A.N.W.I.C.L.A.R.K.

Author, Narrator, Writer, Inventor, Creator, Liar, Artist, Reader, Killer (of characters)

Greetings, readers. It’s friday the 13th, and as such, I am contractually obliged to write about a scary game I enjoyed last October, played again tonight, and will surely return to in the not-so-distant future. To all of you horror aficionados (warning: if you’re not one, GET OUT NOW WHILE YOU STILL CAN), please meet the scariest game I’ve ever played: Visage.

Visage – well, the first version of it, more on that in a moment – originally came out in 2018. Sadly, I didn’t give it its due attention back then, having been neck-deep in the process of editing and releasing Father Figure. The game is currently in early access, and comprises only two chapters. I say “only” with a rather sizeable grain of salt, however, because each of these chapters feel complete enough on their own that they could probably pass as small, standalone horror games.

Visage has you walk through a huge, often creepy and definitely haunted house from the 80’s, whose layout sometimes changes seemingly on the whims of some diabolical entity to screw you over and terrify you. The game presents itself as a sort of spiritual sequel to the aborted Silent Hills P.T., for which, if you’ve read my entirely-too-long previous post on the topic, I hold no small amount of obsession affection. Its closest analogue (that I played) is probably Layers of Fear, another P.T.-inspired creepfest featuring malevolent architecture and angry ghosts.

I was pretty excited for this one because, if the trailers were to be believed, it looked like exactly the kind of project Silent Hills P.T. could have become, had it been allowed to come to fruition (thanks, Konami). Did it deliver? Get comfy, open some snacks (or a few beer cans), and let’s check it out!




Pros

Graphics: At least on the PC with graphic settings on High, Visage looks amazing. The game definitely keeps in line with P.T.’s hyper-realistic visual style, and everything here looks great. Lighting – or rather, a lack thereof – plays a huge part in setting the atmosphere, and there are lots of shadowy corners to explore, with a myriad of tiny details that bring the house to life… as well as the scares.

Music and sounds: From the melancholy main menu theme to the random little noises of an old, creaky house (or is it?) I found the sound design to be phenomenal. In particular, there is a kind of shrill, oppressive droning noise that gets gradually louder as you lose sanity (and becomes interspersed with gruesome, ghostly sounds when you’re close to death).This is uncannily similar to a sound I’d hear in my nightmares as a kid. That’s right, Visage literally sounds like my childhood nightmares. Even if I was playing this with my eyes closed the whole time, the sound alone would scare me; it’s just that good at building and maintaining tension. Well played, game.

The setting: Expanding on P.T.’s hallway concept, Visage is set in a huge house with plenty of nooks and crannies to explore. I particularly appreciate that, even though certain parts of it change from chapter to chapter, the main house itself always remains as a “hub” of sorts; as much fun as it is to go get lost in labyrinthine, eldritch locations (Layers of Fear, I’m looking at you), I enjoy being able to just come back to the creepy 80’s house and mess around. If the place wasn’t haunted, I’d want to live there. Heck, I might want to live there anyway, so long as that goddamn “imaginary friend” stays the hell in its wardrobe.




THE “ESCAPE” KEY WILL NOT SAVE YOU: While pressing the escape key brings up the save/load/back to menu options like in most single player games, it does not pause the game. There is a separate option for that which you must manually select, and from there it takes three seconds for the game to actually go on pause. Normally I would list a clunky, roundabout mechanic like this as a con, but not in in this particular game. Here, I find the delayed pause really adds an element of terror, especially when your character is dangerously low on sanity, you desperately need to use the bathroom, and don’t want to crap your pants on account of an apparition. PROTIP: play with brown pants on, just in case.

Cons

Inventory mechanics: It might just be me, but I found retrieving and using items from the inventory to be a bit clunky and unintuitive. It’s not a deal breaker, and might even be an intentional way to simulate the “panicking dude fumbling through his pockets” effect. The inventory itself is limited to a measly five slots, although this is a time-honoured survival horror tradition, and I didn’t find this to be a detriment at all.

