Uncanny Valley, a retro-graphics styled 2D horror game developed by Cowardly Creations, presents itself as a return to the atmospheric horror of yesteryear when a third-person action wasn't the name of the game. This is a mouth-watering promise for those of us who miss the foggy streets of the first Silent Hill, or the ominous, blocky terror that was the original Alone in the Dark. But, as many reboots and sequels have proved (I'm looking at you, Resident Evil 6,) that's a really hard itch to scratch, and I'm happy to say that Uncanny Valley succeeds where many have failed.
Making a truly unnerving horror game requires several things: an engagingly spooky story, well-paced exploration, and an insurmountable terror threatening to catch you unprepared. UV has each of these ingredients, though there are some potential caveats depending on your play-style preferences. Before we dig into the bloody meat of the game, here's a link to the Uncanny Valley Steam page, where you can purchase this fine tale of terror (and try the free demo!)
You are Tom (most of the time), an apparent loner plagued by dreams of shadow-figures that threaten to engulf you in darkness. Given your fears, you decide (of course) to take a job as a night watchman for a mysterious tech company located in an isolated, wintry town. This is a fairly typical setup for any number of horror games, movies, and books, but where the story goes from here–and how it gets there–is what's most intriguing about UV.
Cowardly Creations, per their steam description of Uncanny Valley, indicate that a "consequence" system effects how events unfold, and also how your character functions. Fail to get away from a pursuer? You might move more slowly from then on, as a result. Don't get home from work in a timely fashion? You collapse from exhaustion and may wake up in dire straights.
This isn't a superficial system, as the result of these punishments (I think that's a fair descriptor for them) will steer poor Tom's fate wildly, causing different events to unfold and drive the story in still other directions. At first, I found some scenes too short and the cuts too abrupt, but after discovering those changes were due to my actions, I actually appreciated them. Here's a more concrete example of the consequence system:
During my first playthrough of Uncanny Valley, I was very bad at fleeing chasing attackers. This made my character a bit of a plodding dope, and he ultimately arrived at an end directly related to my "difficulty getting around." It was bloody, not pretty, and really, really great.
The writing isn't quite as good as the plotting (excessive expletives sometimes just take up text space, rather than strengthen anything), but at times it's paced perfectly to deliver a chilling line. It doesn't ever hurt the story, and sometimes enhances it, so I give it a good mark.
A number of potential events are plentiful in Uncanny Valley, and there's also a lot to discover. There are audio tapes and video tapes that you'll find, and machines to play them in that will give you more background and clues as to the occurrences around you. You'll encounter seemingly random events like the arrival of unwanted antagonists, and timed events that trigger different progressions if you happen to set them off. My first run through the game included all of those types of events and lasted about 90 minutes, during which I didn't even find a weapon to engage in combat. Yes, that means I went through the entire game without attacking anything. That's what's so great about UV–it stands on its own with or without the combat, successfully fleeing, or reacting timely–no matter what you do, you'll almost always get an interesting and full playthrough because of your varying choices.
Here's where the few stumbling blocks come up in Uncanny Valley. Essentially, it plays as a 2D sidescroller with mouse aim (or the preferable joystick aim, courtesy of the welcome full controller support). There is a button for inventory, one for running, another for interacting, and still another for picking items up; the separation of interacting and picking items up into two distinct buttons is awkward and left me hitting random buttons on the gamepad every so often in an attempt to grab something. This was exacerbated by the fact that the controls layout screen only shows the keyboard/mouse controls, even when a gamepad is in use.
Still, I preferred to use the gamepad, though keyboard and mouse weren't a terrible experience–the latter was, in fact, intended to be the primary input method (until the devs tried the gamepad, and understandably decided otherwise). Movement is intentionally slow-paced, forcing the dull, dark environs into a sharper focus. This enhances the atmosphere, though there are still too many lengthy paths to trod along between locales for my taste. You can run to speed things up, but there is a stamina limit (ala Silent Hill, panting included). The stamina limit is actually a good thing because it adds a strategic tension when fleeing that ups the survival horror element. There is a flashlight toggle button, as well, and it's necessary both in darkened rooms and as night comes down over the game world.
There is no HUD in the game, and the user interface as a whole is functional, though a gamepad requires you select inventory items with a joystick instead of cycling with the d-pad. The absence of this latter method is irritating when you need to quickly use an object to complete a puzzle, or escape capture or death. The absence of a HUD, however, was an excellent design choice, as you are required to get a feel for your stamina limit through usage alone, providing a deeper immersion into the frightening world.
Combat is decent, though firing a weapon is not a fast affair. This is also reminiscent of Silent Hill, a clear inspiration, as it forces you to aim and plan deliberate attacks instead of spraying the room. Fighting is, however, a very small portion of the game, and you'll likely be scouring your office building and apartment complex for tapes a whole lot more than blasting baddies.
I would be remiss to omit the fact that there are occasional bugs in the game, which weren't game-breaking for me (I understand there have been those for some,) but they did prevent me from reading dialogue more than once due to overlapping sentences. There were also a few moments when the controls seemed unresponsive, which did not seem due to busy-ness on screen (which is a rare occurrence in UV).
Made with GameMaker, Uncanny Valley is still a masterclass on how to make a great minimalist game with a relatively simple game engine system.
graphics and Sound
The graphics of Uncanny Valley are beautiful, and–dare I say–perfect for a pixel-art lover. There is just enough definition to build the world and highlight the occasional gory bits. The animation is good, as well, being lively despite a low frame count. The shadow people, their shining eyes glowing, moved with particular grace, and served their purpose excellently. Likewise, the backgrounds of bloodied machine shops, snow-capped brick edifices, and endless poorly lit hallways all set the mood quite well.
The items that you will find do highlight when you are near them, though it's a subtle change, and often difficult to spot due to most items' small sizes. This may be intentional, but I would've liked the visibility of this effect increased, perhaps with an option to turn it on or off (ala Baldur's Gate.) Once you do have the items, however, the inventory pics of them are well-crafted and fit the feel.
The sound is minimal, and things such as screams and footsteps are all pleasingly degraded, in keeping with the retro aesthetic. That's what makes the audiotapes you find stand out–the clarity of the voices necessitates a breaking with the retro-vibe and did throw me off a bit. I'd have loved to hear the first sentence poorly digitized, and a simple transcript of the rest to read in silence.
Lastly, the gore, while present, is generally only shown after the fact, meaning you don't see the violence occur. It's still unsettling, but I found it somewhat underwhelming–that is until I reached my first ending when I was treated to a display of brutality that was unhurried and disturbing in a way I didn't think pixel-art capable of. Props for that, Cowardly Creations, truly!
Uncanny Valley is, at its heart, the survival horror game we've all been looking for since Silent Hill got rocky and Resident Evil broke our hearts. Despite some plodding movements and funky bugs now and again, my desire to run yet another playthrough is actually growing with my time away–that's a rarity for a game and a pretty big compliment.
It's got an intriguing amount of plot, most of which will take many playthroughs to fully uncover, and graphics to make a retro-heart swoon. Even with a few bugs and some control hiccups, I suggest taking a look. If you like what you see, and you're more interested in story and exploration than the quantity of combat, give Uncanny Valley a shot. Just don't waste all your bullets–you might need them.
|+ Gorgeous art direction and animations||– Some graphical bugs could use squashing|
|+ Intriguing stories and decent writing||– Inventory system is a bit cumbersome|
|+ Multiple playthroughs are actually worth it|
|+ That old-school survival horror revived!|