The Pillars of Horror is a look at the games, past and present, that have shaped the genre, showcasing the various mistakes and triumphs that have come out over the years. They may not all be gems, but they’ve all contributed something to scaring the controllers out of people’s hands.
I’ve been playing a few first-person horror games lately, and they’ve all been quite good at keeping me uneasy. There’s something about that first-person perspective that makes immersing myself in the game very easy, allowing me to really feel like I’m there. The most recent one I played was Hell Night (Dark Messiah in Japan), a PS1 game that never managed to make it to North America. Luckily, the game made it to the PAL territories or I would have had to struggle my way through the Japanese language version of it (I tried. For a game with little in the way of writing or dialogue, it’s just about impossible to play if you don’t understand Japanese). It’s a neat little game that doesn’t manage to be quite as effective as SCP-087, but it’s still pretty terrifying when you have to turn your back on a monster and run for your life.
Hell Night throws you into its story in a hurry, telling you almost nothing for a long time. After the opening cut scene you’re tossed into a series of meandering hallways without anything in the way of instructions. You’ll have someone with you to talk with, but she doesn’t really have many interesting things to say so I didn’t speak with her for long. Instead, I set about exploring the corridors trying to figure out where I could possibly be. I wasn’t given a whole lot of time to look before the monster showed up.
There are different variants on the creature you’ll see, but they all bear a similar shape and build to the first one. Just the same, the only important detail you need to know about it is that it can kill you in one hit. Contact with the monster is lethal, so you’re going to want to stay out of its reach. That seems like it shouldn’t be much of a problem, but Hell Night manages to strike up a very good balance of scripted appearances and random ones. The monster in the game is often scheduled to appear on paths that you’ll need to take, so there aren’t many times when you’ll be able to do your business in a given area without him blocking an important path. At other times he’ll just show up at random, but even then I found that the game would toss him at you when you were in a tight spot. Seeing him is always a good sign that you’re going the right way, but it’ll still make your heart sink when he shows up.
This may be sounding a bit like SCP-087, but there is a key difference. While the movement speed of the creature in both SCP-087 games is steady, it still moves at an almost lazy speed. The creature would advance on me like something out of an 80’s horror movie, slow but determined. I thought the creatures in Hell Night would be the same after sneaking up on one of them and watching it move for a while. I was almost smug the next time I ran into one, a feeling I only maintained until the creature ran toward me at a staggering speed.
I want to tell you something about the creature’s movement speed, but I honestly have no idea how fast it can move compared to the player. Every single time I saw that thing coming for me I just turned and ran on instinct. I spent most of every encounter blundering down the tunnels at top speed, trying not to scream. Those moments gave me a feeling of powerful helplessness, and unlike the SCP-087 games, I couldn’t actually see if the monster was still chasing me or if it had given up. All I had to go on was the occasional growl from the creature, something that told me nothing except that the creature was within a turn or two of my current position. It’s really scary to be running from the creature down the maze-like tunnels of the game, something that’s made infinitely worse by not being very sure about what’s going on behind you.
You can’t run for that long, either. There’s no stamina meter to tell you when your character is getting tired, but eventually the screen will start to wobble back and forth while you slow to a jog. If you keep pushing yourself after this you’ll eventually be moving slower than the most basic movement speed. It adds a lot of tension to many of these chases as you don’t really know how close the monster is, but you do know that you’re starting to slow down. Hearing that growl when your character is limping just made my hands shake on the controller, and I was sweating as I pushed down on the run button and hoped that the monster was backing off. You don’t dare turn around to see how close the monster is though for fear that it’s as close as you’re imagining it is. I figure I’ve spent almost half the game running away from nothing while terrified out of my mind.
Sometimes you’re not given much of a window to run, either. I’ve had the monster come tearing down the hallway in front of me, scaring me half to death. You’re a little slow to turn which added another layer of trouble to a surprise chase, but not so slow that you’re screwed instantly. One lucky part of that is that the monster turns even slower than you do, so you can take some extremely risky maneuvers in tight hallways to get around him. This is a great way to make the game absolutely terrifying, as the monster is big enough to fill most of each hallway. If you can kite him to one side and then shoot right past him, though, he’ll have a very hard time catching up to you. It was nice that the slow turning could be used both ways, but unless you’re really good at the game I don’t recommend trying this. You only have a short window to get past the creature, and I’ve screwed this up far more times than I’ve succeeded.
