The Tower of Dubious Horror Games 2023
Welcome back to the realm of Dubious Horror. I’ll be honest: I have a shortlist for The Wheel of Dubious RPGs III: The Absolute Dregs with more than 40 games, as well as a smaller list of dubious character action stuff I'd really like to show off. Both of these will likely come to fruition next year, but I think it’s time to return to Dubious Video Games with a seasonally appropriate slate of prime quality dubious horror. I’ve been berated by my “friends” for playing too much good stuff in the last few months, so it’s important that I stress: there’s gonna be some real garbage in this one. I’m very excited to showcase some of the stuff on my list and I hope you come along either during my streams or with these write-ups.
What makes a game “Dubious” you may ask? This is a question people have posed to me multiple times and I figure it’s worth laying out here. My extremely serious and not-at-all loose criteria for such is threefold: Weird, Questionable, and Obscure. Chances are, if a game fits one or more of these extremely specific and not at all subjective adjectives it qualifies for this feature. For example: only the most asinine of contrarians will stake Resident Evil 4 as being “dubious,” but there are numerous main-series and side games in that franchise that I think would undoubtedly qualify. I played two out of the four Gun Survivor games, and I can say with some assurance that Resident Evil Dead Aim is a weird fucked up thing and Resident Evil Survivor is hot trash. Similarly, a game might not have a bad reputation, but if it’s weird enough or no one has heard of it, that’s worthy of my notice as well. Finally, I want to stress that “dubiosity” is an indicator entirely separate from quality or how much I enjoyed any given game. Blue Stinger might not play especially well, but hot damn is it one of the most memorable things I played last year.
Daymare 1994: Sandcastle
Category: Indie Dubious Horror Around the World (Europe)
Developer: Invader Studios
Release Date: August 29, 2023
Time Played: a little over 7 hours
Dubiosity: 4 out of 5
Would I play again? No.
As the inaugural game of Dubious Horror 2023, the hottest release of this year, and the prequel to “one of the worst games I’ve played on stream” I had high hopes for Daymare 1994. Unfortunately for all my Going There/Being There enthusiasts, I have terrible news: Daymare 1994 is a far more competent game than its predecessor. The small Italian development team at Invader Studios got the memo, took a look at Daymare 1998, and then proceeded to “make a better video game.” Oh, it’s still terrible, mind you, but instead of being terrible in a way that was a highlight of last year’s feature, this one is just kind of a boring linear action shooty shoot thing.
I had plenty of words to say about the previous game, but it’s the kind of thing that makes sense when you think about its roots as a fan remake of RE2. It’s a game with more enthusiasm than sense or budget or really anything resembling cohesion. Between the bits of Resident Evil fan fiction with the serial numbers filed off there were numerous attempts at making a weird busted pastiche of other, better survival horror games. To reiterate, it’s one of the worst things I played last year (a year where I also tricked three other adult men into playing Aliens Colonial Marines with me for the children) but it feels like a bad Resident Evil fan project that wished upon a star and became a $30 published video game. If you'd like a reminder of how that went, my write up from last year is here.
Perhaps wisely, Daymare 1994 understands its limitations better, and instead tries to focus on action above all else. You’re only controlling one character, from one perspective, and a set inventory of tools and abilities. There aren’t even that many puzzles or anything resembling inventory management this time around. It’s just your not-Umbrella agent lady with a MP5k, a shotgun, and a cryo gauntlet. In this video game, you mostly just do a light jog through well-rendered but overly large environments, occasionally interrupted with fights against exactly three regular enemy types, all of whom are weak to “getting shot in the head” or “getting sprayed with cryo gas.” There is barely anything resembling variance to these encounters, it just eventually ends. You can upgrade said cryo gauntlet with more abilities, but otherwise you get no new weapons or tools or really anything that helps differentiate hour one from hour seven.
The storytelling is still bizarre and incoherent, to the point where it’s genuinely impossible to understand the main drive of the plot and I'm not going to even try. That’s fine. It’s honestly a plus, given that every cutscene has an essential “what the fuck is going on” quality to it. It also, weirdly enough, doesn’t actually tie into Daymare 1998 all that much outside of a limp post-credits stinger. If there were more cutscenes with that sort of deranged, incoherent quality instead of endless hallways, I’d probably have more positive words to say about this one. Instead I’m left adrift. I do think if Invader refocuses themselves a bit, they can probably find a happy medium between "One of the worst things I've played on stream" and "God this is just a really slight third person shooter with a lot of running" I know in my heart they'll find a way. Should you play it? No, oh god no. Please don't. There are plenty of genuinely good smaller indie games trying to do the resident evil throwback thing which are far more worth your time. Have you played Signalis yet? you should play Signalis!
