Montague’s Mount came dangerously close to losing me right at the start of its short preview. The game is built around exploration, much like Dear Esther, but it starts off with a bad fiddling around puzzle that kicked me right out of the narrative. Luckily, something happened right afterwards that hooked me back in hard, and the game got back on track with some situational puzzles that felt more in keeping with the exploration. If they can keep up the kind of game I played after that first compass puzzle, then the developers at Polypusher Studios will have a good horror game on their hands.
Things started off looking pretty good once the game began, I have to admit. This desolate island off the coast of Ireland is bleak, and is constantly covered by gray overcast. If it isn’t raining, then it is going to rain in about a minute. It creates a permanent near-darkness around all of the initial areas, giving enough light to see but also obscuring things. It’s the kind of darkness most horror games only dream of, the type where the player can see what they’re doing while having it dark enough to be scary.
This had me wondering if the whole game was going to look like a black and white movie, but occasionally the storm breaks for a bit and you can see some color in your surroundings. There’s something extremely comforting about seeing a little splash of green grass amidst all the darkness, and it had an interesting, calming effect on me. I started to crave those little spots of color and looked forward to seeing the next one. Important items were kindly highlighted as a bright red (at least for the preview, and hopefully for the main game as well), so that may have been a part of why I got so excited when I saw color.
They kick that feeling out from under you pretty fast once you see your first body lying on the sand. I saw the green shirt at first and wandered in closer to see what had caught my eye. It took that previously comforting feeling and turned it on me, giving me this sense of dread in my gut. It only got worse as the bodies seemed to pile up on the beach, leaving me wondering what had happened here. The game never came out and told what was going on in the story directly, leaving me hints through notes and the leftover remains. The game lets you know pretty fast that something horrible happened on the island just by the ruined homes left abandoned, and I naturally pushed forward because I was curious about what happened. Since the game wasn’t offering me any direct answers I felt more like I had to explore for them myself, and it dragged me even further into the game.
That’s when I saw someone. I didn’t catch a good glimpse of who it was beyond seeing a blue shirt, but the game was quite clear that this was someone I wanted to avoid. My character’s vision got blurry as I looked at it, and the screen vibrated until I backed off and looked away. I don’t know if that was the right thing to do, but when I came back to the area the figure was gone. The area was a dead end containing a house, one with a dead couple holding hands at a table filled with lit candles. I don’t want to talk about how long I stood outside that house, afraid to go inside. It was the only place the figure could have gone, after all.
Once that thing had shown up, previously harmless things took on a lot more meaning. The dark skies that cast shadows everywhere seemed a lot worse than they used to be, as all the moving shadows took on more meaning. Every little bit of movement in the dark had me jumping and turning my eyes toward it. Each wavering shadow seemed like it could have been that person creeping up on me. Now, the overcast gray day, with its light that’s bright enough to create shadows but not quite bright enough to make my vision clear, was making it seem like the creature could have been anywhere. Every little bit of movement from nearby trees in the wind or objects on the beach cast these moving shadows that always looked like something was just coming from the darkness to chase me. It was fantastic, and I was pretty freaked out for a while after the creature had gone.
The music wasn’t helping, either. It isn’t heavy handed, but rather plays quietly in the background, always adding to the eerie atmosphere. There’s something about its calm but creepy tones that builds tension up slowly. There’s never a moment where it played a louder note to make something seem more frightening, and that might make it sound plain. It’s not, as its job is to keep you at a constant edge, never giving any clues as to whether something weird is going to happen soon. As a consequence, it feels like something bad could happen at any second, as the music always sounds frightening, but never changes to give clues as to what is going to happen in the game. It plays a pleasant little tone if you get an item or solve a puzzle, but that’s it. It never lets up the tension, and never gives a hint when something is coming.
All this being said, I almost never got to see most of this due to the game’s first puzzle. Sure, I got to enjoy the bleak skies, but once I was busy dealing with the compass puzzle, all I could think about was how much I wanted to quit the game. The game tosses what seems to be a very simple series of things to do at you right at the start. Really, your job is to look for some items, use them in the right spots, and then turn some compasses in the direction the game tells you to. In any other game, this would have been a few minutes of work, but I spent forty five minutes getting all this done. If there are any more busywork puzzles in the final product like this one, Polypusher Studios may be in trouble.