Scares: Don’t get me wrong; I mentioned earlier that this is the scariest game I ever played, and I stand by that. This said, though, I found Visage to be a teensy bit too reliant on jump scares. This happens every single time you die, for instance, and you will die quite a lot in this game (more on that below). This came to a head in the second chapter, where the game has you do loads of exploration and item collecting. If you’re like me and have no idea what you’re doing, you end up having to backtrack a lot too. Which, between quickly depleting sanity and random apparitions, means dying often. This is scary the first few times, but the “ghost jumping in your face and proceeding to rip said face off” thing quickly becomes more annoying than terrifying, especially since Chapter 2’s “monster” isn’t all that scary to begin with. Which brings me to…

Difficulty: One of the loading screens mentions that “Visage is hard”, and, yeah, it kind of is. The game can be extremely cryptic as to where you need to go and what you need to do to progress. This in itself wouldn’t be a problem, since exploring the house is kind of the point. But you can’t explore too much, since the near-constantly decreasing sanity of your character (and a dearth of sanity-saving light sources and pill bottles) means you’re effectively on a near-constant timer. And so, this unfortunately means either:

Option 1: Trial and error exploration whilst dying a lot. This is insanely stressful and, dare I say, fun, until it just becomes annoying, because you’ve already seen the creepy, baby-faced wraith slowly disembowel you half a dozen times. Come on, dude, just get it over so I can reload my last save and keep playing, geez.




Option 2: Essentially the same, but reloading the game before the apparitions show up to kill you. This is what I personally did after a while, but it ends up taking a lot of the tension away and is completely immersion-breaking.

Option 3: Fuck it, just watch a walkthrough on Youtube. This is not one I’d recommend, unless you really don’t mind spoilers (and/or are a scaredy cat and want forewarning for the jump scares – I ain’t judging).

Ultimately, none of those options are great as they all break immersion to some extent. I kind of wish there could be a kind of “noob mode” where the game takes pity on you after a couple deaths, and subtly slows the rate of sanity loss, or de-spawns enemies like in Amnesia: the Dark Descent. I always find horror games to be at their best when they make you think you only just barely managed to escape with your life, when all the while you were not even close to seeing the game over screen.

Replay Value: Since Visage is currently in early access, there’s no real “ending” to speak of (although the chapters have their own, self-contained endings of sorts), and so to my knowledge there are no branching paths/unlockable items left to be discovered after clearing the game once. At this point, the only benefit to playing again is to be able to breeze through since you know where all the key items are, and explore the house once more.

You are a ghost: Your character has no physical presence to speak of: items you use will simply hover in front of you. Yes, the “you have no body” concept was also done in Amnesia: the Dark Descent and its Penumbra predecessors among others, but those at least had the courtesy to give you a first-person view arm. Particularly jarring here is the fact that mirrors are functional, so it’s always weird to pass by one whilst holding a lighter and just see a hovering, will-o’-the-wisp-style light source. I’m not sure whether an actual character model will be added in the full game, or whether you truly are supposed to be a ghost. Hmmmm.




So, it sucks?

Uh, no. No, it doesn’t. Please don’t kill me, creepy doll sitting over there in the dark.

The lengthy cons list is mostly nitpicks I have as a gamer (that may or may not bother other players), and stuff that’ll likely be addressed in the full release. This is a great-looking, well-made game, and I have faith that the following chapters will keep up this level of quality, if not surpass it.

Simply put, Visage is hands-down one of the best horror games I’ve played in the last couple years, and by far the scariest. It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty damn competent, and, true to its promises, offers a compelling vision of what a fully-realized Silent Hills P.T. could have been like. And this is a game that wears its influences on its sleeve: in addition to many subtle references to elements of the franchise, there’s an actual Silent Hill easter egg to be found at the end!

A first playthrough will likely last you around 2 to 5 hours, depending on how astute/lucky you get at locating key items and solving puzzles. This is quite a bit short for the asking price (currently $25 Canadian on GOG.com), but the level of care put into the game as it exists so far, and the promise of more, is more than worthwhile in my book. If you can afford it, and if you’re not afraid to walk into the dark and come face-to-face with fear’s, erm, visage, I can’t recommend this game enough.




This scary basement can be explored on PS4, Xbox One, and Windows via Steam or GOG.

WARNING: This post contains light spoilers!

Greetings, readers. Tonight is Devil’s Night and, in order to keep to that most diabolical of spirits, I offer you a post on, to paraphrase the friend who recommended it, “a really fucked up movie”: Mandy.

Nicolas Cage plays the protagonist, Red Miller, who, from his opening scene in the woods, and general affinity for chainsaws and axes, I assume is a lumberjack by trade. It’s not really made clear and it doesn’t really matter, because, look, it’s freakin’ Nic Cage. I’ve never not loved Nicolas Cage in a movie, and he’s pretty much at his Cagiest here, displaying his usual unhinged gusto as soon as the action starts.




So our protagonist lives an idyllic life with his wife Mandy (played by a chain-smoking, Black Sabbath shirt-wearing Andrea Wiseborough), until a Really Bad Thing ™ happens. Red gloriously loses his shit as only a Nicolas Cage character can, and proceeds to indulge in a surreal roaring rampage of revenge that features a chainsaw duel.




Chainsaw. Duel.

Seriously, I should not need to write any more than these two words for you to decide whether this is your kind of movie or not. And, if not, we probably can’t be friends.

