NOTE: this game received a major update on the day that this review was written, which supposedly addresses some of our complaints. This review reflects the game as it was for version 1.0.5. We will attempt to update this review for the new version 1.0.6 in time.
It’s Halloween, which means that it’s time for everyone to partake in some spooks, and if you’ve already watched The Haunting of Hill House, you might want to pick up a spooky game instead. The Dark Occult, previously known as The Conjuring House, is a new horror game that brings players into the haunted Atkinson house in order to solve a number of disappearances. Unfortunately, while the game offers a creepy atmosphere and some fun scares, technical issues keep this game from becoming as good as it should be.
You play the role of an investigator, sent into the stereotypically spooky Atkinson house, in order to determine what has happened to the previous group of people who went in, and hopefully not succumb to the same fate. Once inside, you find yourself hunted by horrific monsters and a mysterious woman with demonic powers. Your task is to find the five possessed artifacts and destroy them, in order to defeat the demons and remove the curse on the house. It’s pretty standard horror story fare, but it sets you up for some creepy scares, and that’s usually all you need.
The whole game is built on stereotypes, really. You won’t be finding much original material here: haunted house, finding keys, running and hiding from demons, dark areas, and plenty of jump scares. To the game’s credit, some of the jump scares are very well executed; one early moment particularly stands out, as you watch scary imagery build up, then suddenly stop, only for the jump scare to occur as soon as you’re certain that you’re in the clear. (Upon reflection, it makes very little sense, but it sure is spooky.) There are other cinematic scare moments that, while not too original, are still plenty of fun; the moment where you have an otherworldly conversation with an old owner of the house stands out in my mind.
On the whole, the game has a great atmosphere to it. Mansions are old hat, but this one uses an effective combination of lighting effects, tight hallways and general design to create a genuinely unsettling atmosphere. Other areas ditch the general house facade and take you into underground mausoleums or ritual areas dug out of the wall, and while these are a bit too on-the-nose to be that scary, they provide a much-needed change of pace. The graphics, on their max settings, are actually quite impressive (with a few buggy exceptions, but they’re not common) and this adds a lot to the creep factor. Whatever my feelings on the game may be, I can’t deny that it’s spooky. The one exception to this is the way documents in this game are written; they’re supposed to make you more unsettled, but they’re so bad at subtlety that they just rip me out of the moment. This is not exactly the pinnacle of good writing.
The gameplay at this point is well-worn ground, as well. You walk or run through the mansion, avoiding monsters and picking up items or keys to make your way further through the house. You have no weapons, so if you’re about to have your face eaten, you either have to hide until they leave, or use one of the protective talismans scattered around the place (which are also quite rare, so use them sparingly). One gripe I have with this game is that the gameplay never really changes in any meaningful way, and walking around gets old after a few hours. When compared to games like Resident Evil 7, which masterfully changes up the gameplay as the game proceeds, the repetition just stands out that much more here. If you’re really into the atmosphere, though, this may not bother you the way it bothered me.
What really frustrated me during the game was my ability to frequently get stuck, because it didn’t feel like it was very much my fault. This game does an astonishingly poor job of highlighting what you can interact with, and if you’re not looking directly at a key item, there’s a very good chance you’ll miss it and then wander around aimlessly for an hour or so, unable to proceed. This applies to documents as well, not that those are particularly important for the most part. It’s also very easy to get lost in the early game, as you are presented with approximately a thousand doors you can walk through; it’s rather overwhelming, and it takes a while to properly piece together a mental map of the mansion.
What really sinks The Dark Occult, however, is just how buggy and unoptimized the game is. My video card is a bit old, but I still had to turn all the graphics effects down to medium in order for it to run at an acceptable level, which is frustrating to see for an indie game. Every time I walked through a door (which, in a haunted house, is pretty common), the animation was a bit too quick and janky, taking me out of the moment every time. While I hadn’t experienced some of the issues that other players had with triggers not occurring, I did experience issues like achievements never triggering, or the game crashing/hard locking while walking through a door, causing me to lose both my progress and my patience.
Overall, I think that The Dark Occult has a lot of potential, and future updates could mitigate a lot of the game’s issues; judging by the patch notes of 1.0.6, some of these. Issues may be addressed already. It’s not a game that will ever light the world on fire, but it has a solid and well-crafted atmosphere, and it knows how to deliver scares. The game’s execution, however, brings it down to a rather disappointing level. This is a game worth keeping an eye on, but for now, I would advise people to hold off and wait for patches to clean this game up.