Decay – Part 1 // XBL Indie Games

May 17, 2010

Reviewing Decay – Part 1 using traditional videogaming criteria is a tricky business, as it bears little resemblance to anything else on the Xbox Live Indie Game platform, or any of the current crop of retail titles. Sure, there are puzzles, and the kind of item examination and use that recalls fond memories of a certain Resident Evil, a franchise cited as one of developer Shining Gate Software’s influences. But there is no jump button, no shooting, no health bars, no enemies, no game overs. Just a series of moments, snatches of plot, a few cerebral puzzles and an atmosphere of true dread.

If the purpose of videogames is to elicit emotions in their players, then Decay is striving for the most primal – that of fear. And it doesn’t pull its punches – Decay is a mature title, of that there is no question, and it depicts the darker side of mankind’s nature unflinchingly and without remorse. This is clear from the game’s outset, as the brief opening cinematic appears to portray a figure hanging from a noose in the bathroom, eyes rolled back into his head. Suddenly, the eye begins to focus, and the man seemingly awakes from death. The player then takes control of this person, immediately questioning what has driven him suicide, and what forces have brought them back from the dead. A hand-written note sits on the table outside of the bathroom, on which is scrawled ‘No friends, no family. Dead in bathroom.’

Veterans of point-and-click adventure games will feel at home immediately with Decay, as the player controls a cursor on screen and interacts with objects of interest, opening cupboards, reading notes and picking up items. The simple environments are navigated using the D-pad, with the corresponding actions available to the player being displayed on the game’s clean and simple HUD. Any items that are acquired are accessed by pressing the Y button to bring up the Inventory, where a scrollable list of all items is displayed. Each of these can be used, examined or combined with other items, in a reverential nod to the Capcom survival horror franchise mentioned above.

Any further exposition of the plot would strip Decay of its key selling point, so I won’t go into that here. Instead I’ll expand on a few of the details which make Decay such a disquieting experience. First of all, there is a strong undercurrent of menace to be found in the ‘music’ Decay subjects the player to from the outset; a low bass-like note that evokes a sense of dread, occassionally highlighted with a few plaintive piano notes. Against this sombre backdrop, the creak and clank of a cupboard opening is harsh and pronounced, adding further to the sense of unease. Visuals are muted, browns and greys and grimy graffiti the order of the day. Sometimes the pervading darkness that swathes every room can obscure what you are looking at; some shapes are impossible to discern in the gloom. The sensory input is fantastic; the game’s artist and sound designer, Johannes Rae, is clearly aware of what will raise the hairs on the back of the player’s neck.

Elsewhere, it’s the slow unravelling of details that mark Decay out as a surprisingly mature effort for a debut indie game. Content not to rush its storytelling, the slow-drip feed of information – delivered through the hand-written notes and various newspaper clippings – begins to flesh out the intricacies of the mystery, tempting the player forward with each new detail. Everything is wrapped in foreboding mystery; Decay really is exceptionally crafted to maximise the scary atmosphere, particularly the inhuman panting that greets the player in the room with the portraits, in what has to be one of the creepiest videogame sound effects I’ve ever heard.

As an experience, Decay – Part 1 is short, but at the price point it’s being offered at, it’s difficult to feel short-changed by its limited length. As a few hours worth of pure sensory experience, it’s unrivalled. Rarely is fear elicited at the kind of level this two-man studio has managed here. The puzzles are actually quite challenging, pitched at a difficulty that taxes but never frustrates. The story, set up so beautifully, looks set to continue in subsequent episodes, and I for one cannot wait for the next installment.

Definitely worth the asking price, Decay will raise the hairs on your arms and make your heart beat faster. If it doesn’t… well, you must already be dead.

80/100

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