This said, Mandy is most definitely not a film for everyone. Its first act is a ponderous affair with loads of psychedelic imagery, and the initial slow pace alone might discourage some viewers. It’s surprisingly tame, too; For instance, a “sex scene” (really just two people lying in bed, fully dressed) contains such subtle, clever innuendo (Galactus “eating” planets, if you know what I mean, ha ha!), that, early on, you’d be forgiven for thinking this is some sort of very trippy romantic drama.

You’d be very, very wrong.




As soon as the proverbial fecal matter hits the fan, Mandy becomes a hellish, if colourfully gruesome, ride. Have I mentioned the psychedelic imagery? This keeps up throughout the film, even as Red viciously dispatches members of an evil cult of “Jesus Freaks” led by one Jeremiah (Linus Roache, who’s chillingly convincing here as a petty, egotistical, Charles Manson-like figure). The cult itself seems to be a mix of Manson Family-style hippies, archetypal rednecks, and rejected Cenobite designs from Hellraiser. If I have ever seen a movie custom-made to be watched high, it’s this one.

Don’t ask me how I know that.




The film is divided in chapters, adding to the surreal, quasi-storybook style. For instance, the first chapter is called “The Shadow Mountains”, which, even though it’s named after a real location, wouldn’t be out of place as the title of some obscure 80’s fantasy adventure movie.

Indeed, with its neon colors, droning synth soundtrack, and characters who have clearly snorted mountains of cocaine (some on screen!), Mandy fully embraces the 80’s aesthetic; as a visual and auditory experience, it is certainly one of the most “synthwave” movies I’ve ever seen. Heck, it’s even got some animated segments reminiscent of Heavy Metal.

It’s also replete with cult movie references, from the aforementioned Hellraiser, to Friday the 13th, to Highlander (the Chainsaw duel is apparently intended as a reference to Phantasm II, but I definitely got a Highlander vibe from it, right after I was done thinking about Resident Evil 7). The movie itself looks and feels as the love child of The Crow (replace the “coming back from the dead” angle with “Nic Cage losing his shit”) and Hobo with a Shotgun, with a splash of Evil Dead on the side. Heck, I could see Mandy being set in Hobo with a Shotgun‘s universe, if only because of the very similar visual styles.

Underpants Hobo With a Bottle of Vodka, anyone? No?




In conclusion, if you are a fan of trippy horror movies or the 80’s in general, you should watch Mandy. If you are currently high, you should drop whatever you’re doing and go watch Mandy, right the hell now. And if you are sober and don’t enjoy any of the above, why are you even reading this? Shoo, stop reading this crap, and go do something productive with your life, like punching Nazis or voting some orange weirdo out of office.


DISCLAIMER: This post contains spoilers. The fact that this is a movie about a killer tire should tell you all you need to know to decide whether to keep reading, or go watch the movie first (or save your sanity, and go do literally anything else).

There’s only one thing I might enjoy more than a good story: a horrifically bad one. Maybe it’s because a bad story lets me turn my brain off (as if that wasn’t my default state, ha!) and have a laugh. Or maybe it’s just that, as a writer, it’s encouraging to witness other creators’ utter failures. You can’t help but tell yourself “hey, if this book/movie/presidential debate actually happened despite being so bad, maybe I’ve got a shot, too.”

This means, of course, that I have a soft spot for B-movies, especially horror ones. So when, a few months ago, a colleague suggested I watch Rubber, a film about a killer tire, my interest was piqued. This was totally the kind of movie I’d want to see based on the premise alone, so I made a mental note of it, and finally got around to watching the film during Thanksgiving weekend.

I was kind of psyched for this one: if this film was only half as crazy as its premise, I thought, it could be one of the funniest things I’d see this year. And even if it wasn’t, it still probably would be one of the funniest things I’d see this year. How could I go wrong?



Well, Rubber is – or was, at least, until a couple days ago – the most frustrating film I’d ever seen.

It was frustrating because I didn’t know what the hell to make of it. Part of it was that there are really two movies in Rubber, which is impressive for a film clocking in at a lean 82 minutes.

First is a weird B-movie about a killer tire, which is what Rubber advertises itself as, and what I presume most viewers, myself included, are signing up to watch.

And then, there is an even more bizarre side plot involving an audience, camped out in the desert where the movie is set. In fact, the film pretty much begins with said audience, right after a fourth wall-breaking speech from Lieutenant Chad (Stephen Spinella, whom I knew from, erm, Desperate Housewives. It was a good show, OK? Stop fucking judging.)