Remember how I applauded them for my being able to see things clearly despite it being overcast? Well, I meant the general area layout, not things you need to interact with. Even the items that are supposed to be highlighted in red wouldn’t often glow until you were pointing the reticule right at them. Some of them did, but not every one. This was a big issue when I went looking for candles in the game’s second puzzle. I needed six or seven candles for it, and several of those candles were just lying around rooms that were filled with dozens of candles that were already lit (A tip for budding developers: machines cannot recognize different candles, so I don’t want to have to find the certain candles a machine specifically needs in a room already filled with candles). The candle I needed didn’t light up until I was pointing right at it, so I bypassed it entirely for about twenty minutes because I didn’t immediately see it glowing. Either make every item glow from a distance, or don’t make any of them glow.
Never mind, make every item glow. While you’re at it, how about some glowing objects you can interact with, too? Another chunk of my time was lost puttering around the beginning area trying to figure out how to do anything. I had gotten as far as knowing I had to set three compasses to specific directions, but had no idea how to open the covers over the compasses to manipulate them. As it turned out, the lever I had to move to use them was directly beside the sign I read that told me what to do with them, but I hadn’t noticed it since it was the same dull gray as everything else. My eye had been drawn to the sign and the information on it, making it pretty hard for me to notice the lever. A little glimmer would have been nice. I realize that it may hurt the immersion to have things glowing in the game, but the frustration I was feeling at not being able to progress was hurting that a lot more than a little color would have.
Adding to the fun was my character’s slow walk. The pace suits the slow, exploratory nature of the game and forced me to take in my surroundings more than my normally rushed gameplay style would, which I was thankful for. On the other hand, when I know what to do but just can’t figure out how to do it or why it isn’t working, having to plod around large, open environments is annoying. When you can’t figure out what to do or are missing something you need, the only solution is to pore over the entire environment again, and having to do that while walking so slowly is a chore and made me dread every time I found that I didn’t have the right items. Most of the time I wasted on the first puzzle was spent walking back and forth between three plinths that were really far apart, and that walk was what brought me right to the brink of shutting the preview off.
The final problem was that the first puzzle really just amounted to busywork. The game directly said which direction the compasses on the plinths had to be turned to, and all I had to do was walk over to them, check my compass, and turn them the right way. I wasn’t figuring out some puzzle – all I was doing was following some dull instructions. Now, figuring out which ones were the right ones was hard, as I thought I did everything right the first time, but then nothing happened. So I went to each of them and changed them. Then that didn’t work and I had to do it again, taking long, tedious walks each time. Finally, I turned one to the point where the game just told me I had turned that one correctly, so instead of trying to figure out the puzzle any more, I just walked to the others and turned them until the game let me move on. Yes, it was cheating, but the developers were lucky I was still playing at this point so I didn’t care.
Now, the next puzzle felt a bit more organic. I had to collect some things in the environment as I progressed, and the creature showed up at this point, lending the search some urgency. I was just poking around the environment looking for stuff, but the area was a little smaller, I was a bit scared, and the area was filled with more buildings and ruins so it was more interesting to look at. I got more items quickly, and I just had to get enough items to get an object running. It was still the stupid candles, but this was only slightly annoying because of all the other interesting things that were around. This was the game I wanted to play, and as long as most of the game plays like this section of the preview, then I’m sold on it.
Montague’s Mount did a whole lot of things right in the preview. The atmosphere, coloring, and lighting are all used in intelligent ways to make this island seem creepy and dangerous. The story is kept quiet so that the player actually feels like they’re digging up secrets for themselves, and this turns the plot into an actual gameplay reward. When the puzzles involve looking around and naturally exploring the environment, it feels really interesting and also unsettling. When I’ve got to turn some stupid dials after twenty minutes of walking around, though, you’re going to lose me. I really want to like this game, but if it’s more like the first half of the preview than the second, count me out. All the atmosphere in the world won’t save that game. If they can keep up the spirit of things from the second half, this will be a great exploration game. I don’t need crappy puzzles to feel like I’m getting what I want out of a game. Keep the plot vague and the locations scary and you’ll have my money.
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