A game with a blind protagonist that’s all about the visuals.
Developer: The Deep End Games
Format: PC, PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One
Released: May 30 (PC) & June 6 (console), 2017
Copy provided by publisher
In a world where you can trip over a paving slab and find fifteen of them on the floor it’s becoming increasingly difficult for indie horror games to stand out, but that’s exactly what The Deep End achieved with Perception.
A stylistic and unique take on the increasingly weary cat-and-mouse spook ’em up, Perception had peoples’ attention from the get-go.
The pedigree of the team was a huge selling point, especially when it was raising funds on Kickstarter. The Deep End proudly boasts developers who have worked on BioShock and BioShock Infinite, and they wanted you to know it.
More than that, however, was the central premise of Perception – protagonist Cassie is blind, and as she explores a haunted mansion in Massachusetts, she’ll need to rely on more than her eyes to make it through the night.
At least that’s the theory. In practice, the use of echolocation as a gameplay mechanic makes for an inherently visual game, one that uses its protagonist’s impairment more as a means for a unique graphical style than a meaningful challenge.
In a twist of unfortunate irony, the game uses imagery to represent sound so much that audio itself has very little impact on the game – an issue that feels notably jarring in a game about using sound to navigate.
Players see (and that doesn’t need to be quotes) by tapping Cassie’s cane on the ground and using the reverb to build a picture of her surroundings. By doing this, players can effectively see better than Daredevil ever could, right down to individual bolts and textures in floorboards, as well as entire human faces (or doll faces, at the very least).
Any sound in the environment paints a detailed picture of nearby surroundings in ethereal shades of blue. While Cassie’s cane is the primary method of visualizing the world, details are further illuminated by chiming clocks, hissing radiators, and dripping water.
Much of the screen is naturally rendered in black while details are picked out in blue. Doorways or important hiding spots appear with green highlighting. To keep players from truly stumbling around, Cassie also possesses a convenient “sixth sense” ability that pinpoints the next objective with a bright white outline.
I’ll confess that I do not know how those able to utilize echolocation “see” their world, and I’ll also acknowledge the inherent difficulty in making first-person game that effectively portrays blindness while remaining playable, recognizable, and marketable. With my ignorance of the former and knowledge of the latter, I won’t criticize the way Perception handles it too harshly.
I will however suggest the entire game’s premise comes off as overtly gimmicky rather than a serious attempt to try something unique, with the character’s visual restriction wallpapering over what would otherwise be a fairly rote horror experience.
Cassie had a dream about a mansion and decided to go to the mansion which turns out to be real. That’s the premise for Perception, and it’s among the weaker ones I’ve seen for a horror story, with no build or logical reasoning for Cassie’s behavior.
It’s very much like the initial premise for Silent Hill 2, except where Team Silent consistently subverted and called out James Sunderland’s irrational motivation, Perception plays it almost entirely straight.
Cassie is also skilled in psychometry for plot reasons, able to hear voices from ghostly apparitions by touching objects. These voices detail the story of the house across several generations, serving as typical videogame “audio logs” and reenacting the grim fates of those who lived there prior.
Storytelling is slickly presented, as one might expect from those with BioShock experience, but it’s just not particularly good.
Well directed setpieces and decently performed dialogue are all dandy but there’s no real character arc for Cass, and her reactions to the unfolding narrative invariably come with an emotional charge that has no reason to be there.
She becomes 100% invested in everything a ghost says or does while hardly knowing a thing about them. She also starts piecing together plots without prompting, trying to stop things from happening to the ghosts even though they’ve already happened. Quite how she could stop these things, or why she thinks she can, isn’t explored.
She just finds stuff and does other stuff with it, and we’re not really expected to question things.
All of this makes it particularly difficult for the player to connect with the experience.
Audio logs can create some compelling characters through prolonged exposure, as this team fully knows, but when various monologues are dished out swiftly with large amounts of obfuscating vagueness thrown in, one has to wonder why Cassie is sometimes to the point of tears when a voice she doesn’t know is feeling sad for reasons that don’t make immediate sense to the listener.
One major problem is that Perception tries to tell an anthology of horror stories across two or three hours, cramming in as many speeches as it can to recount some utterly ridiculous tales.
One of them is about a man who I think accidentally made evil dolls that killed him with evil apples? Maybe. It was rather silly, and relied heavily on the overdone “creepy doll” trope to try and falsify some scares. I’ll admit I lost track of this one, especially as I wrestled with some glitches that saw evil dolls with guns camping outside of hiding spots or Cassie getting stuck inside the bed she was hiding under.
Despite the horror overtones and a handful of active threats, much of Perception is spent walking from location to location, the underlying visual premise being the only difference maker between it and a dozen games of its kind.
Tapping the cane too much is the biggest issue facing players, since the creation of too much noise will summon “The Entity” – a genuinely creepy hooded figure that repeats character dialog in an unnerving tone that reminds one of The Predator’s vocal mimicry.
However, while said Entity is freaky, its appearance is inconsistent – you can smash the cane into the ground over and over without attracting it sometimes, while large noises in the environment itself do nothing to make it appear even for a quite jump scare or something. Anything. I’d love it if this game gave me something to emotionally grasp.
It doesn’t though, and the game’s primary antagonist almost never appears. Even when it does, slipping into a highlighted hidey hole until it goes away is a mere inconvenience rather than a terrifying chase, so an initially intimidating apparition is defanged almost immediately and never feels as scary as it should be… or at all.
That’s your game, unfortunately. One made with clear love and effort, but running low on inspiration, lacking a credible story or threat.
Perception is miles better than the myriad “me too” horror games saturating Steam, but it’s certainly not exceptional. Underneath the visual style – and it’s ultimately just an aesthetic choice – is regular ol’ walk-and-talk horror game that manages a little panache but contains no material of substantial value, be it narratively or interactively.