Indeed, the first few minutes of Rubber are devoted to a speech explaining that the film is a homage to the concept of “No Reason”. For me, this wasn’t a great first impression: it felt much too on-the-nose, like the movie trying to justify its raison d’être (or lack thereof), and I couldn’t help but feel that this sequence could have been cut entirely, and the film wouldn’t have suffered at all for it. Don’t tell me stuff will happen for no reason; just show me crazy shit that happens for no reason. I’ll get it. Probably.

Then comes the introduction to our killer tire protagonist (antagonist? Not clear.) Now, nothing really happens here except the gratuitous murder of a scorpion 12 minutes in, but I was fascinated by the convincing “tire rolling on its own” visuals. A quick search on IMDB.com indicates that these were practical effects achieved with remote controls and such, and I say kudos to the team in charge of said effects.

I particularly enjoyed the following scene, when the tire tries unsuccessfully to crush a beer bottle before exploding it with psychic powers. I found this to be an effective demonstration/exposition of the tire’s powers; it didn’t insult the viewer’s intelligence by having, for instance, a character say something along the lines of: “Look! This tire has psychic powers!”




DAMMIT, MOVIE.

That’s right, this next bit with the audience extolls on the tire’s telepathic prowess, and showcases an awkward anti-piracy message (not that I would ever do that!) At this point, this scene further proved to me that these segments were not instrumental to this movie. This feeling only intensified when, close to 20 minutes in, we got a third sequence with audience (them waking up after spending a night camping in the desert) which pretty much convinced me this was nothing but a superfluous subplot.

Yeah, we’ll get back to that.



Cue more scenes with the sentient tire: it drinking from a puddle (not the weirdest thing in this movie), the gratuitous murder of a rabbit (we clearly have a pattern of animal abuse here), and the weirdest scene for someone watching in 2020: some dude using a pay phone. I mean, come on, this film is from 2010; did people still use pay phones in 2010? (Answer: irrelevant, it just fits the general retro vibe of the film, dumbass).

Then, at 28 minutes in, Robert (yes, the tire is called Robert) finally makes its first human kill; namely the guy who was using a pay phone, because fuck you, boomer. And then it starts… stalking a woman? Sure, bring it. This is exactly the kind of surreal schlock we signed up for! Too bad we have to cut again to the insufferable audience.

We are now 34 minutes into the movie, and a guy in glasses, who serves as some sort of handler for the audience, slaughters a turkey and brings it to his charges, who have been out in the desert with no food for two days at this point. They all (well, all but one) jump on it, tearing it apart and grossly eating it. Now, at that moment, I think “oh, so it’s a commentary on the animalistic tendencies of humans.” At least, no one in the movie blatantly comments on that-



Seriously? COME ON!

Even more than the introduction sequence, this felt way too much on-the-nose. At this point, all of the “audience” segments seemed so unnecessary that I started entertaining the idea of creating my own edit of the film to keep only the “killer tire” segments, and see if that flowed better. And for a while, it seemed like this could work: the movie goes on to assemble a neat little archetypal cast of characters around a desert motel: the cleaning lady who’s in the wrong place at the wrong time, the kid who’s aware of the live tire locked up in room 16, and the crass, disbelieving asshole motel proprietor who’s having none of it, and who ends up getting a roadkill pizza (don’t ask).

There’s another character who’s having none of it, though: fourth wall-breaking Lieutenant Chad. You see, Lieutenant Chad is fed up with this killer tire nonsense, and he clearly doesn’t want to be there. A little after the film’s midway point, he gathers his officers as they’re picking up the cleaning lady’s headless corpse, and tells them that they’re done: no one’s watching anymore, he says.



Yep, the turkey was poisoned, and all the members of the audience now lie dead. All except the Man in the Wheelchair (no name given), that is, as he didn’t eat.

And so the show must go on, since there is still someone watching. There’s a few plot twists and turns as Lieutenant Chad continues reluctantly playing along with the script, until a tense standoff involving the tire and a mannequin strapped with explosives (it makes sense in context). Cue the Man in the Wheelchair, who suddenly shows up and complains about the setup: why don’t the cops use a flamethrower, or something?



An exasperated Lieutenant Chad goes to confront Robert off-screen, and resolves the situation with a couple of shotgun blasts. He comes back holding the limp, shredded remnants of the killer tire. Game over. The end.

Or is it?

No it’s not, because the Man in the Wheelchair is still there, demanding a better ending. Because there’s always at least one, isn’t there? The unsatisfied fan; someone who isn’t buying it, who’s not drinking the proverbial Cool-Aid (or eating the turkey, as it were). The one who thinks this ending sucks, and that they could totally do better, and how dare the writers end it like this, after such a great buildup.

I would know; I was one of these people for the final seasons of Game of Thrones and Dexter, amongst others.

