One of the more philosophical questions here.
As we await for the endless void to consume us all, it makes us wonder what exists out there that makes us beg for the sweet release of death. Current world state jokes aside, there’s not much realistic in terms of physical pain or emotional agony that can be truly called Worse Than Death. I know one thing, though: this game! Ho-hooooooooooo!
This is the latest release from Canadian developer Benjamin Rivers Inc., run by one Rivers, Benjamin. This is the third release from Rivers and co., after a successful brace with Alone With You and Home, with the latter gaining some fairly large acclaim. Worse Than Death has also been on the Apple Store since July, but Apple sucks—sue me—I prefer tactile feedback. Let’s go.
You play as Holly, a woman who is making big waves in physiotherapy, and she’s returned to her home town for a school reunion. After meeting with her former BFFL Flynn, you learn that the reunion is one with bittersweet context, as Flynn’s fiance Grace died before they were to be married. That’s all irrelevant, however, as there’s someone or some-thing hunting them down, aiming to murder everything.
Right from the get-go, it’s hard trying to figure out what Worse Than Death wants to be. The main menu and its quirky theme imply a Scooby-Doo! angle, but when you get into the nitty-gritty, you have the same visceral undertones as The Long Reach. Then, it’s also aiming to be Stranger Things. At the end of it all, it’s more Whispering Willows meets Twin Peaks, although I don’t think the inconsistent tone present in Lynch’s work is an intentional aesthetic choice for the narrative.
It doesn’t know whether it wants to be an accessible horror game for the kiddies or an in-your-face slasher flick from the 80s. There are mad Slaughter High vibes throughout, but you don’t have the comfort of watching Caroline Munro in her late 30s pretending to be a teenager. Worse Than Death seriously thinks it can handle two completely different angles of horror.
Take the actual horror, for example. There’s only one enemy in the entire game: a transparent Venus Flytrap-looking thing that scours short pathways, with said paths being predictable and filled with dim holes you can hide in. Unless you run, chances are you will not alert them in any way, shape or form, so walk slowly, and you’ll be right as rain.
What is the horror behind that? Jumpscares. Worse Than Death absolutely fucking LOVES jumpscares. You can’t go one level without glass breaking, a door slamming, a small music sting, or unrelated imagery popping up on the screen for a brief moment. I wouldn’t mind it so much if they actually had thematic connections to the story, but… they don’t.
I’m not going to go into spoiler territory, but it’s like if, in Claire, the Friendship Bears are what saved her from the primordial horrors. You can practically hear the Care-Bears theme playing as all of the plot threads are quickly tied up to explain as much as possible. It still doesn’t explain enough, but then, I put that on the cumbersome writing.
Almost all of the writing is under the pretense of Holly’s internal thoughts and spoken dialogue. With that said, why is she over-explaining the details of every sight she sees in this blood-encrusted dive of a town? This isn’t a text-based adventure. This isn’t a CGA-Graphics based point-n-click developed by one guy from his bedroom is Wrexham. You have the capabilities without Holly over-reading the bloody room, and you consistently meet a bare minimum of aesthetic presentation.
Even though it’s zoomed in quite heavily, Worse Than Death can still provide a decent mood. Holly’s breath becomes a thick mist (one that monsters can’t see but in due time), the light dims and flickers. When random light bulbs aren’t exploding because horror, this can be a game with a very heavy-set atmosphere.
Oh, Christ, we’re seven hundred words in and still no mention of the gameplay. It’s more like The Coma in this regard, with light point-n-click elements in play, but a lot more of those good ol’ 90s puzzles we all know and tolerate. These puzzles usually have something to do with figuring out a code via an external object projecting said code, and they’re easier to understand than the usual flock. What hurts it, however, is how… eager Worse Than Death is to make sure you understand.
Nothing is left for the player to deduce. Holly always promises and guarantees that an answer has been given, and that confirmation in a game that also warns of failure at every turn, is lethal. Even though this is just a (Game) Theory, it’s entirely possible that the iOS debut for Worse Than Death is the reason as to why the narrative design is so keen on making sure you understand.
Again, just a theory, but for a horror game to coddle you to victory is annoying. The game offers no real challenge beyond the point-n-click stuff—half of which is only difficult due to a lack of telegraphing the visual cues. The monsters crawl on short routes in small rooms that lead to smaller rooms. There’s always a delay for the monsters to enter the room as well, which is obviously a technical detriment, but regardless, the difficulty simply isn’t there.
In the end, Worse Than Death is a frustrating mish-mash of ideas and tonal flip-flops that produces nothing but confusion. The horror is marred by the cheap jump scares, the writing is deterred by the borderline fourth-wall-breaking exposition, the gameplay is marred by its possible mobile design decisions. Is it fair to criticize a game that is designed for a different platform and player base entirely?
Hmm… yes. Yes, I suppose it is.
Spooktober 2019 Entry #5 // Previous Entry: Observation // Next Entry: Why Video Games Are The Best Medium For Horror
This review of Worse Than Death was based on the Xbox One version of the game.
It's a half-baked horror game lacking the scares to keep you enthralled, and lacking the agency to make sure you care about what happens.
Owner of the largest collection of indie games in the Western Hemisphere, and TimeSplitters’ biggest fanboy.