“The Pan-American Highway.”
A game like The Path refuses to be easily reviewed. It scoffs at all the conventions and benchmarks most games are measured by, and goes completely against the grain of everything you would expect from a game. It’s a game that intentionally breaks all of the rules, and has to be entirely considered on its own terms. This leads to a rather insecure review, because almost every one of the game’s fault seem less like unwise mistakes and more like intentional, reasoned design choices, that maybe all those criticisms you plan to level against the game are actually features the developers implemented to make an artistic statement. And it’s nearly impossible to give it any sort of numerical score because it is almost two different games: a frustrating, bland test of patience on the one hand, and a brilliant, beautiful and unnerving interactive experience on the other. You really can’t dislike it too much, because underneath all of those criticisms and irritations you know that The Path is doing something wildly different, and even if it doesn’t always work, it shows you a potential in games you never knew existed.
The Path, released earlier this year from Belgian auteurs Tale of Tales, is a “short horror game” based on early versions of Little Red Riding Hood. It’s worth mentioning that, like those early stories, this game is rated M, and really should be kept away from the little ones. The set-up is rather simple: when the game loads, we see an apartment of six girls. They vary in age (nine through nineteen) and personality (Goth, youthful, come-hither) and all have names keying off the color red (Ruby, Robin, Carmen). You select a girl, and then after two long loading screens, we see the chosen girl deposited in the middle of a forest, where the street dissolves into dirt trail. As we take control of her, we are told by big yellow letters to “Go to Grandmother’s House. And Stay On the Path!”
However, if you go straight to grandmother’s house, you’re treated to a results screen which tells you that you’ve failed, and are sent back to the apartment to try again. Really, the game wants you to leave the trail and enter the surrounding forest, to wander around, gathering items you find before ultimately encountering a “wolf,” a representation of… something or other. After encountering the wolf, the girl is deposited back on the path, with the environment much changed, and they hobble into grandmother’s house, where they are now treated to some of the most unnerving, frightening and heartbreaking nightmare trips you have ever played. This cannot be stressed enough: each girl’s wolf encounter and journey through grandmother’s house are some of the most remarkable pieces of game storytelling you’ve never played, and all of game’s other faults are worth suffering through just to experience some of them.
The problem with The Path is that it does have flaws and, artistic statements or not, they can make the game incredibly un-fun to play. Getting to the its high points is a long, dull, uphill slog through boring areas and regrettable design choices, and most people will probably decide it’s simply not worth the effort and power the game down just before they find what makes it really special and worthwhile.
You really don’t have to wait much time to encounter the game’s biggest flaw, as it waits for you the second you leave the path: the forest itself. While it looks atmospheric and interesting from the outside, when you actually enter it you quickly realize that it is all the exact same five-foot-square clump of trees and foliage tiled on to infinity; as soon as you hit one edge of the map you simply loop back around to the opposite side, Pac-Man style. On paper, this sounds like a clever way to provide a real sense of space to the game, and it would be a great mechanic, so long as the forest was easy to navigate and/or filled to the brink with striking, imaginative set-pieces. Neither of these conditions are met: the immense forest has only eight recognizable areas in a sea of a murk and doom-gloom, six of which are already used for wolf encounters. When set against the massive expanse of trees, all of the items stranded in the middle of nowhere (which really are worth picking up) are remarkably small and uninteresting, being both easy to miss and, on the whole, not particularly interesting when they are found.
The issue of missing items and, by association, getting lost in a patch of woods with nothing to do, is most easily linked to what may be the game’s second-biggest design mistake: its running mechanic. Each of the girls walk at about the rate snails dissolve, and thus you’ll probably want to hurry up and cover some ground after a few minutes of fruitless wandering. However, as soon as you start to run, the camera tilts up to almost high-noon above your character, at an angle commonly used for desperate chases and the like, and while it would be great if you were ever chased by anything, you never are. Instead, what is at first striking soon becomes frustrating: your visibility is so restricted it becomes impossible to see anything unless you run smack into it. As an added bonus, it often leaves you wandering in circles before the game’s only form of map (an un-landmarked trail that appears every 100 meters showing your progress) pulls up to show you how stupid you’ve been for the past fifteen minutes.