And what happens to this annoying “fan”? The tire, reincarnated as a tricycle (why? No reason!) kills him via explosive telekinetic disintegration, of course. Because after all, what creator hasn’t ever dreamt of killing their audience, at least once?



This is what I came to realize, a few days ago; that this is a movie about making a movie. It’s about audience expectations, and about how, sometimes, as a creator, you just want to write a stupid story about a killer tire. Some viewers want the exact same thing. They will eat it all up, and those are the easiest to please, of course; their attention span will likely not last until the end anyway, so who cares if the story is any good, if the ending is satisfying or not. You can half-ass it, and they’ll be none the wiser.

But then there’s the other segment of the audience, the ones who are never satisfied. Those who, even if you didn’t half-ass it, even after you’ve poured your heart and soul into a project, still want more.

And there will be more, promises this movie, with an all-out invasion of killer tires (led by a tricycle).



Well, not really, because this came out in 2010 and there’s still no sequel. But that wasn’t the point. The point, to me, was that as long as there’s an audience, there are stories to be told. And that’s like, really deep, man. Much more so than I expected from this movie, at least.

In retrospect, what happened was a total disconnect between my expectations and the movie itself. Here I was expecting a silly, straightforward, B-movie schlock fest about a killer tire, and instead ended up watching a film that made me think. And that’s cool. I like being surprised, even if I need to take a week or two to digest said surprise. Well played, movie. Well played indeed.

So do I recommend Rubber? Hell yeah I do, with the following caveats: 1. You should not watch this movie sober, and 2. If you’re expecting a dumb B-movie about a killer tire, you might end up with much, much more than you bargained for.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some leftover Thanksgiving turkey to eat.

Welcome to the Zone, stalker. It is quite peaceful here, if you don’t mind the deadly anomalies, and hordes of dangerous mutants, and other stalkers out to kill you, and….

If you are not familiar with the STALKER franchise, I recommend reading my previous post for an introduction to the topic. Abridged version for those who’d rather save themselves the pain: STALKER is a series of first-person shooter horror games set in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone in Ukraine, inspired by the 1979 film of the same name (itself inspired by a science fiction novella called Roadside Picnic).

Dead Air is a newer version of Call of Chernobyl, an amazing, fan-made game that combined the maps of all three official STALKER games into a single, free-roam open world. Dead Air also incorporates the Misery mod, which, as the name implies, aims to turn the game into a pain-in-the-ass slog hardcore survival simulator.

As I will detail below, Dead Air goes the extra mile in this “everything is terrible and also wants to kill you” approach, but given that Dead Air the video game I spent by far the most time playing in 2020, it’s probably not as bad as I make it sound (it probably helps that, currently, even a game best described as “irradiated hellhole simulator” kinda sounds better than the real world in its current state).

Without further ado, here’s my take on Dead Air, split up into pros and cons.

Pros

1. Graphics: Aside from maybe Lost Alpha, this is the best-looking STALKER game I have ever played. Granted, it doesn’t hold a candle to any big-budget game released in the last five years or so. But Dead Air‘s visuals, considering they’re being squeezed out of an engine that’s now a decade old, are nothing short of breathtaking. The world is lusher than ever before, grass blows dynamically in the wind, and there is a nice depth of field effect for that cinematic touch. There are also quite a few neat little details, like water droplets sticking to your screen when it rains (as well as the ability to wipe them off), volumetric fog, and visible light beams. The game also includes an option to turn some of these features off (the raindrops in particular can be a massive liability when you’re trying to fight off mutants, so your mileage may vary as to whether the pretty water effects are worth it).

The “raindrops in your face” effect adds to the atmosphere, but can be a huge liability in a fight. Also notice this guy sitting in midair: we’ll get back to that.



2. Atmosphere: STALKER’s strongest point has always been its atmosphere, and the game can be downright terrifying at times. The new graphics and features take this to a whole new level, turning a couple areas into fog-shrouded, toxic death zones that can only be crossed by wearing a HAZMAT suit, or lugging a weighty oxygen tank around. Traversing these was a tense, harrowing experience that make Dead Air the best video game adaptation of Stephen King’s The Mist I’ve ever played that’s not Silent Hill.

Dead Air’s atmosphere would create an effective horror setting even if there was nothing waiting in the mist to pounce on you and chew your face off. If only…


3. Gameplay Improvements: Like Lost Alpha before it, the game adds a much-needed pistol slot in the inventory (the base games only had a “main weapon” and “sidearm” slot). Being able to carry both a rifle (a must for long-range combat), a shotgun (a must for blasting mutants) as well as a pistol (for those occasions when you have your artifact detector out and can only use one-handed weapons) is a godsend. The best addition for me, however, was the quick knife key: simply press the assigned button, and your character gives a knife slash without having to manually select the weapon first. This has saved my life more than once, and stabbing mutants in the face is extremely satisfying, to boot.

