Lovingly crafted, poorly executed.
A few of my friends recently played Firewatch, and their general consensus was this: “It’s good, but the ending in underwhelming”. Contrary to what my friends think I strongly believe the ending was great for a variety of reasons and I have a sneaky suspicion we’d be similarly opposed with Old Gods Rising.
With a chugging framerate, constant environmental drop-ins and a difficult location to navigate around, Bad Blood Studios’ will immediately have some running for the hills. In spite of the annoyances, though, I came away not with a smile but an appreciative grin.
Essentially made by one man, ex-BioWare developer and industry veteran, Hayden Duvall, Old Gods Rising is a love letter to university life, movie making and master of everything nefarious and tentacle-related; Cthulu. This is an H.P Lovecraft inspired, narrative-driven game so if you’re not fond of traipsing around and soaking in one environment or crevices filled with glowing red eyes, this will not be for you.
Set in the quiet Ashgate University, you’ll take control of Professor Thomas Winston, an expert in Ancient History and profoundly knowledgeable about rocks – particularly if they’ve been scribbled upon by people long gone. Hired by an eccentric filmmaker, Maz Khafer, Thomas has been asked to have a look at some unusual stone monuments dotted around the university, but when the sardonic professor arrives for the meet and greet, the place is deserted – eerily so. And thus begins The Mystery.
After meandering through a glitchy car park with trailers covering the concrete, you’ll soon end up in a phone booth, calling your partner and explaining what’s going on, or rather, what should be and isn’t. This sparks off the majority of the game where either through a walkie talkie or phone booths scattered around the university, you’ll be chatting to either Khafer, your partner or – on a few occasions – some often apprehensive strangers. Through your various sources, you’ll start to get an understanding of what’s happening, who to trust and what’s led the professor down this particularly demeaning path.
It’s a simple system of finding a certain part of the university using its limited number of signs (which aren’t as helpful as you’d hope), investigating the area (usually for a big, very old chunk of stone) and reporting back to the relevant person. Like the aforementioned Firewatch, Old Gods Rising wants you to experience a story, rather than shoot something in the face or platform onto the next ledge. It’s about plonking you in a place and giving you an excuse to go from one department to the next, enjoying the architecture or various sculptures (most of which are references which went over my tiny head.)
In spite of its technical failings, the environment is a nice one to walk around in, and although it doesn’t pack the same sort of feel as Firewatch (which is an extraordinary standard, to be fair) there are moments where the sun catches a certain bridge or sandy coloured building, and Duvall’s artistic skill is flaunted. However, at this point, the game’s Steam photos don’t truly represent the version I played.
But no matter what it looks like, it’s the story where this game needs to excel at and, for the most part, it does.
As you wander deeper into the university and its grounds, the lack of any other humans feels lonelier and lonelier as if at any minute, something terrible will happen. Old Gods Rising paces itself well, with its reveals given a nice build-up although the execution isn’t quite there. Not to say the voice acting is bad, the performances are generally well done with a nice variety of English accents coming through with the main characters sounding a bit prim and proper (although Khafer’s American accent can feel a bit over-the-top and a few lines are delivered a bit flat.) Old Gods Rising’s reveals are hindered by the relatively static animations – particularly at the end of the game – and it’s at its best when it displays snapshots of the creepiness (although, when you see a certain, expected creature, the moment is incredibly well done and skin crawling.)
Old Gods Rising is unsettling. It does a wonderful job of making you uneasy, constantly convincing you you’re being watched by someone or something, which the story is happy to suggest.
If you want a game with a story which has multiple twists, an ambiguous ending, a nice sense of creepiness (without playing a horror game) and a fun, small insight into ancient civilisations and the gods they worshipped, Old Gods Rising maybe for you. Although, I’d wait for it to be a bit more stable if I were you.
[Reviewed on PC]