Where’s Mei Shin?
What’s scarier to you? Not being able to help your sick loved ones? Not hearing answers to your prayers? How about never reaching your own high expectations? They’re all fears most of us experience at one time or another. They’re the nightmares we make ourselves. And they can be damned terrifying.
Devotion, the new atmospheric horror walking-sim from Red Candle Games, is a sort of follow-up to their breakout hit, Detention. Set in a 1980s Taiwanese apartment block, Devotion is a beautifully authentic cultural depiction of Taiwanese home-life and the worries and fears of common people. Oh, and there are creepy dolls and children – so it’s a hundred times scarier.
Never have I played a game that so thoroughly encapsulates how it feels to be inside a nightmare. The more personal they are, the more they resonate with us. Reliving the past through the mind of a man tortured by grief, spirits, and his pride is an experience that is captivatingly universal in its telling. Whether it’s through the eyes of the father, or the suffering of his wife and child, there’s bound to be at least one aspect of these characters stories that will emotionally resonate with even the most seasoned horror fans.
The story intricately woven into this nightmare is the strongest part of Devotion. Without spoiling too much, it’s centred around a father living through a nightmarish, time-jumpy portrayal of his family’s life, and the impact of his fanatical worship of a demonic spirit.
The handling of religious issues here is complex and culturally authentic for a horror story. It’s incredibly refreshing to see Buddhist concepts and Taiwanese folk religion explored in what is usually a genre laden with Christian undertones. Despite being so entrenched in Taiwanese folk culture, there’s a remarkably universal story here, exploring devotion not only to demonic worship but to ideas like success, duty to family and the stigma of mental health.
For the largest chunk of Devotion, you’ll be wandering through the same apartment wracked by family trauma at different dates in the 1980s. Each time period offers several clues detailing the downfall of the family. I generally suck hard at puzzle games, but even I can say it wasn’t difficult to work through.
It’s slow-paced for a horror game; you’ll spend most of your time walking from room to room soaking in details and collecting fragments of memories. There are some jump scares, which unfortunately only feel included because ‘that’s what horror games do.’ The real horror is in witnessing the slow unravelling of the family unit and its descent into a living nightmare.
The art style is varied, eerily beautiful and often playful. Most of us find fear in the absence of light, the dark corners of dark hallways, but Devotion cleverly makes use of light sources to impose horror. You often find safety in the dark, knowing that the light on in the next room will peel back yet another layer of twisted discoveries.
Red Candle Games have shifted to 3D environments from their last outing flawlessly, playing with depth and light in a way that rivals a AAA production like P.T. or Silent Hill. There are a few long loading screens but nothing too aggravating. The sound design is stellar, and serves the atmospheric approach perfectly with typhoon winds rattling windows, muffled voices echoing from other rooms, the static-laced 1980s television, and some ritual chanting for good measure.
If there’s going to be any major complaint about Devotion, it will likely be its short length. It’s easily completable in one sitting, clocking in at only a few hours long and with little replayability. Like Detention, however, it is unlikely to hold it back from being a cult horror classic.
Devotion, unfortunately, doesn’t bring anything new conceptually to horror or walking-sims, but it does bring an outstanding story, art direction and sound design. The cancellation of P.T. a few years ago left a huge gap for atmospheric horror games to fill and Red Candle Games have stepped up as talented crafters of unsettling experiences.
It’s incredibly easy for people from a western audience (like myself) to dismiss most games from mainland Asia as mobile-based and profit-driven, ignoring the potential indie gems coming from a region rich in cultural history. If you’re after captivating, slow-paced horror with a brilliantly unique cultural perspective and a story surpassing many horror flicks out there, Devotion answers your prayers.
[Reviewed on PC]