You still need to manually equip the knife to skin dead mutants, however.


4. Performance: This game is extremely well optimized and really has no business running as well as it does while looking that good. I run it at maxed-out settings on a relatively antiquated Apache GE60 2PL laptop (OK, it’s “only” from 2015, but still wasn’t exactly top of the line even back then) with almost none of the habitual stutter plaguing most STALKER games.

5. Customization: Dead Air lets you pick from among a fair number of options, including a rudimentary class/perk system to customize your character’s abilities and starting loadout, the possibility of increasing rewards and loot for an easier game, and a rather impressive array of graphical options. Notably, if the default, drab color palette isn’t your cup of tea, you have the option of making Dead Air as vibrant and colourful as you would like.

Dead Air’s default colour settings can be a bit… blue, but a much warmer, more vibrant palette can be achieved by tinkering with the settings.


6. It’s free! Dead Air may not be for you, and it’s certainly not the best introduction to the STALKER franchise by any metric. But even if you do end up loathing it, you’ve lost nothing except the bandwidth it took to download it, and the few minutes it took to install and play it.


Cons

Dead Air is not a perfect game, of course (there is no perfect game except Chrono Trigger, and I will die on that hill), and so here are the few issues I have with it:

1. Difficulty: This one deserves its own essay-length rant, so we’ll get to it later.

2. Glitches: Dead Air holds the dubious honour of being the buggiest STALKER game I’ve ever played. Most are merely amusing (moonwalking zombies and guys sitting on thin air are hilarious enough to have been left in intentionally) some are actually useful (hordes of mutant rats surround me, only to stand idle while I knife them to death? Thanks!), and some are merely annoying (at one point I bribed some guards to let me through a gate, which remained closed – I was able to solve that problem by shooting the gate open). Occasionally, NPCs seem to begin bleeding out for no reason, and eventually keel over dead, no matter how many first-aid kits you provide to try and keep them alive. Thankfully I never encountered anything truly game-breaking, and the game very rarely crashed for me, so the bugs are, for the most part, tolerable.

Emphasis on “for the most part”. It’s all fun and games until you manage to glitch yourself outside the map boundaries…


3. Customization: Even though the game lets you select a myriad of options, there is one major thing you cannot change: your starting faction. Choosing one of nine factions (ten, if we count the hidden “Zombie” option) was a major part of what made Call of Chernobyl so addictively replayable, but Dead Air locks you into playing a Loner, in order to maintain game balance (I use the term extremely loosely) and enforce a more gradual sense of progression. This wasn’t a deal breaker for me since I tend to play Loners by default anyway, but I can see how this would turn people off from the game. That being said, there is a mod that fixes this issue (though it’s not perfect, since the game was built around playing a Loner, and doesn’t “catch on” to you playing something different until you deliberately antagonize members of enemy factions).

And, um, that’s it for the cons. You may have noticed the pros/cons list is slightly lopsided in favour of the pros; there’s a lot to like about Dead Air, is all I’m sayin’.


But the Difficulty!!!

Dear Lord, the difficulty.

Before we begin, a disclaimer: I am pretty much the epitome of what some would call a “filthy casual”. As such, I encourage you to take the rest of this post with at least a moderate grain of salt. Or a huge one, if you’re the type to enjoy masochistic games along the lines of I Wanna Be the Guy.

To me, this game is ludicrously, cruelly difficult. And I don’t mean that in a “good if you like a challenge” way. No, this game will murder you, skin your sorry, irradiated hide, then run your corpse into the meat grinder, make a radioactive milkshake, slurp it up, and then crap it back out as glowing diarrhea into the blazing pits of hell itself. Beyond the usual “realism” features of the Misery mod (meat must be cooked prior to eating, vendor prices are jacked up, even the lesser mutants hit like brick shithouses and tank as much damage, bullets hit like… well, bullets, equipment degrades faster than an ice cream cone in a volcano, etc.), Dead Air makes extra certain to really take the proverbial dump in your Corn Flakes.