There is a semi-reliable way of knowing the monster’s location though, so you can be a bit more tactical rather than trying something as risky as weaving around the monster. You have an in-game map you can call up quickly to get your bearings, but it will also show where the monster is if it’s somewhat close. It seems to work at random though, so there were times when I could see the monster on the map when it was a hallway or two away, but there were others when I could almost see the thing on my screen but the map wasn’t showing anything. I still called the map up every time I heard a roar just in case it would find the monster, but don’t expect it to always tell you what you want to know. Bringing up the map does pause the action, so it’s handy if you want to catch your breath.
If you’ve played through the game for a while, you might be wondering why you don’t have that ability. I wasn’t entirely truthful when I said that you died in one hit in this game. You start the game off with an AI partner named Naomi and she’s the source of your ability to locate the monster. If you get hit once, she is killed by that first attack—your character does not die first. This is permanent, so if you screw up the game even once, you’d better be prepared to reset the game or power on without being able to see the monster on the map. You can get a couple of different AI partners if you lose her, but none of them are anywhere near as useful. Just the same, playing the game with one of them changes the story, so that could make further playthroughs more interesting. You can also willfully make the game scarier by getting her killed off on purpose, so feel free to toss her to the wolves if you want to make the game harder and more frightening.
One thing that’s almost scarier than the monsters are the other people that are living in the tunnels you’re exploring. You quickly find out that these tunnels are part of an underground system built by the Japanese military in case an evacuation was ever needed, but they’re now populated by the homeless and insane. You’ll never see any of these people while you’re exploring tunnels in the first-person, likely a result of hardware limitations. Still, that limitation means that you could be walking along and then suddenly find your whole screen filled with a twisted human face. Regular NPCs scared me almost as much as the monster did, as they show up without warning and just fill your screen. It’s the kind of jump scare that I never expected, so it got me every single time. I doubt the developers intended it to scare people, so I guess they got a lucky freebie.
One other unintentional thing that made the game more frightening was that it could be a little bit hard to get doors open. The only surefire way to get rid of the monster during the chases was to enter a room somewhere. This would reset the monster’s location, and while it might reappear on the same path again a moment later, it at least gave me a reliable escape route. Well, reliable until you try to fumble a door open. The game can be quite fussy about where you have to be standing in front of a door before it will acknowledge that you’re hitting the button to open it. I found I had to center myself on some doors, and in others it helped if I looked at the door from the side that was going to open. Sometimes holding the button in worked faster, in others a light tap helped. It’s something that should have annoyed me since it’s really just bad programming that makes the doors unreliable, but it gave me this sense that my character was fumbling with the door. Instead of just making it to the door and tapping the button to go inside, it would take a moment while my character opened it and moved inside. It added a few seconds of tension every time I tried to escape through a door, always leaving me worried that I wouldn’t get through the door in time.
The music in this game does wonders for making it scarier, too. It’s all extremely simple, almost to the point where it could be considered droning, but these songs play on your nerves with very simplistic, eerie sounds. It’s similar to Silent Hill in that the songs have strange sounds sprinkled throughout them, leaving me wondering if the creature was somewhere close by. Even though I knew for a fact that the creature always emitted the same growl as it moved through the game, those sounds still tricked my mind into thinking that something had to be getting close. In other areas it’s just really great at hammering home that sensation of loneliness and impending danger.
The music is important because the graphics look really dated. Unlike the SNES era, I find PS1 games just look awful when I see them these days, and beyond a couple of places Hell Night just doesn’t look that good. Its worst offense is that the monster just seems kind of goofy looking up close. He looks like a robot out of an anime, and that took away some of the fear I might have felt otherwise. The locations also just look a lot like the hallways from every early first-person shooter. You probably know them well if you’ve ever played Wolfenstein 3D or Doom. There’s just lots of nonsense hallways that don’t serve any purpose or have any reason to them. They work as a playground to dodge around a monster, but they’re pretty uninspired and dull.
It doesn’t matter what the halls look like when that creature is dogging you, or when he appears in a heavily populated area that you thought was safe. Even when I was wandering alone, the game was still getting under my skin with its strange noises and unsettling music. When you’re worrying about whether your character is going to pass out from exhaustion or if you’re going to suddenly lose the most useful character in the game due to one wrong turn, the game still shines despite its age. It’s especially neat as an early entry in first-person horror for consoles and as a game that didn’t have any kind of release in North America, so if you’re looking for a new old horror game this would be a good one to grab.
Images courtesy of dreamdawn.com (an incredible horror game database), gamefaqs.com, tumblr.com/tagged/hellnight, hardcoregaming101.net, jeuxvideo.com