To its credit, the game does try to help you along with a variety of symbols that flicker onto your screen, but because it’s all so cryptic and obscure you’re never certain how much of it is there to be helpful and how much of it is just to look artsy. Allegedly, a more detailed map unlocks when you go through the game a second time, but it still won’t pull up for me no matter what I press. And really, once a player figures what all the scratches and symbols mean after hours of playtime (or after they check a FAQ), doesn’t that mean they’re already a fan, or at least someone dead-set on getting their money’s worth out of the game? Rather than sucking people in, it seems to set an almost confrontational tone that will drive most people away. Put simply, it’s an unnecessary hurdle to leap, and the game would have been remarkably better if the forest had only been shrunk or made easier to navigate.
A few other quibbles: the graphics fail to inspire during the majority of the game; after a while you start to realize that all the post-process frills and muddy gloom are just covering up jaggy models, and the game’s Killer 7-esque art direction could have been interesting, but it rarely to shows much imagination. It doesn’t take long before you get the uncomfortable feeling that all the developer’s time and creativity went into making the last few minutes of playtime as striking as possible, but when it came time to fill up the hour or two beforehand, the idea barrel was down to the dregs.
There are other issues that could deserve a mention (like the game’s occasionally-buggy programming, and its unshakable feeling of “aren’t we special” pretention that underlies some of its most frustrating design choices) but it all starts to miss the point. Everything comes down to is this: no matter how frustrating it can be to play, The Path is still worth every penny, just for the sheer uniqueness of it all. While it lacks polish, and it’s rarely anything like fun, it is something that fearlessly goes where most other games have never even considered treading; experimental games like this are so thin on the ground they’re worth supporting every time they pop up, just to see what the next one will be like. If you don’t like The Path, then you only spent ten dollars. And if you do like it, then it could well be one of your favorite games of the year.
Arbitrary Score: Seven out of Ten
Can be brilliantly atmospheric
Tells an unexpected story (if you can call it that) in a way you’ve never seen before.
Needs a bit more polish
Survival-horror is possibly the single-most depressing genre in the games industry. This is not a sad-yet-satisfying “So that’s why your wife’s dead, Mr. Sunderland,” sort of depressing; rather, it is depressing because no other genre has as much unrealized potential. No other games are so intrinsically human: in order for horror be effective, its characters cannot be super-powered slayers of all interstellar threats; rather, they must be at least moderately sympathetic, and vulnerable in situations of real danger. If done correctly, they can be just like the rest of us: frightened, helpless, and alone.
The depressing thing about the genre is the fact that almost all traditional survival-horror games, when they come to being actual games instead of just promising concepts, are pretty bad, falling somewhere between “unintuitive” to “like pulling teeth.” Those that stand out, from Resident Evil to Fatal Frame, are peppered with almost every flaw in the canon, from poor pacing to controls that render it impossible to walk a straight line. Not even the (arguably) best example of the genre, Silent Hill 2, is without its flaws: its combat is clunky and its dialogue delivered with all the inhuman stiffness of prom night at the morgue.
The genre now lies in an awkward state. New IPs have failed to reignite it for the next generation, while the franchises that originally defined the niche have all morphed into new forms: while they are mostly functional (with the exception of Alone in the Dark) they have turned either into slick action-fests (Resident Evil 5) or gory thrillers without a meaning or purpose (Silent Hill: Homecoming), and not a shred of middle ground in sight. There is one old stalwart that seems to have retained its predecessors’ roots; however, unless you speak Japanese, you’ll only be able to say that it seems to. Nintendo, ever on the look-out for ways to alienate and anger the members of its audience over the age of fifteen, decided earlier this year not to publish Fatal Frame 4: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse (Project Zero for all the PAL-ies out there) outside of Japan. They have deemed Ju-On: The Grudge a more worthy use our time instead, perhaps out of fear that an actual, solid game would cause the Wii to implode.
