Independent developer Benjamin Rivers has carved out a unique voice for himself, blending 2-D pixel art with the horror genre to craft games unlike anything else you’ve ever played, first with the horror-mystery, Home, and then with Alone With You, a somber sci-fi love story where you connected with the digitized memories of your deceased crew mates as you attempt to escape a dying planet.
His latest effort, Worse Than Death, which debuted on mobile devices earlier this year, has finally arrived on consoles and it’s easily the best work Rivers has produced thus far. Mixing a compelling story, rich characters and subtle nods to classic survival-horror games, Worse Than Death is a must-play title for horror lovers that couldn’t have landed at a better time.
In Worse Than Death you play as Holly, who’s begrudgingly returning to her small hometown of Bruce Bay to attend her ten year high school reunion. As if reconnecting with her high school classmates wasn’t bad enough, Holly finds herself running from a mysterious entity that is terrorizing the residents of Bruce Bay. On top of trying to stay one step ahead of her supernatural stalker, Holly must uncover the mystery of how this all links back to a tragic accident that claimed the life of her friend, Grace, many years ago.
Worse Than Death’s greatest strength is its story. Opening with a very relatable premise, it slowly escalates to create an unnerving sense of atmosphere as you comb through dilapidated trailer homes, an eerie hospital, and a silent lumber mill, trying to make any sense of exactly what’s happening. Holly herself is also a great character who you immediately connect with because you understand her hesitance in returning to a place she put in her rear view mirror the second that she could. Without spoiling any of that transpires in Worse Than Death, Holly has a wonderful character arc that, like the mystery of what’s going on with the town, begins to unfold to the player as you progress through Worse Than Death’s eight chapters.
Horror as a genre really came into its own once consoles were able to embrace 3-D, but Worse Than Death shows that you can scare players just as effectively with only two-dimensions. Lovingly created with 2-D pixel art, Worse Than Death’s environments work just as well as any three-dimensional horror game in creating a palpable sense of location. There’s hardly any meters on display, just one for Holly’s stamina that is mostly hidden, so it allows you to take everything in. The game manages to cleverly communicate Holly’s level of fear to the player by emphasizing the drop in temperature that kick starts the need to run and hide. When you can see Holly’s breath and she starts to shiver, it’s time to raise your level of alertness.
Similar to the classic and brilliant Silent Hill games from Konami, Worse Than Death drowns out all music until something otherworldly has you in its sights. All you’re left with is deafening silence that’s only broken with subtle sounds here and there as you tour through Bruce Bay. Even with the lack of sound, you should most certainly play with headphones for full effect as you’re reminded when you start up the game. Worse Than Death is devoid of cheap jump scares, but it still manages to creatively use a flash here and there to throw you off balance just as you start to feel safe.
Worse Than Death has three primary gameplay loops: exploring, puzzle solving, and action sequences. Exploration yields valuable insight that that not only fleshes out the town of Bruce Bay and the people who live there, but also rewards you with important items used to solve puzzles that impede your progress. For those who have a soft spot in their hearts for early survival-horror games like the above mentioned Silent Hill and Capcom’s Resident Evil, you’re going to love the brain teasers that Benjamin Rivers has come up with for Worse Than Death. Many feel like they’re a homage to the early chapters in both series, but to talk about them would be to spoil the thrill of uncovering them for yourself. Whether powering up a generator or finding a precious combination, the clues to all solutions are present without making things too obvious. A word of advice would be to keep a notepad, your phone, or both handy, as you’ll be capturing valuable dates, times, and other hints to help you work things out.
Holly has a stamina meter that allows her to run for a brief time or leap over small obstacles. This plays into the action sequences found in Worse Than Death when the monster that’s hunting you makes an appearance. Holly has no way to defend herself, and instead must rely on hiding, whether behind desks or in lockers and other dark corners and running for your life. Your stamina meter is normally white, but as your heart rate increases, it starts to turn pink. Running to a hiding place doesn’t guarantee your safety as if your heart is beating too fast, the monster will find you.
These sequences are a great way to break up what makes up the rest of the game, and the rules are easy enough to understand. Things only ever become frustrating when you finally collect everything you need to complete a puzzle, but standing between you and moving forward is certain death. On the normal difficulty setting, getting caught doesn’t send you back very far at all, so if you get a little impatient, Worse Than Death doesn’t penalize you too harshly. For those looking for a real challenge, there are difficulties that put a cap on how many times you can get seen before you’re forced to start the entire game over.
The fall is always a crowded time for video games with a constant barrage of new releases asking for your attention week after week. Worse Than Death is a game you should make time for among all the big-budget AAA releases, especially if you’re a horror lover and are looking for something new this October. At a low price of around $10 on consoles or PC, it’s a small asking price for a wonderfully put together title that will sure to delight – or fright – if you’re willing to partake in the high-school reunion from hell.