The survival horror genre didn’t really take off until 3D game design was fairly commonplace, but what if games filled with atmospheric tension and intense scares blew up a few years earlier when pixel art was the style of choice? Claire from Hailstorm Games takes this idea and goes absolutely wild with it, diving into some incredibly dark and depressing territory.
Sometimes life can be a confusing and overwhelming experience filled with tragedy. For Claire, tragedy has become something she’s all too familiar with. Her father abandoned the family when she was just a little girl, leaving Claire to care for her comatose mother and younger brother. The pressure of constant medical support and long-term hospital visits makes day to day life difficult for Claire. The stress leads to frequent nightmares, but soon these terrifying visions and frightening creatures begin manifesting themselves right before Claire’s eyes. With nowhere to run and nowhere to hide she is forced to face these nightmares and uncover the unsettling truth about her past.
In what appears to be an obvious tribute to classic Silent Hill titles, Claire embraces the terrors of our protagonist’s psyche and uses powerful visuals and haunting atmospheres to drive the morbid narrative. Visions from Claire’s past are twisted into powerful experiences filled with shocking revelations that slowly begin to unravel the false reality Claire is living in. The deeper and deeper I dove into the darkness of Claire’s past the more I began to realize just how unfortunate her life was. In the classic survival horror fashion we are treated to a compelling grand finale with a mind-blowing twist. There are several endings based on how you play the game, but the general outcome is the same and it will leave you completely disgusted and thoroughly horrified.
Without ruining the story or the experiences associated with this journey, I would like to say I found the extent of Claire’s suffering to be a little unbelievable and this made relating to the character somewhat difficult later on in the game. There is no denying the raw shock value of the final twist, but with so much misery preceding it, I was a little desensitized to the climax.
The tale of Claire is excellently depicted courtesy of some beautifully crafted pixel art. Initially I felt that delivering the level of tension and stress required for a decent survival horror game would be difficult to achieve with simple pixels, but I quickly found myself proven completely wrong. The environments throughout were easily as engaging as anything I’ve experienced in a modern 3D horror title and the twisted art style delivered a unique sense of mystery. Pixel art allows the player to fill in some of the blanks that next-gen high definition graphics typically take care of. The shadow creatures stalking me in the darkness had an obvious form and imposed an immediate threat, but it was my imagination that truly terrified me. After all, nothing is more terrifying than what we make it out to be in our minds.
The core gameplay is a simple yet effective combination of a sidescrolling platformer and a classic adventure game. As the player, you guide Claire through a series of nightmarish locations that once played a major role in her life. Navigating the character is very straight forward. Because Claire is a sidescroller, you can either move left or right and the adventure game characteristic allows you to enter the various doors in each passageway.
Your trusty map, which is another homage to the once great Silent Hill franchise, is going to be your most powerful tool for survival as navigating a 3D map in a 2D platformer is downright terrifying. I found myself pulling up the map every single time I entered a room because I never felt sure of where I was. Sometimes it seemed like the door locations didn’t properly correlate with the map. This tedious map management made it very difficult to fully immerse myself in the story and environments surrounding me. Eventually you’ll begin to memorize the layout of each location only to quickly be whisked away somewhere completely different to start the process all over again.
Most of the game involves finding various keys and solving the puzzles required to progress through the story, but during your travels you’ll encounter some horrific monsters hellbent on dragging you into the shadows from whence they came. To “combat” these pursuers, Claire is equipped with the ability to briefly sprint and jump over enemies. Sprinting should always be used sparingly as you never quite know when danger might make an appearance. After a short burst of speed, Claire will become unable to run until she catches her breath. If you dash into a room only to discover a shadow beast waiting to tear you to shreds, you will not be out-walk it and without running you’ll quickly meet your untimely end.
In addition to a more traditional “health” mechanic, Claire introduces a rather clever “panic” meter that measures your character’s mental state at all times. A wide variety of things affect Claire’s panic levels. Navigating the darkness, encountering monsters, and enduring nightmares are all things which will drastically reduce the panic meter, but utilizing your flashlight, drinking green tea, and finding “safe zones” will slowly begin to put Claire at ease. If you remain panicked for too long you will eventually “die,” so managing Claire’s panic remains just as important as managing her health.
While Claire may deliver some truly haunting pixel art and gripping sequences of nightmarish visions, possibly the most unsettling component of this horror game comes from the dismal soundtrack and powerful sound design. Dark detuned tones and distant piano resonates throughout the empty halls of the locations you explore and explosive bursts of static put me in a constant state of stress. This audio assault truly tied the whole experience together.
Big budget survival horror titles seem to be a thing of the past. The genre as a whole became incredibly stale after unfortunate duplication and lack of innovation. Thankfully the indie scene is keeping horror alive and titles like Claire are a fantastic example of why we shouldn’t abandon hope. If you’ve ever enjoyed Silent Hill or frankly any classic survival horror games, Claire should definitely be on your “must-play” list. The story may be a bit over the top and navigating the map can be a nightmare, but the powerful artwork, phenomenal soundtrack, and classic gameplay more than made up for the few complaints I had.
Recommended for fans of: Silent Hill, Clockwork, Survival Horror, and Pixel Art.