If Ju-On truly is Nintendo’s attempt at pleasing its hardcore audience, then it forces one to wonder if anyone in the company has played a video game in the past ten years. Simply put, Ju-On is an honest-to-goodness, no-questions-asked, attack-it-with-steel-wool-to-make-it-go-away awful game, three-and-a-half hours of interminable tedium broken only by outright irritation, a game that fails on all fronts at being anything worthwhile: it looks ugly, sounds ugly, reeks of lazy development and a cynical attempt to make a quick buck on an undernourished segment of the Wii market with a cheap, sloppy product, and holds all the worth and lasting value of a Hostess Twinky left out in the rain.
If, like this reviewer, you’ve never seen any of “The Grudge” films that apparently inspire this drudgery, then the best you’ll be able to gather about their world from the game itself is that there are two children, neither of whom get enough sun, both of whom have bad haircuts and speech impediments (she croaks, he meows). The girl has a lazy eye and an inferiority complex that renders her incapable of walking upright, and the boy is rather on the pudgy side. The parents of these children also seem rather inattentive, letting them play unsupervised in various poorly-lit, derelict buildings. Furthermore, there is some strange sort of hair/moss substance that latches onto doors and hangs from ceilings, occasionally lashing out at passers-by. And finally, these curious children have a rather anti-social reaction to strangers (perhaps through their inability to communicate properly), and of strangers there is no shortage of supply.
Each of these strangers (those are the player-characters, if you’re keeping score) are tasked with various arbitrary reasons to wander derelict buildings (which all seems suspiciously inspired by the Silent Hills: abandoned hospital, abandoned apartments, abandoned factory, only all of them rendered as by one of those studios from the N64 era that created a single game before vanishing into obscurity, the ones that made a science out of environments that are simultaneously both embarrassing and forgettable). These characters are all equipped with flashlights (apparently the accessory of choice in Japan for young girls and hospital-bound women) that steadily eat through batteries. These batteries are the only sort of health meter in the game: extra batteries are scattered at convenient points throughout derelictia, but can, in theory, lead to some tension when trying to reach them; if characters run out of batteries, they die.
It would be a stretch to say that characters “wander” or “explore” levels; it feels instead like the developers originally planned to put the game on rails, as evidenced by the fact that players navigate simply by pointing in a direction and holding A to shuffle forward, like escapees from a nursing home, all of which would feed into the game’s descriptor of being a “Haunted House Simulator.” However, they (the developers) then apparently decided that there was something wrong with on-rails horror games, and opted instead to chop the levels in half and redesign them to consist almost entirely of backtracking, spicing things up (in case we were getting too interested) by making everything look the same. Along the way, there are doors locked and keys to be found, and instead of those keys being any sort of puzzle, they are, quite simply, keys, usually of the grooved variety; as an inventory, the game helpfully shows you a key icon in the upper-left corner of your screen when you have one, in case the gameplay didn’t feel arbitrary enough.
But what of the aforementioned irritable children, you ask? Quite simple: they recently took a community college course in how to make Quick Time Events both integral to gameplay while simultaneously feeling thoroughly pointless, and are out in force to show the player everything they’ve learned. Periodically, typically at moments when one absolutely expects it to happen, one of the children (typically she with the lazy eye) will arrive on the scene and try to feel you up, at which point you will need to waggle the Wii-mote in the direction of the arrows on the screen. Should you somehow screw up one of these hoedowns (and honestly, you’d need a very good excuse to fail most of them), you get to start the entire level over again, because the developers were apparently too poor to hire someone to program a checkpoint system. Thankfully, this isn’t infuriating because the levels are so small; rather, it’s infuriating because it’s torture to watch the characters shuffle through the levels once, let alone for a second time. Still, the QTEs never really inspire fear of failure; because they are such cheap ways to redo such tedious gameplay, failing them instead inspires something closer to white-hot rage.
