The Horror at MS Aurora made a lot of promises. It talked about being short, tense, and immersive, but I felt like 12 O’clock Studios managed none of those for various reasons. I’m not saying that the game is a failure, but more that it trips up quite often. I can see that the developers had good and interesting ideas for the game, but that the inexperience of a brand new group of developers has made this game less than what it could have been. There is a solid horror game lurking under the game’s myriad issues, but you won’t see that game until 12 O’clock Studios releases something else.
I almost felt like I couldn’t argue against claiming the game was short, as it is. You can play through it in its entirety in a little over an hour, although that will likely be longer due to some sequences near the end. That’s textbook short, right? Well, the pacing within the game makes it feel much, much longer in the beginning, as a whole lot of time is spent introducing you to characters and the ship, the MS Aurora. About half the game’s total play time is spent on exposition – dialogue about the ship and procedures around navigation, and some conversations with the handful of other people on the ship. It was a slow build; one that lead me to believe that the game was going to be much longer when it got going. Over a half hour of conversing, story background, and ship-based jargon should not be in a game that’s just over an hour long. I have a hard time accepting that much talk right at the beginning of games that are twenty hours long.
I get the impression that all of this stuff at the start was meant to make me feel a sense of attachment with the group of guys you’re on the ship with. The dialogue made them feel like a friendly bunch, but it got to the point where everyone seemed a little too friendly. The captain felt like someone right out of a kid’s cartoon, speaking in ridiculously parental tones no matter how big of a jerk you were to him. One older character seemed to have a gruff side to him that almost made him believable, but he’d shift back to super pal mode as soon as he was done his angry sentence. Everyone was just so happy and cheerful that I had trouble buying into them as characters. I know this bright section was meant to set up the dark turn for later, but all it did was make me wish that dark turn would come so I wouldn’t have to listen to the yammering idiots any more.
The game uses this time to teach you its mechanics, though, by having you do things like check on boxes and carry coffee around. Now, I know this game is simulating life on a transport ship before all the scary starts, but having me check on the integrity of the lines around shipping containers is not the most riveting way to learn a system, especially when I’m already bored. It does the job well enough, showing you that you’ll need to be familiar with where Z, X, C, and R are at on your keyboard. They’re the only buttons you’ll need to get through the game beyond movement, and you have to hit one of them or wiggle the mouse in a direction in order to interact with most things. It conveniently shows the button on-screen when you need to do it, so it’s pretty easy to know what the game wants of you.
While checking boxes, I thought I hit a glitch when pressing a button didn’t do anything, just making the button prompt appear over and over again. I hit it faster just in case that’s what the game wanted, but the letter flashes when the game wants you to do that. Instead, I had to hold the button down, something that’s indicated by a double circle under the letter on-screen. Considering they explain a game mechanic later where you have to keep a circle in the middle of a line using your mouse, it would have been nice to have the game tell me it wanted me to hold the button down with this symbol, since it doesn’t look all that different at a passing glance. Pushing the button shows the letter with a little circle under it. Holding it has two circles under it, and when you’re concentrating more on looking at what letter you’re supposed to push, you’re going to miss that. It doesn’t come up often when you’re in danger and need to do things quickly, but it was still a nuisance periodically.
Now, I don’t know about anyone else, but having to hit those four buttons was incredibly inconvenient during dangerous sequences. Having four buttons that are out of the way did make me feel more clumsy, helping me get more of a sense of how it would feel for the main character blundering around in the dark while being dogged by a deadly threat, but it also kept me focusing on the mechanics instead of being immersed in the game. I found those buttons really hard to hit without taking my eyes off the game completely and looking down. My fingers know where they are reflexively while typing, but when my mind is elsewhere, they didn’t feel intuitive. Even knowing the order of where they laid on my keyboard didn’t help, as I found that my fingers would drop down to \, Z, and X instead of the proper buttons almost every time.
