By Scott Ramage / October 4th, 2019
|Developer||Cracked Heads Games|
|Release Date||August 9th, 2019|
It’s not an exaggeration to say I’ve played hundreds of horror games over the years. The advent of indie gaming and platforms like Steam opened the floodgates, letting anyone who ever got startled by their air conditioning turning on make and distribute a spooky game. Cracked Heads Games threw their hat into the proverbial ring with Silver Chains, a first-person horror title driven largely by story and exploration. Does it manage to stand out from the crowd? Let’s find out.
You take the role of Peter, whom just crashed what looks like a late 1800s pickup truck through a fence and into a tree, which is alongside a one-lane road leading to and ending at a mansion. Despite sounding like he wasn’t trying to go to said mansion, he tries to enter it and ask for help. Peter blacks out on the front porch, then wakes up in a random room talking about how he collapsed in the backyard. In less than two minutes Silver Chains, a story-driven horror game, manages to contradict itself twice. I’ll expand on this more later, but the introduction wound up setting the tone for how well-written the game is.
As for how it plays, Silver Chains has Peter explore the dimly lit mansion in first-person, aided by a lantern for when things get too dark. His exact goals change as the game progresses, but ultimately he has to do two things, the first being find a bunch of items. For this Peter has to wander around the mansion trying to open doors, some of which are locked, some of which are barred or held shut, and some of which never open because they have no button prompt. Most items are keys or things that ostensibly function as keys, and some are tied to puzzles. These puzzles vary from easy time killers to somewhat confusing, due in large part to the hints for multiple puzzles sometimes appearing at the same time. As for the easier puzzles, I’ll put it this way. One involves a padlocked door with a four-digit combination lock. The combination is in plain sight, written on a wall six feet away.
The second thing Peter must do is not get caught. Fairly early in Silver Chains, some ghost kids warn him about “mother.” Said mother is a violent demon zombie thing which appears and chases Peter, forcing him to duck inside huge closets placed all over the home to avoid her. If that sounds interesting, I apologize for misleading you. First of all, I get the feeling mother’s design is supposed to be more terrifying than it actually is. It looks eerily similar to the mother in Andy Muschietti’s Mama, but instead of the bizarre gait and arm twitches of that film’s mother, this one just speed walks like someone who stood up after both legs fell asleep. Said legs don’t move fast enough for her movement speed. Even when Peter gets caught, mother’s preferred method of murder seems to be one hard slap across the face. Underwhelming to say the least, but not as much as how she behaves throughout the game. When she does appear she can be easily kited around tables and desks to get away, the key phrase being “when she does appear.” Mother only appears at set times, usually right after hitting one of many checkpoints or when picking up an item. Then Peter usually runs (or rather jogs) ten to twenty feet, hides in a closet, and she walks off. Beyond that he can do multiple laps through the whole mansion and never see her. At one point I somehow moved too fast for her and she despawned before getting to the closet I was supposed to hide in.
Sound design is both a strength and weakness in Silver Chains. Music is used sparingly, typically for flashbacks and tense moments, and does its job fairly well. That said most of the game is silent, save for Peter’s footsteps and the occasional crack of thunder. Even so, audio jump scares (read: jump startles) are pretty common in this game. Perhaps in an effort to accentuate them more, the sound options have a slider for music but not for sound effects. Many of the jump scares tend to come off as desperate and not fitting for what’s going on. I remember walking down a hallway when some wood boards flew off a window and what sounded like a demonic belch played through my speakers. It wasn’t a jump scare so much as a temper tantrum. Meanwhile, every character in the game save for the monsters is fully voiced. The acting of said voices is passable, but the casting and scripting undermines that the game is supposed to be story-driven. Peter and the ghost kids have British accents, but their parents speak in a flat North American dialect. The ghost children tend to speak in that digitized, three-pitch voice patch that’s been done to death by film and video games since the 1980s. At one point a kid runs away with a key item and instead of saying “Can’t catch me,” he says “Catch me up!” Usually those awkward bits of English are reserved to Peter’s unvoiced thoughts, like when he wonders “How could such a big maze locate in the house?”
The best word I can come up with for the visuals in Silver Chains is acceptable. It’s perfectly stable and looks and runs a bit better than the average Steam horror game, at least when you’re looking at what the game wants you to. There are some nice lighting effects from the stray candle and lantern, and from the dust floating around the supposedly empty mansion. Looking around a bit makes you realize that all the windows are grayed out, every picture and painting is blurred and that you can see through the sides of several doors. If you have to restart from a checkpoint, some animations (e.g. wood boards falling over) won’t play. The street urchin-like designs for the ghost kids aren’t particularly inspired, nor are the ones for the dolls. Maybe it’s just me, but whenever I see a largely featureless doll or statue shown prominently in a horror game, my first thought is “This is a touched up placeholder.” The exception is the main doll, which just looks (and sometimes acts) like Slappy from the Goosebumps series.
