monster was around. The world around the player is full of lots of bizarre sounds, too, such as growls and insects chirping. Hearing them always had me wondering if something was happening or if the monster was coming from far away, often leaving me whirling around in the dark. The crackling sound you hear as the monster approaches is really uncomfortable, telling you that you want to get away from the creature even if you haven’t read any of the tutorial. Don’t get me started on the character screams when you get caught, either.
The game also has some simple but evocative music. The tracks get progressively creepier the more cassette players you collect, building in volume and urgency with every couple of pickups. I couldn’t actually tell you if I was in greater danger from the monster or not as you collect more of the cassette players, but the music’s urgency sure seems to indicate that fact. It set me even more on edge when I was already nervously excited about being so close to winning; winding me up tight for the moment the monster would grab me. Just the same, if I spent a little too long without finding a new cassette player the songs did start to get on my nerves a bit. There’s just not much else to do besides listen to the music when you’re moving around, so it’s noticeably repetitive during those times.
I could only handle the game by myself a couple of times before I thought I’d enlist some help online. There were actually quite a few games going on every time I wanted to play, and within seconds I was typically in a game with a few more people. If I was lucky, someone would instantly take a leadership role and start walking forward, hopefully knowing what they were doing as we moved into the darkness.
I was a little skeptical of the character designs in the game before this point. The characters are all bright and a little cartoon-like, making me wonder if they would look garish and silly in the game’s world. The darkness devoured all but their flashlights unless I shone a light on them, so the bright colors of the character’s clothes actually made it a lot easier to tell when I’d found one. It really was a nice gesture on the developer’s part. That’s the only concession they’ve made for you in multiplayer, though, so use it. Beyond that, you’d better be good at picking out flashlights in the distance.
Having a group gave me this false sense of confidence that got broken the second the monster appeared among us. You might not be able to move all that fast in the game, but the members don’t have to be all that far apart before you’ll lose track of each other. At that point, you’re scrambling to find any hint of light while trying to keep an eye on the monster AND not making eye contact with it for long. It was a really cool balance, and finding yourself alone after you’ve been in a group feels far worse than if you’d set out alone from the beginning.
Another thing that feels awful is when the group reconvenes and you find that you’re one member short. The game will tell you if someone dropped out of the game, but it won’t tell you if the monster killed someone. You might hear their scream in the darkness if you’re close enough, but otherwise that person just disappears (Or can follow you as a ghost if you turn on the Lost Soul option. It’s a handy way for new players to explore a location after death.). Somewhere out there will be a slumped body that’s turned to stone, a sickening reminder that you have one less person to help you. These things seem like minor details, but they can be spirit-crushing when they happen.
Watching as your group loses another person, and then one more as you try to run through the levels just makes for some incredible tension. Games like to leave behind signs of what the monsters are capable of with creepy blood splatters and dead bodies, but something about those bodies belonging to another real-life player makes them mean so much more. Just having one player fade into the shadows and never return has the same effect, giving the monster this insane presence and power. It made me feel even more helpless than I already knew I was, and I was impressed at how effective it was. I really thought this aspect of the game was going to be stupid, but Milkstone Studios made it into the game’s strongest feature.
White Noise Online can become a boring search if you play it on the low difficulties, but crank it up to Hard or Nightmare and you’ve got an excellent horror game on your hands. The fact that it can take multiplayer and make it work for the horror elements of the game is a fine testament to what this studio can do. There are only a few maps to play on, but the size of the maps, as well as the randomization of where the cassette players can be on those maps, will keep them interesting even after you learn where to go. It’s a steal at $1, and it’s a blast if you only have a few minutes free to scare yourself before bed.
White Noise Online is available from the Xbox Live Indie Marketplace for 80 points.