The result was that when the game was finally going to be scary, I was too busy staring at my keyboard to notice. I was ready to run away from menacing beasts, but would end up spending the entire time poring over my keyboard looking for the right key. It got to the point where I was more afraid of the button prompts than of the monster, and couldn’t settle in enough to actually let the game frighten me. I couldn’t afford to take my mind off the mechanics or I would lose, and ended up with a disappointing experience because of it. If the Q or E buttons had been used instead it probably would have been a lot easier to play, even if it didn’t communicate the character’s clumsiness and strain as well as the system they used.
If you’re thinking of memorizing the button sequences to fix that problem, it won’t work. The buttons are scripted during the training area, but when you’re in the scary parts the game randomizes what will show up, making you feel pretty dumb when you’re hovering over the button you pressed last time. That seemed like a good idea that made the game more of a challenge, but there is one final run through the entire ship that is extremely frustrating as a result. If you don’t move fast enough (basically running perfectly without ever even touching an object on the run), you get grabbed and yanked back toward where you started, and if you get pulled far enough you die. Considering how hard it is to figure out the button you need to hit, you have a very short window to see which button you want, locate it on the keyboard, and then press it. With some memorization this might have gotten easier, but due to the random buttons, you’re stuck hoping you can do it all in time.
What’s worse is the timing of the appearance of those buttons seems random, too. I had several runs where I got pulled back and had two or three opportunities to hit the button to save myself, but other times I got pulled from 95% of the way to the end all the way back to the start without being given a single chance to catch myself. I slammed buttons and jiggled the mouse to see if any of it would help me, but sometimes you just die during that sequence and there’s literally nothing you can do about it. At times the game won’t even give you any chance of getting away no matter how close you were to the end, too.
While doing that run, it’s also randomized when you’ll get grabbed, so there were points where I was getting snagged over and over again in the same spot. You only have one route you can take through the ship so you have to go that way, so all you can do is keep running and hope the game eventually gets sick of snagging you long enough that you can get where you need to go. It pads out what was arguably the scariest part of the game, but constantly repeating it, especially with the periodic unavoidable failures, drained all of my fear away and replaced it with anger at the game. Did I mention that the game loads pretty slowly after a death, too?
It’s also just about pitch dark during the horror sequence. You start with a flashlight to get around, which worked well enough, but then you lose it, having to navigate using the colored strips on the ship’s floor. I thought that was a neat touch, and I still managed to get lost since they just show a general route to the ship’s bridge. Once you leave the ship’s interior, though, you have nothing to guide you in the darkness and you just wandering around waiting for a button prompt to show up indicating you’re going the right way. I have no idea what happened during most of the game’s final ten minutes since it was pretty much just a black screen with a hint of my outline.
The scary part of the game really could have worked with some better mechanics, especially with some of the more subtle work the developers put into the monster. The creature is never shown in its entirety, with the game only showing a tentacle periodically when you’re grabbed or if you narrowly avoid it. I’m not usually a fan of horror games or stories that show me the monster, as I find it grounds it in reality to an extent. Not even knowing what it is I’m supposed to be afraid of can make a creature even more frightening, and this game totally pulls that off. I didn’t know what to think of the creature, and if I hadn’t been so wrapped up in the mechanics I would have been impressed with the restraint in showing it.
It wouldn’t have been anything without that wet, shrieking cry you hear every time the monster catches sight of you. The sound design in the game is pretty top-notch, although there isn’t much of it. That monster cry is fantastic, somewhere between gross and horrifying, and totally gets my imagination going about it. The music is a nice companion to the game as well, having been played by an orchestra during many of the game’s calmer moments. It makes everything seem that much grander than the visuals could convey, and it just sounds really good. When the monster is chasing you, there is a lot more discordant sound to go with the creature’s howls, and did a lot of work to make those sequences tense.
That tension would dissipate the second I had to go fishing around for a button, though. Always concentrating on mechanics meant that I could never just settle in and let the game scare me, something it took its sweet time getting around to anyway. The monster and the sound design that accompanied it show promising signs for what the developers will be able to do with more experience, but the game around the good stuff is far too pokey and clunky for me to really enjoy.