Searching After Horror
Underneath interchangeable demons and killers, the core of the horror experience is a balance of mundanity and payoff. The ability for implied terror to reign over you until what has long been felt in the gut finally manifests. But the combined powers of scripting, repetition, and the pressure to constantly be an active player experience can allow effective horror to curdle, shrinking within the player’s control. Try as they might, it is tough for games to uphold fear in a world of unlimited respawns. A deficit of consequence sweeps most horror titles, protecting you persistently.
In almost every aspect of its arrangement, Fade to Silence aims to defy the factors that gamify many horror experiences, making for the most willfully abrasive playing experience I have engaged with all year. It is a product of sadistic ambition and limited resources, yet what should repel as a playing experience manages to compel in context of a dire vision. Fade to Silence is an ugly, demanding game, but one that frequently thrives in these respects. For better or worse, there are ways to bypass this challenge, as your experience with Fade to Silence will differ greatly depending on which mode you swear allegiance to.
In the interest of accessibility, Fade to Silence offers an “Exploration” mode that downplays its survival mechanics and removes the confines of limited lives to make for a more stably progressing campaign. It must be stated, however, that little of your investment will stem from the cryptic but ultimately fairly rote story. Fade to Silence stages the prerequisite father-daughter post-apocalypse dynamic amidst a town mysteriously thrown into wintrous disarray, but doesn’t make much of it.
Dialogue tries to carve out a distinct lore but hardly treads past subdued observations of your surrounding hellscape, delivered through vacant animations. Your protagonist is neither stoic nor especially empathetic, instead settling for a forlorn sort of petulance that infects inconclusive dialogue trees at the root. The most affecting vocal presence is the one that is farthest from human. Throughout the game, an ominous force lingers over you punctuating your failings and preventing matters from ever turning ordinary, in a manner that is much more vital to the experience than any interactions felt from human-to-human. It’s a bit hammy but is the only moment where narrative coheres with atmosphere, constantly foreshadowing the lurking malevolence around you.
The force may manifest in demonic creatures or a sudden blizzard, and the roguelite mechanics of Fade to Silence strike fear in you just as frequently as they do frustration. At its most effective, every action in Fade to Silence is reactive. The mad dash to shelter when a blizzard spawns from nowhere. The slimy creatures you stumble upon who operate outside the boundaries of orchestrated setpieces. There’s a degree of genius in how Fade to Silence reconciles the Lovecraftian 101 theme of “loss of control” with terrors that seem to randomly introduce themselves, left to be fended off by whatever supplies you have on hand. It renders “survival horror” as an amalgamation of both genres instead of a definition reduced to “horror games with no regen”.
For large stretches, a once pastoral setting is altered beyond repair, making stumbling upon a foreclosed diner or dismantled train line slightly surreal. Graphics are homely through and through but lend themselves to a dense isolation. The deep red sky bearing down on your surroundings communicates more than the land obscured by snowy banks and muddy textures. The long haul from beacon to beacon rolls onward through barren meandering that adds up to a tangibly desolate atmosphere.
Farm For Your Life
Encounters in Fade to Silence are fleeting but creep up gradually. The central gameplay loop pushing you to the highest points of the map to capture outposts (and cleanse them of tentacled tyranny) is no doubt repetitious but boasts a methodical tension that I found fairly rewarding. Each landscape is something of a trojan horse. Stately flatlands are reserved for resource farming as what you’ll face on the other side is left up to chance. With limited inventory space as well as rapidly dwindling temperature and appetite meters, the urge to farm efficiently is always prominent. It brushes right up to the edge of cruelty but is also indispensable to the panic fueling what makes Fade to Silence compelling.
In Exploration Mode, the infinite respawns deflate this tension quite a bit, a mode that was not available in early access and is perhaps a concession to players. This is commendable in theory but pushes Fade to Silence’s debt to its influences to the forefront, the atmosphere less foreboding and the mechanics more forgiving. I found the happy medium to be the most generous difficulty setting on Survival Mode, affording you six lives (as opposed to three or one) and the ability to replenish them as you travel from outpost to outpost.
Even at its lowest level, Survival Mode is an entirely different beast from Exploration. Replacing the certainty of respawning at the start of the map, a choice that already inflates the game’s difficulty and length but in a way that enhances the prolonged journeys to the farthest outposts, is a character upgrade system whose points may be cashed in at the end of each lifespan. Early on, your outpost progression is completely wiped upon you running out of lives, but upgrades open up in lockstep with your advancements, gradually allowing the grind to dissipate as you progress.
Re-Enter the Void
For many, it will be a tough sell to have to restart the mini-tutorial and re-experience an altered arrangement of the same environment each time you run out of lives. It unfolds at a much more languid pace than most roguelites, forcing you to internalize a fairly complex crafting menu for long-term success or risk having to start matters all over again. Yet the punishing pace of almost every component in the game coalesces into its own apocalyptic vision for the survival genre. The lumbering combat pilfers from Monster Hunter: World extensively, but positions you against less monolithic enemies where the challenge rests on landing a hit in the first place.
The starting formula is about six quick hits or one strong one plus extensive rolling and blocking before your strength must build back up. Encounters are unrelentingly intimate, making your escapes to take a breather while your vital meters continue to dwindle away a taxing balance to strike. Maintaining your own vitality as it constantly threatens to overboil feels nearly impenetrable at first, but it becomes habit soon enough and doubles down on the urgency of survival titles distinguishing what is otherwise standard.
Fade to Silence’s challenge precedes itself in a way that makes it hard to praise without it sounding like a backhanded compliment. It operates through a gameplay loop that seems to actively fight you. Upon its launch it appeared to tip its hand into patently unfair territory, wracked with bugs and reliant on a survival mode that is the highlight of the game but is also profoundly alienating. But in its current incarnation, it is indeed worthy of the discount prices it has constantly been subjected to. Early on, my opinion of Fade to Silence changed roughly every fifteen minutes, but it settled into a distinct admiration for the reconciliation between its downtrodden environment and its expectation of players.
The horror in Fade to Silence does not rest in the rickety creep of its demons but in its relinquishing of safety nets. Black Forest Games have taken the static confines of survival games and roguelites and recharacterized them, embodying the existential chaos of Lovecraftian themes by calling the stability of your surroundings into question.
This review of Fade to Silence is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game.
Through its budget game exterior, Fade to Silence boasts an undeniable vision and does remarkable service to the horrors of the unknown. Just prepare for a steep difficulty curve and some unwieldy platforming.
Enjoys paying less than 20 dollars for a game, especially when it is one people have forgotten about. Wants to be a character in the next Jet Set Radio and hopes you enjoy the site. Has a pet rabbit he nurtures and takes photos of. Still pushing for a Stuntman Ignition remaster 11 years later. Still hasn’t played Fortnite.