This leads to the one question not just asked of Silver Chains, but of any horror game: is it scary? I could see it being scary to a person who has only played one or two horror games, or only seen one or two horror movies before. For everyone else, Silver Chains feels like a game inspired by a variety of horror characters and commonly used themes, but one which doesn’t understand what makes them work in the first place. Peter crashes his car, goes to a house for help, and ends up stuck in an old mansion on a stormy night with a flashlight of sorts. The introduction alone feels like it was written by random lines of a TV Tropes page. Beyond that there is the Mama-esque monster, a second monster that looks like a closet cosplay of a Leshen from The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, and the aforementioned bland or Goosebumps-like dolls. Nothing stands out with its words or actions, and instead it feels like everything is reaching for vicarious scares based on what they’re associated with.
As for the rest of Silver Chains, it’s exploration and backtracking combined with specifically timed mother encounters. The player ends up running around the mansion, covering most rooms multiple times while looking for key items or places to use them. There’s a lens that shows where some of them are, but it usually just points out a general area to go and not the item’s specific location. Familiarity takes the edge off, as I knew where every closet was and how almost every room and hallway were laid out by the midway point. There were also some missed chances, like in a maze of bookshelves where the worst that happens is a ghost kid walks by at one point. Even when the game threw in something different, it came off as halfhearted. A ball will roll down a hallway and repeatedly bump into a door, which just looks goofy. A ghost girl will lightly tap her head against a wall, somehow causing it to bleed all over the place, then fall back and disappear, which just looks too awkward to be scary. A ghost lady will slide in through a doorway, then slide back as though she was wheeled into and out of the scene at the last second, which just looks hilarious. The worst part is when the obligatory “monster realizes you’re in the closet” scene happens and, instead of animating anything, a JPEG of the mother appears and the screen goes white. What atmosphere does get built quickly gets undermined by the stale or laughable execution of the scares, punctuated by notes headlined with hilariously blunt titles like “How to put a soul in a doll.”
And then there’s the story. Silver Chains makes a point to say it’s heavily driven by the story, but as has already been pointed out it can’t even keep basic details consistent. It also relies heavily on journal entries and notes to get across said story, so the player spends the fair portion of the game either reading these to try and understand what’s going on, or barreling past them and getting more confused. Spoilers follow in the next couple paragraphs, because maybe if I type out what happens in later parts of the game it will start making sense to me.
Peter realizes upon finding various journal entries that the mother came unglued after her husband died. Did I mention Peter already has the mother’s “dairy” in his inventory when this all starts? Anyway, it’s revealed that Peter is actually the son of the parents and brother to the ghost kids, who sacrificed themselves to help him escape. This despite a later scene which depicts the kids being murdered by the mother, who is then executed by the father, so no sacrifice. Also it’s apparent the mother died first, so what’s happening? Peter tries to save the father, who is trapped in a doll that has various limbs missing. Who put him there? I still don’t know. Note that despite this doll he’s trapped in not being able to move, it still somehow gives Peter a library key later on which he could have used much sooner.
It turns out the father had an evil doll which tricked the mother into killing the kids, except Peter; a maid helped him run away. The dad then somehow ends up in the evil doll? Or is it a different doll? There are multiple dolls. Either way he asked Peter to destroy five cursed drawings, which he never did, and I don’t know if that’s a good thing, or if the dad just made it up, or that part of the game was cut for time. Have I mentioned there are two mothers? There’s the evil mother that chases you around, and a good mother who appears in hallucinations, although good mother still turns on Peter at one point. Are both real? Anyway, the ghost kids can’t decide if they hate Peter or not, to the point where one goes from wanting nothing to do with him to wanting to help him in the span of two sentences. Peter claims “they” will stop at nothing to prevent him from getting the amulets and ritual ingredients, even as “they” do absolutely nothing and in fact want him to complete the ritual, which his father wanted to do in the first place. What is Peter doing? I don’t know, but he summons the thing that isn’t a Leshen, called the Puppeteer, which acts just like evil mother who may have turned good at one point after seeing a family photo? Then Peter jogs in circles in the attic, grabbing things that were in the ritual seconds ago but teleported elsewhere, so he can stab himself and send the Puppeteer to… Hell? And rejoin his family as a spirit? I think? Nevermind, I still don’t understand what was going on. This despite the game only taking a little over two hours to complete.
Silver Chains is a story-driven horror game that almost immediately can’t keep its story straight. Even if it did, the aimless wandering and general lack of threat the two monsters pose make the already tired scare tactics at work even weaker. It’s competently made (which is rare nowadays for a Steam horror game) and has some clear inspiration, but badly needs a more creative take on its character design, setting and gameplay. As is, it merely blends in with the sea of Steam horror titles that use the same settings, scares and game mechanics. $25 is too much for this short, disjointed experience. Even with a price drop, there’s not enough to distinguish Silver Chains as anything other than another brick in the Steam horror wall.
Review copy provided by publisher.
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