The Park ReviewJoe Shaffer
I thought I would enjoy The Park the instant I pushed through the entryway turnstile and beheld the dying light and fading electronics around me. A voice on the PA system announced the amusement park's closure, obviously symbolizing--as works of horror are wont to do in their opening phases--that all bets were off and evil would soon arrive. Sunlight dimmed, lamps kicked in, and a soon began the aural onslaught. As with most frightening "walking simulators," anomalous noises, snarls, and thuds sounded from behind shrubs and in grassy patches. Daring players looking for a solid scare might turn to investigate these phenomena, hearts thumping painfully in their chests, only to find nothing there. Sadly, no matter how often you look for trouble throughout this game, you'll never find it...
Your search for your missing child leads you to several attractions, including a version of the Tunnel of Love decked out with projectors and speakers that play the story Hansel and Gretel on faux-cave walls. This might seem like a leisurely float on the water, but then you hear tense music and feel a sharp thud from an unseen entity ramming your vessel. If you're like me, you'll probably attempt to dive in the water and swim away, only to realize there is no release from the swan-boat. It's then you'll likely figure out that the being in the water is just another harmless trick. Worse than that, you're stuck in a slowly sailing watercraft and are forced to watch a familiar drama unfold until you've reached your destination. It's disheartening when the worst thing about a horrifying segment is the prospect of drawn out tedium and not the device used to scare you.
Later on, you investigate some bumper cars. After reading about an incident in which someone was horribly maimed by faulty buggies, one of the vehicles whirs to life. It careens towards you, promising to shatter your bones and leave you a pained, expiring heap. The only problem is this occurs during a cutscene, so there's no reason to fear. In The Park, the only attempts at actual scares are little more than cinematic sequences. Worse, they're of a rather tame variety, the kind of thing you would see on a made-for-TV horror film from yesteryear. Again, if I don't actually fear for life or limb, then what is there to be afraid of?
Danger is essential to a horror piece. There is no worry without hazard, and no fear without worry. This can be a problem for walking simulators because their defining trait is that they're minimally interactive, but rich in narrative or lore. They play out more like vignettes than video games and therefore typically eschew 'game over' events. The challenge that developers must overcome is to create the illusion that players are in jeopardy without actually killing them off. The Park doesn't achieve this at any point, though it does offer one spooky segment whilst riding the roller coaster. Again, though, that occurs in a cutscene.
There's one more trap that modern first-person adventure titles tend to spring: prattle. Dear Esther may have been a revolutionary title, but listening to old man yap on for ages about obvious metaphors was tiresome. The Park, for the most part, mimics Esther, sans the constant barrage of obscure words used to impress college professors. In spite of its less than pretentious vocabulary, the game's monologues still come off as unnatural. Bear in mind, you're playing a panicked young mother, Lorraine, searching for her lost son Calum in the midst of an apparently haunted amusement park (or perhaps it's something more sinister...). Although most of her lines read naturally, she occasionally blah-blah-blahs in a somewhat out-of-character manner, almost as if the writers couldn't separate themselves from Lorraine.
There comes a point near the tale's conclusion where the game nearly pulls itself together. Here we enter the metaphoric (and somewhat literal) downward spiral seen in so many horror titles, and I might've been shocked to witness the events depicted in the closing act had the narrative have been more ambiguous. Unfortunately, a fair portion of Lorraine's blathering reveals so much about the character that the ending isn't shocking. There's even a scene or two where the game is obviously foreshadowing, but Lorraine has to ruin the already conspicuous device by outright telling you something about herself that spoils the "surprise." Games of this nature tend to flow much better when the writers trust the audience to make clever connections rather than beating them over the head with revelations.
...And yet, The Park was almost on to something. The visuals and lighting are terrific, the mood and atmosphere are excellent, but the game loses a lot of its power by either hitting you with tame frights or clumsily stumbling through a narrative with a predictable conclusion. I mean, they pretty much tell you early on how the game is going to end. Minimally interactive adventure titles have been around for several years now. Although there have been a few stellar entries to this genre, it still has a long way to go, if The Park is any indication.
Disclosure: We are provided copies of games from the game companies for some games that we review.