For instance, you don’t automatically get a Geiger counter that alerts you of radioactive areas, like in most other STALKER games. Oh no, even though this is a crucial piece of equipment that no sane person would ever omit to bring on a venture into the highly irradiated Zone, you’ll need to either 1. Select a starting loadout that has it (and sacrifice another perk in the process), or 2. Buy one as soon as you can afford it (HINT: Getting to the point where you can afford one will inevitably have you trek through pockets of lethal radiation that you can’t detect, because you don’t have a Geiger counter. Gotta love those catch 22’s)

There’s a few very counterintuitive mechanics, such as “unhealthy” food (IE, mutant meat) making you sick. This is also kinda-sorta the case in other STALKER games – specifically, mutant meat is irradiated, and you have to drink vodka to get the nuclear isotopes out of your system (hey, look, if vodka can protect against Covid-19, it can get rid of a little radiation, OK?) The only problem is that in Dead Air, bad meat also makes you nauseous, but the visual indicator for that is exactly the same as being drunk: in both cases, your vision wavers and flickers. Imagine my confusion when I pre-emptively drank a shot of vodka, took a carbon pill (you know, the ones that magically and instantly sober you up, because video game logic), then ate a piece of mutant meat, and was suddenly drunk again.

OK, mAyBe pLaYiNg vOdKa sHoTs wHiLe dRiNkiNg tHiS gAmE wAsN’t tHe bEsT iDeA. *HIC*


And then, there’s the (string of expletives removed for brevity) mutants. In addition to the overall increased lethality mentioned earlier, they spawn in packs. Huge packs, that will pursue you to the ends of the map – or they would, at least, if you could actually outrun them. Oh, you miraculously managed to fight them off? You’re adorable. Rest assured: more will come. I’m honestly not sure if this is a bug or a feature, but it seems like every mutant in a given map will zero in on your location as soon as you get into a fight, and show up just as you think you’re in the clear (or worse, they join the party while you’re desperately fighting/fleeing for your life).

Granted, you can (read: must) use the terrain to your advantage (though some mutants will happily jump and ruin your day regardless), but, even if you do manage to get to a safe spot, good luck trying to shoot: the aiming is shakier than a coke addict in withdrawal dying of hypothermia while having a seizure. By the way, cocaine is an actual consumable item in this game, so for all I know, your character is a coke addict dying of hypothermia while having a seizure. Oh, what’s that? He never got to score some coke, because he’s flat broke, ran out of bullets, and the mutants ate him alive? Presumably starting with his dick, because they’re a bunch of assholes?

Well, shit.

If it seems like I’m a little salty over the mutants, it’s because I am: as much as I enjoy Dead Air, no other game in recent history has made me swear at my computer screen at 3 a.m. quite as much this one did when a story-relevant NPC kept getting killed by a horde of mutated boars. Mercifully, you can always just pick up the plot items off of said NPC’s corpse (assuming you manage to find it in the tall grass), which is good, because this kind of thing happens a lot in this game.

No one is safe, you see: mutants (as well as other stalkers, in some cases) can and will gleefully overrun settlements and slaughter every single NPC inside. There’s no pickle on a shit sandwich quite like fighting tooth and nail to get some meagre loot and proceeding to haul your mostly-dead ass to a vendor, only to find them dead and the place overrun with monsters. To be fair, this is entirely realistic and adds to the already very dynamic, unscripted nature of STALKER, but it can be amazingly frustrating at times.

At least, sometimes, packs of mutants have the courtesy to stumble into deadly anomalies and drop dead.


Luckily, the Zone contains many wondrous, hard-to-find artifacts that, if equipped, grant you amazing abilities, and give you an edge in – oh, no, wait, they’re all super radioactive now (yes, even the ones that, in other versions of the game, absorb radiation). And even if you do manage to safely equip them via heavy, lead-lined containers, they now degrade when used, and become effectively useless after a while.

If all of this doesn’t sound bad enough, Dead Air also introduces the concept of “Zone degradation”: as time passes, vendor prices increase, selling prices decrease, and more mutants begin to spawn, thus augmenting chances of them overrunning settlements. Really, though, there’s no helping the NPC stalkers, because even if the monsters don’t get them, the military will: after a set amount of time (or if you antagonize them enough, as I did in my first playthrough), the military faction will begin spawning more and more soldiers, and taking over most of the Zone from the South. The always-hostile, fanatical Monolith faction will do the same from the North, leaving you surrounded by murderous stalkers and monsters.

The game at least gives you the chance to make friends with the military (by buying a ridiculously expensive permit, and then frantically completing missions for them until they like you). If you haven’t done that by the time they start taking over, though, good luck surviving in a world full of rampaging mutant hordes and military stalkers who shoot you on sight, with most vendors dead and the inflation making the rest unaffordable anyway. There is an alternate game mode called “Last Stand” that cuts to the chase and outright throws you in a deserted, hostile Zone that has no NPCs at all, only mutants out for your blood. Needless to say, I didn’t spend much time on that one.

In light of all this, the optional Iron Man mode (IE, your save deletes itself upon death) seems utterly pointless, given that you will inevitably die like a turd as soon as you set foot outside the starting area (and quite possibly even before then, if you don’t know what you’re doing). Yeah, no thanks, unless I’m only in it for a very short, “just survive as long as you can” session.


