Life-or-death decisions, occult manuscripts, bullying, and abusive parental relationships are a few ingredients thrown into this underwhelming horror stew. Camel 101 is one of those indie developers looking for a solid hit under their belt. Simple touches like the neon-drenched cover art and Silent Hill-esque aura suggested Those Who Remain had some promise. Despite containing pockets of worthwhile ideas, few recent horror titles have been as wretched to play.
You play as Edward. In a bid to rectify his mistakes, he ventures to the Golden Oak Motel to end a secret affair. But the darkness looming over the nearby town of Dormont precedes disturbing events. With the motel empty and his car mysteriously totaled, Edward heads through this sleepy town on a pitch-black night. Every spot without a light source reveals silent people with glowing eyes and sharpened knifes waiting to kill you along the way.
In the most unintentionally backhanded way, I should stress that Remain's script is near-functional on its own. The subtext of how the cover-up of a tragedy irrevocably hexes a town and reveals the backstory to Edward's depressive state is a good foundation for a horror tale. One fundamental issue comes down to presentation.
One of the earliest issues that never resides comes down to voice acting and direction. It goes underappreciated in today's age until you see bad examples. I don't know if Edward is intentionally meant to sound like he just took Valium before the game starts, but so many scenes are tonally bland and mismatched because of it. Joe Bianco seems like a well-studied actor so I can't help wondering why he's so one-note. Whether someone/something takes his car, he remembers a tragic tale, or makes empty observations, he sounds perpetually tired. And this seeps into sparse interactions with side characters who are likely voiced by actors who probably didn’t record in a studio together.
Outside of that, the story is obsessed with events rather than characters during most of its runtime. You venture into discount Silent Hill and almost every location reveals how deep this conspiracy went of hiding a teenage girl's accidental death. Edward assumes the mantle of judge, by some mysterious force, where he can either forgive or condemn them. It's a rinse-and-repeat system: arrive at the location, get some table scraps worth of background, and decide the fate of a guilty party. But this over-inflation of a decision dampens any meaningful connection one can have with Dormont and its captured residents. The idea loses teeth by how routine it all feels; you begin to label characters by their tropes than their name.
There's also something about the artifice of some decisions I can't get over. Each time, a masked man appears as a guide for your binary decisions. A couple moments just involve him telling you what's obviously occurred and saying, "Oh…which morally ambiguous choice will you make?" One involves a thug killing two policemen and presenting the dilemma of giving him the police car keys or blowing up the vehicle and killing him. Since I got the "Bad Ending," I’m genuinely curious if the latter contributed to that outcome.
Remain's storyline sounds fine on paper but is damaged by woeful execution. Whether it’s the lackluster dialogue, voice acting, or formulaic approach, only a rare handful of times I began to connect with these characters until I was spat back out and left with a terrible ending. Having earned the bad ending and watched the good one, I'm completely disappointed with both avenues.
For a story reliant on such repetition it's no surprise the gameplay is too. The common, immobile enemy lurking in every shadow can be defeated with light. Sometimes you're able to hold a lighter or torch, but most gameplay is relegated to flipping light switches. Once light enters a new area, those glowing-eyed killers disappear and you're able to retrieve critical items or collectible notes. It falls into the basic strides of another Unity-powered horror game, with some occasional physics-based puzzles to vary it up. There's still something functionally uninteresting about it after a few hours though. Slowly traipsing past the darkened room's door jamb to hit a light switch over and over gets tiring; plus, any accidental flip back off inside the room results in instant death.
Outside the boring light-switch routine, occasional chase and pseudo-stealth scenes are sprinkled in. Given that there's no detection tools for the player, it’s a coin toss whether a move will get you killed. One beast with a spotlight strapped to its head would glitch out in its pathfinding or its headlamp would sporadically turn off, robbing you of visual assistance. The mere act of doing anything off the prescribed path results in death and subsequent loading screen—along with realizing how far back the last checkpoint puts you.
Problems are exacerbated by how mechanically unrewarding it feels. The default sensitivity is almost unusable for those reflex-intensive situations, and no increased setting felt right either. I consistently felt like I was fighting clunky controls. There's also a weird visual bug I encountered when my PlayStation 4 (standard) had HDR enabled. All lights within a house or outside became progressively dimmer, to the point where I only knew if an area was safe to venture strictly by not seeing enemies. The issue bothered my eyes so much I had turn off HDR. This was occurring as late as version 1.03 so I can't say if a later patch has ameliorated said issue.
Technical issues and dull monotony aren't helped by mediocre level design too. To its credit: a couple puzzles, like one involving a fire alarm, feel incorporated into the world quite well. Occasional visits to an alternate universe with their own set of rules also offered some potential; however, I lost excitement when the rules and routine became so readily apparent. The act of digging through drawers and desks for items is sometimes obtuse in its implementation and concept. Several times the game gives so little assistance in your detective skills to the point of brute-force being the better option. Eventually, the five-hour (or so) campaign looks like a layer cake of bad design.
Visual and audio design can only inspire faint praise. I don't like saying "typical Unity game" as a disparagement for those who utilize it to great success (see: Fullbright's Tacoma), but Remains is the quintessential example of that term. Character models, fire/water effects, and more are incredibly basic. The lighting is a woeful offender of oversaturation at times, wherein portions of the floor or entire objects bounce off light to ridiculous degrees. At times, there's an impressive amount of activity with various objects on-screen—but not without sporadic framerate dips. A few monster designs are quite terrifying as well.
Skipping past previously aired voice acting complaints, other aural aspects don't inspire much enthusiasm. Sound design for the environment is modest, if occasionally annoying, when hearing weird anomalies from physical objects. The orchestral soundtrack is mostly generic, though some credit is due for incorporating sung tracks via radios. I'm unaware if they're original or licensed songs but they fit the mood regardless. I would’ve dug more off-kilter moments with those beats.
In conclusion, dread is the only consistent sensation I felt playing Those Who Remain; not of the tense kind horror fans enjoy when wholly immersed, but of annoyance in having to push through. The core of its story may have been something Camel 101 believed as worthwhile, yet they fumbled across almost every storytelling aspect. The gameplay buttressing this psychological thriller mostly fell between monotonous to uncoordinated—sometimes in quick succession. What few genuine scares and worthwhile instances there are become hobbled by inconsistent presentation, second-rate storytelling, and amateurish game design.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
Lee's gaming history spans several console generations: N64 & NES at home while enjoying some Playstation, SEGA, and PC titles elsewhere. Being an Independent Contractor by trade (electric, plumbing, etc.) affords him more gaming luxuries today though. Reader warning: each click given to his articles only helps to inflate his Texas-sized ego. Proceed with caution.View Profile