The Initiate is a new first person puzzle game with horror elements by Deceptive Games LTD. The reason I say “horror elements” is because this game is not simply one of the thousands of horror experiences that have appeared on Steam over the last few years, it is at its core, a puzzle game like Myst or the much more recent The Witness by Johnathan Blow. However, while the emphasis may be on puzzles, this is still a remarkably unsettling game. It has a few problems and I could see how some people could get frustrated, but I think it’s more than worth a purchase. Smart puzzles and exceptional atmosphere really carry it.
Freedom! Wait, is That it?
The story here is simple. You wake up in a house with no memory of how or why and are told that you are an “initiate” and must pass a trial in order to escape. It’s a simple concept but it manages to be a little Jekyll and Hyde in the sense that it does a wonderful job of building intrigue and atmosphere, but lacks any real payoff. This is a short game (around 2 hours), so the story is told through one or two cut scenes and the voice of your jailer that accompanies you during your exploration of the house. The voice work and the sound design are what really build a sense of unease and foreboding. You are teased and taunted constantly with sounds elsewhere in the house that are left unaddressed. The motives of the mysterious voice are only ever hinted at and this mystery provides an effective hook that makes you desperate to know the truth.
Unfortunately, the game’s ending is a little threadbare, to say the least. An entire games worth of masterfully crafted atmosphere is wasted on an ending that reveals nothing, and simply is not satisfying in any way. It doesn’t do justice to what has come before. It was almost as though the developers didn’t realize they had provided such a tantalizing mystery and had focused simply on an escape, not bothering to answer any questions that the player might have. There may well be answers in some of the notes I missed, but that approach strikes me as lazy.
Outside of that issue, the only other thing that really bothered me was that a lot of the notes I found had numerous (but small), of what I assume were translation errors in them. Certainly not a big problem, but it did occasionally take me out of the experience in a small way. Overall, the story has a phenomenal atmosphere and great writing, it’s only the ending that slightly lets it down, which is a shame because I really was hooked.
A large portion of the gameplay is almost reminiscent of a hidden object game. The environment is interactive, and to accomplish everything you will need to comb every inch of the house. It is impressive how much of the play area you can interact with, but this concept does have problems. You will spend a lot of time opening draws and cupboards and you will need to complete a thorough search of nearly every room. It became a little boring at times, but the actual puzzles were varied and interesting enough to keep me going.
Puzzles in The Initiate are enjoyable, yet challenging enough to keep you interested. UV lighting, key hunting and code breaking, it’s all there and efficiently executed. The real strength of the puzzles is their holistic feel. You are never locked into a room and told you can’t leave until you’ve beaten a specific challenge. You are free (for the most part) to roam the house and tackle the puzzles in any order. This not only stops you getting stuck or frustrated, but makes it feel like the house itself is the puzzle. This perfectly plays into the themes of entrapment and escape, which helps things feel a lot less “gamey”.
Puzzles span multiple rooms and others encourage real outside the box thinking, while some puzzles require attention to the smallest details. I’m not normally a puzzle fan, but I really enjoyed what was here. The puzzles themselves are well crafted and the game makes great efforts to provide a context for its puzzles, which heightens their entertainment value immensely.
This is not a long game and there isn’t much I can really say about it other than it is pretty damn good. One or two minor faults, the ending and the endless cupboard opening, do not hold The Initiate back. What we have here is a skilfully crafted, deeply atmospheric puzzle game, that will have you on the edge of your seat. You will never need to have a monster chase you down a hallway and hack you to pieces. Don’t let any prejudice against “first person horror on Steam” turn you off. This is far from the jumpscare-laden trash you find all over Steam. This is a smart, punchy little game that deserves to be played.