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!
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.
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.