Song of Horror
Category: Indie Dubious Horror Around the World (Europe)
Developer: Protocol Games
Release Date: October 31, 2019
Time Played: 7 hours
Dubiosity: 2 out of 5
Would I play again? The perma-death mechanic really took the wind out of my sails here, so I’m leaning towards no even if I think the game itself is mostly decent.
Previous company excluded, one of the more exciting things I’ve wanted to delve into with this incarnation of Dubious Horror is the indie scene. Not full-on steam trash or streamer bait, but well-intentioned horror games of varying kinds on modest budgets with modestly-sized teams. Sometimes you get a Daymare 1998, but other times you get a Tormented Souls. It’s a surprisingly vibrant scene, all things told, and even if not all of it is great there’s at least a chance it’ll be interesting. The games on my shortlist for these categories are ambitious enough or at the very least noteworthy enough that I feel like I can talk about them and their dubious qualities without feeling like I’m punching down on “like five dudes.”
With all that said, Song of Horror might be closer to the “not actually dubious” end of the scale, inasmuch as I could see a human being who isn’t weird and irony poisoned having a good time. An episodic, smaller-scale survival horror game with multiple playable characters, a weirdly punishing perma-death mechanic (more on that later) and some really impressive environments is frankly better than what I want or expect from the same feature that led me to play Countdown Vampires. I can respect a smaller game that knows its limitations and scope just as much as I can enjoy one that wildly overreaches, but the latter is usually better for #content.
To be clear, the basic game part of Song of Horror involves you selecting one of a handful of characters with slightly different properties, wandering around mundane spooky environments with fixed camera angles solving various Adventure Game and/or Resident Evil puzzles. The first episode takes place in a spooky house, the second a spooky antique store (and its adjoining apartment complex) and the third a university archive. There’s some sort of overarching story about a cursed music box, an unkillable eldritch presence, and a guy who really could use a nap, but since I didn’t finish the game I can’t really say if it managed to nail whatever landing it was going for. I’ll just say that by the levels of competence I expect from this genre, for this feature, it seemed a resounding fine/10
While I wouldn’t call the game all that scary (insomuch as I am resistant to a lot of that stuff these days) there’s a good level of detail and spooky atmosphere I think they manage to nail. The actual puzzle design for a lot of the puzzles I would put on the obtuse side of acceptable. A lot of these games tend to have puzzles that are a little more involved than the survival horror games which inspired them, and this one is no different. I, at one point, had to take notes. Gross. What is this, some sort of myst clone? Disgusting.
Instead of combat, however, there’s an AI-driven presence who will show up to ruin your day. This feels as much like an intentional experiment as it does a self-imposed limitation to not have to design combat mechanics. Avoiding the smoky, tentacle shadow thing entails listening to doors, not poking your head in obvious deathtraps, and…participating in QTE minigames. So here’s the thing. Shooting a zombie in the head or running past it is the kind of small, tense interaction that adds friction to what would otherwise be walking between points of interest. Trying to recreate that tension via “occasionally finding a hiding place and doing a breathing minigame with the triggers” is a bit less engaging once you’ve done it the third or fourth time, especially since the consequences of failing are instant death.
I’ve been dancing around it, but I think the instant death stuff is actually what killed my desire to see this one to the finish line. You have, in essence, a fixed number of “lives” (random people who live in suburban UK) to do an entire episode with or restart it from the beginning. When and where “the presence” will attack is governed by an AI director, so what I think the game is trying to do is encourage cautious play. What it actually does tends to be a bit less fair, I think. There are usually clues hinting at various actions which will lead to death, but some of them are obtuse or punish curiosity. Basically, what I’m saying is that Song of Horror intentionally or unintentionally evokes a Sierra adventure game more than a Resident Evil. I feel like being friends with ZombiePie for over a decade has ruined me and this haunting is the result of that.
I don’t think the component parts necessarily add up to something amazing, but I do think if this mechanic was a bit less punishing (or if I wasn’t the kind of person who enjoyed poking at things that would obviously kill me) it probably would’ve been the difference between finishing the game and deciding to move on. While it certainly displays signs of indie-budget jank, my overall feeling is that it’s probably a bit too competent to fully earn the dubious pedestal. Thankfully, the next couple games I’m covering have no such problem.