Dead Realm: Microsoft Windows [Reviewed], Mac OS
Developer: Section Studios
Release Date: 3 August 2015
Price: €14.99 [Disclosure: Game copy supplied by Developer/Publisher]
I’ve only in recent years become aware of asymmetrical multiplayer as a concept while reading Scott Rogers’ Level Up, a general overview on game design. I think Evolve was the first high profile game that I remember really noticing making use of the concept. Of course, others before it have dabbled with the concept, most notably Left 4 Dead or Aliens vs Predator, but I don’t consider them true asymmetric games, because while giving the competing teams entirely different abilities and mechanics to work with, the teams themselves are more or less numerically balanced. Not so in the X vs 1 genre where a single person needs to use an impressive arsenal to defeat more opponents. Evolve did it with a giant monster, Damned pioneered the genre into a horror movie setting and Dead Realm seeks to follow along the same path.
I think the horror setting fits the X vs 1 genre quite well, since it uses the same dynamic of a horror film. We also have the upcoming slasher game Last Year to look forward to in the future, but for now let’s just focus on the game at hand. To get the elephant in the room out of the way, there was a bit of a…let’s call it “kerfuffle” with Dead Realm being affiliated with several prominent youtubers that were directly involved with the development process and that streamed and promoted the game on their channels without properly disclosing this. It’s a bit of a PR mess. We still don’t seem to know, as gamers, game developers and journalists how and when to disclose things like these, but with the US Federal Trade Commission starting to get involved it’s clear that the industry needs to start growing up soon. But we’re not here on the Journalistic Ethics Amateur Hour, you want me to tell you what I thought about Dead Realm.
Dead Realm‘s Spooky House of Scary Shenenigans
As said above, the general conceit of the game is that multiple players compete on two teams. One of the players, chosen randomly, is the ghost and the rest are the archetypal teenagers. The setting is the deserted manor of deceased electricity tycoon William Huxley that murdered his entire family and then ghosts happened. There are several cleverly designed levels (four at the time of writing) so far of the manor and its surroundings. Dead Realm being essentially a game of Hide and Seek, the levels are labyrinthine by design, with plenty of shortcuts, secrets and dead ends. As a mortal, the environment is your primary weapon. Some, but not all of the ovens, cupboards or crawlspaces can be interacted with and hidden inside of. There are also various traps that you can use to temporarily delay or displace the ghost if things become dire.
The two modes of play (currently) are Bounty and Seek & Reap. They share the only the common elements of multiplayer matches: number of rounds, and round time limit. Beyond that, Bounty is somewhat of a scavenger hunt with players racing to find a set number of pocket watches before being either killed (reaped) by the ghost or have the timer run out. Sadly, I wasn’t able to experience this game mode during my time with Dead Realm, because no one seemed to be playing it. As online lobbies are often wont to do, they gravitate towards the most straightforward game mode and in this case that is Seek and Reap. As mentioned, it’s little more than a game of Hide and Seek, with the important distinction that once reaped (wow, I’m growing increasingly concerned that you’ll misread this word) you become one of the seekers, a spirit minion. This means that as the game progresses it gets easier for the ghost and harder for the humans.
As a human your arsenal of gadgets and techniques is limited. You can sprint for a short time, which depletes your stamina. You have access to several protective shield bubbles that can either enclose you for a short while, or block a hallway for long enough for you to escape, as the ghost cannot pass or hurt anyone through a shield. Another ability is to deploy decoys that confuse or mislead the ghost player, causing him or her to waste time or get frustrated and search elsewhere. Perhaps your most important gadget, however, is your smartphone. In addition to letting you browse through the mansion’s security cameras while spending your time in an oven, soiling your pants, it also comes with some sort of app that detects the ghost’s proximity by displaying increasingly intense static.
Playing the ghost, of course, is where the real fun is. You have a choice between The (self-explanatory) Wolfman, the creepy haunted doll Baby William and the hulking monstrosity that is The Butcher. At this time there are no differences between the various type of ghost mechanically speaking. As a ghost, first and foremost you can run further than the humans, toggle a view mode where you can see the “life energy” of the closest two players even through walls, double jump and turn invisible. All of these abilities drain your stamina, so conserving it is vital in case you need to quickly burst forward and close a gap.
Once you get sufficiently close to a player’s location you no longer see their life force, you are simply notified that they are nearby. But the best fun you can have as a ghost is in scaring the ever loving shit out of them by periodically taunting (still trying to decide whether the Butcher’s various meat related taunts are scarier or Baby William’s innocent calls to “plaaaaaay”). You can also hear everything the players communicate to one another over the in-game voice chat. This can either help you or mislead you, depending on how they use this feature. Once you get close enough to a player, reaping them is a quick matter executed with a simple click.
[…] with horror elements
I was a bit worried that Dead Realm, being a multiplayer-only title (connections, however, are peer to peer), would have an inferior atmosphere. While it doesn’t compare with something nerve-wracking and claustrophobic like Amnesia, there is still enough here to keep you on the edge of your seat. I played it correctly: at night, in the dark, with headphones on. Now, as if a competitive multiplayer game is not tense enough, there’s also the added element of hiding somewhere in a cupboard, hearing static, the roars of the Butcher or the tiny little baby feet passing you by. If you get caught you are treated to a delightful little jump-scare that is effective the first few times, but does lose its impact later on.
The sounds are pretty good, where present. The main title music is atmospheric and the various roars, footsteps and taunts are effective in making you at least flex slightly and occasionally panic. What the game seems to lack, however, are more ambient sounds. Aside from a repetitive radio message about the murders in the house, I’d like to hear floorboards creak, squeaky door hinges, distant objects falling and so on. The game overall, as a matter of fact, seems more concerned with its mechanics rather than building a proper horror atmosphere. The ghosts and humans are just disjointed horror archetypes with little background to tie them into a larger narrative. Even in a multiplayer game, if horror is your aim, having the players be invested in the setting goes a long way. This is what makes a first person horror game stand out as more than just streaming fodder. Indeed, several of the games I’ve played were either being recorded for YouTube, or being streamed on Twitch.
I don’t have a problem with that, nor do I have a problem with the in-game voice chat (content not rated), as they are vital for many multiplayer games, but Dead Realm rarely seems concerned with having any sort of thematic cohesion. Maybe I haven’t read enough of the background information, but who are the characters? What are some of their personality traits? Why are there security cameras in Huxley Manor if it’s abandoned? Why did William Huxley have a werewolf henchman? Why is his dead baby William shaped like a ventriloquist doll? How does the damn decoy item even work? Damned while having some problems itself was a much darker experience both thematically and literally. And speaking of darkness…
At this point Dead Realm looks decent. The character models are not terrific, but they’re ok. They could do with a bit more expression added to them or more variations of the reap animations. The environments, however, look good. And that is a problem. It almost looks too crisp, too neat, too bright. It’s a horror-themed game…I’m expecting dim lights, gritty camera filters, maybe a bit of noise added here and there to the textures. As of now, Huxley Manor is more of “some house at night” rather than a haunted abandoned building.
Of course, we still have to remember that the game is in early access and that many of these aspects are still subject to change. There are issues, but nothing damning (no pun intended) or that would require a massive overhaul to address. All in all, Dead Realm was a fun experience for me in spite of its misgivings and I really hope that come full release it will have found its identity. I, for one, have faith in Section Studios and that they’ll manage to pull it off. After all, they’re the minds behind the incredibly atmospheric visual novel Vlad The Impaler, so fingers crossed.