Don’t Worry Though, It’s Not All Bad

I am immensely glad of the fact that Dead Air has a lot of add-ons available for download, most of which help mitigate the insanity. There is one that reduces mutant spawns and another that rebalances them into not being bullet sponges, both of which I consider a must. Then there’s a host of other ones to tweak little annoyances, improve quality of life, or generally make the game easier. For instance, I play with fast travel enabled, can loot money from corpses, and fixed the coke addict-level aiming. With shooting now viable, I also installed the TAZ (The Armed Zone) mod to add a bajillion different guns into the game, because GUNS.

For those so inclined, there’s also the aforementioned faction mod, the option to limit or outright eliminate the Zone degradation mechanic, fix vendor prices and inventories… The sky’s the limit, basically. Just note that, even with a bunch of mods, Dead Air will still be ridiculously tough, just less frustratingly so.

I would advise not going overboard with add-ons, however, as some can be incompatible with each other. Others, while not creating any conflicts, do strain the outdated, 32-bit game engine and may end up making the game more unstable. In my case, I play with HD character models (as well as the aforementioned guns mod), and noticed slightly more frequent crashes as a result. The Military Warehouses part of the map is also mostly inaccessible for me now (crashes most of the time upon entry), but as the Military Warehouses can easily be circumvented and are a freaking no-man’s-land mutant fiesta I prefer to avoid anyway, fuck that place for all time; I’m keeping my mods.


So, Is It Good?

I personally had a lot of fun with Dead Air, but the question might be: can a game really be called “good” if you have to extensively mod it to address its flaws? Having played a lot of “broken” games (Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines, Gothic 3, and STALKER itself) that started out as barely-playable messes before being salvaged by their fans and modded into cult classics, I would have to go with a resounding “yes” – there had to be something in the original product to spark such interest and devotion in the first place, after all. In this case, though, it’s amusing that a game mod requires more mods to be playable.

Mods or no, however, Dead Air is a game that tries its damnedest to keep you as long as possible in the early game’s “hobo phase”, with crappy weapons and equipment. I definitely understand the appeal, since as soon as you hit your stride in most STALKER games, the survival horror aspect gets thrown out of the window in favour of a more traditional shooter experience. Unlike Call of Chernobyl, there’s no starting-in-the-middle-of-the-Zone-as-an-Ecologist-so-other-stalkers-don’t-shoot-me-and-going-straight-for-the-Heart-of-the-Zone-artifact-to-give-myself-nigh-immortality-and-infinite-sprinting here. Dead Air isn’t having any of that shit; it just wants to hurt you.

And, honestly, even though I peg myself as a casual gamer, I kind of enjoy that. I might have issues.

Good job making it to the end of this overlong post, stalker. And remember: you may be awesome, but you’ll never be Lenin-Holding-A-Ball-Of-Freaking-Lightning awesome.

Yes, I know, I have been away for a while. But what better time to metaphorically come back from the dead than in the spooky month of October? (Anytime. Anytime is a good time to come back from the dead. Anytime except 2020. F**k this year for all time.)

However, I have some good news: in order to try and make up for having been MIA far too long, I will be doing a Halloween marathon of sorts. The plan is to share a few posts about the thing that’s been keeping me sane during this pandemic: video games, mostly of the horror persuasion. And so I’ll be writing about these, and related Halloween topics, until, well, Halloween. (I was about to cynically add something along the lines of “assuming we have one”, but remember: WE are Halloween, and no one and nothing can take it away from us. Or something. REMINDER: Google some inspirational crap to add here later.)

*sad laugh*

As for the bad news: I am still working on my second novel, Love Lost. OK, this is technically only bad news if you hated Father Figure (and if you haven’t read it yet, I will be having a FREE promotion during Halloween week, so grab it then, and if you do hate it, please leave a scathing review comparing it to Twilight, or whatever seems worse.)

More seriously; the bad news is that, although my work on Love Lost is advancing steadily, I still have absolutely no idea when it will be released. About the only sure thing I can say is: definitely not this year (which is truly a shame, because this year really could have done with one more post-apocalyptic horror novel out in the world, to fit the general mood). On the flip side, this year has been a goldmine of inspiration for horror/apocalyptic/any kind of depressing fiction. Yay. (And having written the words “this year” and “goldmine” in the same sentence, I just puked a little in my mouth).

But enough with the gloom and doom. ’tis the season of pretty fall colours, warm tea, creepy stories, cheesy horror movies, and candy. And I’ll be damned if 2020 will ruin any of it.

Oh, and please don’t hesitate to leave a comment if there’s anything you’d like to read about; this is your – the readers’ – website as much as it is mine, after all.

Cheers, and stay spooky!