Review by Matt S.
There’s a good idea buried deep within Fade to Silence. Blending the survival genre with a frigid, hostile, perpetual winter setting, and the eldritch nightmares of Lovecraft, could have turned into something quite special. Unfortunately, the game’s a failure on just about every level.
Firstly, the sell. Horror is a genre of atmosphere and theatrics. Those performances don’t necessarily need to be great to sell the genre (think of the best B-grade horror out there, from Resident Evil and Project Zero, through to Halloween, Saw and on to Night of the Living Dead), but there does need to be a coming together of the atmosphere, setting, themes and performances for horror to have the consistency that it needs to work to conjure the believable thrills. Unfortunately, nothing about Fade to Silence’s performances, characterisation, or setting make sense, there’s no consistency across them, and that inability to inspire the audience to suspend disbelief is evident right from the outset. Your character is dead, and in a crypt. Some demon-thing possesses him and brings him back to life. He then battles through a couple of crypt monsters, and upon exiting is immediately greeted with the sight of his daughter running up to him.
Why was she there? How did she avoid the monsters? How did she survive? Why does the dude even have a daughter? None of this is explained or has any point to the narrative. It seems to be a laboured and arbitrary attempt to build an emotional resonance – i.e. “he’s got a daughter! We should care about this man, our guff-but-heart-of-gold hero!”. It’s performed every bit as cheaply as it seems, too. The demon possession does have a proper narrative explanation, but it to is laboured and more there for the mechanical gameplay elements than anything else. Through it the developers are able to provide players with a running commentary (“the voices in my head!”) and help them out along the way. It’s never a good sign when the narrative is so artificial it only exists to provide an excuse for gameplay mechanics. A narrative should be there to tell a story.
As the journey goes on, our daddy-man will meet a number of other survivors of the frozen hellscape, and bring them back to “base” in order to get a fledgling community going. Sadly, because this game is so catastrophically bad at telling stories, each and every one of these survivors is nothing but a moving resource, to direct around to take on tasks that are beneath the attention of daddy-man. They’re there to do things like hunting for meat, or doing chores around camp. In fact, that’s all they do. Consequently, camp life is about as enjoyable as the social environment within the typical big corporation; no one knows anything about anyone else, and nor do they care. I’m just surprised that one of the tasks wasn’t to set up a HR office, or install an area for mandatory Friday afternoon beers.
If there’s anything I cared about less than daddy-man’s co-workers, it’s the monsters he fights. Given that they are based on the Lovecraftian approach to horrors from the cosmos, I’m genuinely impressed that the developers managed to make them look this uninteresting. The same tokenistic approach to storytelling with regards to the monsters contributes to the lack of interest I have in them, but beyond that, the very designs of them are also so perfectly generic. Fighting them isn’t a particularly inspired experience either, since the developers were clearly such fans of Dark Souls that they decided to simply ape that combat system wholesale. Unfortunately, I’m not sure they knew exactly why they loved that combat system, because Dark Souls was never about struggling to fight basic enemies with clumsy and unresponsive controls, nor was it big on cheap enemy attack routines that rarely give you the information you need to counter them.
The one real saving grace for this game is the environment itself. There’s a fundamental fear of winter that is shared across most of human society. For example, the spectre of winter hanging over events of Game of Thrones was one of its key themes, for good reason. Winter marks a more difficult period for survival; things stop growing, and populations of game animals drop away – either they migrate, or simply the weak die off in the harsh conditions so there are fewer of them left. Snowfall has its own threats, and days are shorter, making for a more miserable period of the year, even if you are living comfortably. It surprises me that there aren’t more horror games that make winter the central environmental motif; there’s the occasional horror game set in a cold place (Kholat or Cursed Mountain, for example), but I can’t think of any other horror games set in a perpetual winter offhand.
Fade to Silence does do a good job of making the cold the most frightening enemy. Resources to keep yourself warm and safe are just rare enough that you’ll constantly be counting down those torches, and desperately racing to one of the shelters when a snowstorm starts to sit in. You will take long detours at times to scavenge out more of these precious resources, and yet, assuming that you manage to come to grips with the clumsy combat, you can still expect that the cold will kill you more often than any physical threat.
Unfortunately, scavenging isn’t the most exciting gameplay loop, especially when survival games insist on being so big. This isn’t so much a criticism of Fade to Silence as it is the entire genre, but Fade to Silence doesn’t do much to fix the problem either. The maps for these games are always so ridiculously large and sprawling that there’s simply no way to fit enough interesting stuff into them to make the size worthwhile. In other words, these environments always involve what feels like endless runs of having not much to do other than collect resources, and while Fade to Silence is a pretty enough game, and thematically it makes sense for a wasteland to have vast reaches of almost nothing, it still makes for frequent periods of utter dullness.
I’d like to think that somewhere out there is a survival game that I’ll genuinely enjoy. The genre has a core popularity for a reason, and I keep playing these in the hopes that I’ll understand that popularity one day. Fade to Silence says all the right things on the box – it’s a horror game, set in a wintery wasteland, with horrors inspired by Lovecraft’s demented vision of the cosmos. Check, check and check. I should have loved this. Something about the survival genre has taken all those brilliant ingredients and spat out a failure of a meal, however, and that’s an depressing reflection on the entire genre.
– Matt S.
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