They also inspire a remarkable feeling of pointlessness, because as soon as one realizes that the only way to die is to fail a very obvious QTE or run out of battery power, then suddenly all of the miscellany dropping from the ceiling and popping up on the edges of our screen lose any sense of danger or tension, and we are allowed to return to our previous comatose state; within minutes, the game has so little atmosphere it might as well be in space. Then, however, the Quick Time Events inspire more rage, because in order for the game to remain faithful to its source material, it is apparently required for each and every one of its characters to die at the hands of the ghost children they’ve been successfully fending off their entire trip, even though they’ve been doing an excellent job remaining unscathed so far. In theory, there is nothing wrong with an unhappy endings; these are perfectly fine in video games and, frankly, need to be explored more. However, this is not the way to create an effective tragic finale. In any medium and any type of story, endings must be the understandable arrival of the events that have gone before them, even if they make sense only on an emotional level, or follow the seemingly-random logic of the real world. In Ju-On the game, we are never given any indication that our character is going to come out of their situation in any but a pleasant way: they are able to find batteries without much fuss, swat away the ghost children like flies or grumpy old women, and navigate large, derelict environments safely. However, each and every one of them is ultimately killed even after accomplishing everything so wonderfully. In the first character’s case, death sort of makes sense, and is even staged well; her encountering some horrific evil is necessary for setting off what the game pretends to be a plot, and her motives feel pure and understandable. However, each and every person after her is ultimately killed by Miss Lazy Eye, all immediately after successfully completing a Quick Time Event avoiding her, and in two cases after intentionally putting themselves in danger already (“Why yes, I think I will peak over the edge of this very high roof; surely that would be completely safe–all the demon children haunting me would never bother me up here.”) It really is a stunningly stupid design choice, and a stunningly irritating one to endure. It is as if the last forty minutes we just had bled out of us meant nothing whatsoever, and the game’s gotten bored and wants to move on.
The thing of it is, this ending thing is actually a really easy issue to fix. All the game would need to do is establish some sort, any sort, of sympathy between us and its main characters through some method of exposition or plot development; instead, all of the information you’ll ever be able to glean is derived entirely from thirty-second intro clips at the start of each chapter, an optional three-sentence description of your character you can pull up by pressing the Minus button (the game is even too cheap to give them proper character art, showing instead a lazy black silhouette), and reading the back of the box. After establishing our characters, the game should then make it apparent to us that we’re having a hard time progressing: after ghost encounters, spatter blood on the screen, knock a battery loose from our flashlight, make the characters start panting, put a heartbeat vibration in the remote, make the protagonists walk with a limp, blur the screen, do something, anything to help keep us from feeling like we’re trapped in an utterly uninspired, uninteresting, unentertaining, insulting attempt at using a movie license to exploit an unsatisfied gamer demographic, a demographic which probably already has another console to get their horror games on, and if they don’t then they should use the thirty dollars they saved by not buying Ju-On to start getting one.
In the end, the biggest thing I liked about Ju-On was the fact that I received it for free and it only consumed three-and-a-half hours of my life. But consider this: it took me ten hours to beat Silent Hill 2 my first time through, and in that game I was almost constantly in a state of oppressive dread; in The Grudge I can count four moments, totaling about two minutes in all, that I felt anything other that irritation or glassy-eyed boredom, and I actively try to be scared by scary things; that’s a ratio of 1 minute of entertainment to 104 of “I wish I was playing something else”. By this we can mathematically prove that Ju-On is and was a waste of time, not just for any players that might inadvertently wind up playing it, but also for the developers who probably had to spend months upon soul-sucking months making it just to keep the wolf at the door. They are the true victims here, not the ignorant flash-light bearing morons who seem to relish putting themselves in contrived, silly danger.
In the end, it’s a game of such dubious quality I find it difficult to recommend even to fans of the films. Instead I recommend it swiftly being hidden beneath better garbage in a bargain bin, or, better yet, a normal, everyday, trash bin.
Arbitrary Score: Two out of Ten
At least tries to stay respectful to its source material and do something different.
Contains four moments more entertaining than watching paint dry.
Some of its graphics look good in screenshots seen from ten feet away.
Fails at pretty much all it sets out to do.
Will appeal to few beyond the most hardcore of Grudge film fans, and possibly not even them.
Cheap, sloppy, and thoroughly uninspired