Ben “Croshaw” Yahtzee has proven again that critics are not just negative nancies who gripe and whine and never accomplish anything. They too are creators. He made a really cool game, without prompting, with his own resources.
At some point in the past 15 years or so, Cthulhu joined Abraham Lincoln and Jesus in the list of public domain characters that people include in their work in order to show everyone how wacky they are. I stated a year ago that I was sick of the Cthulhu Mythos “vague evil gods are turning everyone crazy” dealy that has become quite a cliche in recent years thanks to pop culture overexposure. Leave it to a creative guy like Croshaw to do something fascinating with worn-out tropes. Instead of having the player shoot cartoony Old Ones with a steampunk crossbow in a first-person boredom simulator, Croshaw draws upon what is probably his favorite game (Silent Hill 2) and throws a nearly-helpless protagonist into a dying world full of almost insurmountable foes with only the tiniest chance of success. So, it’s kind of like playing a roguelike.*
In Consuming Shadow you play a nameless, faceless Limey who has become aware of an encroaching evil. An eldritch ancient alien god is coming to earth and it will crush us weak humans like bubble wrap before a steamroller. Already the effects of its tainted influence can be felt; half of England is going mad and the other half has been overtaken by slavering beasts taking the forms of headless goop spitters, swinging chains straight from Ronald McDonald’s nightmares, vomiting piles of flesh, and dark silhouetted faces as big as the claustrophobic corridors you must search though. Your quest is to find the arcane phrase needed to banish the oncoming evil at Stonehenge where it is gathering.
There are two main interfaces to the gameplay: a menu-based system where you drive to various towns, speak with people, and encounter strange things; and a side-scrolling action sequence in which you stumble through tiny rooms, fighting/avoiding foul beasties, hoping for some clue for the spell you must discover. It’s hard going; you’re going to die a lot as you learn how to play, and you’ll still die a lot after that. In this respect, Yahtzee got the stifling, oppressive feel of a good horror game perfectly. This is an overwhelming force you’re up against, and your weak protagonist reflects that reality.
Yahtzee was definitely inspired by the interface screws found in Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem. In Consuming Shadow, low sanity can lead to your death just as easily as blood loss. Hallucinations appear, making the player question what’s going on. Even things as simple as clicking menu buttons may push you to suicide if you don’t keep sane. “Illegal drugs” can temporarily paste your psyche together, but the whole game is a race against time as you try to found out which of several evil gods is coming and how to stop them.
Quasi-random events occur as you drive, exacerbated if you have a low sanity level. The RNG definitely turns against you, galvanizing the paranoia the game wishes to instill in you. I found myself speeding past cops and people flagging me down for help on the road as my character started to lose his marbles. Got to get the spell, got to sort through these clues, got to get to Stonehenge. I love it. The scares get predictable after a while, though. A room with a monster in it will almost always be marked by faint gibbering in your ears, making it clear that you should stop running and train your gun in front of you.
At first I was irritated at the limited ammo available, but I quickly grew accustomed to both fighting enemies hand-to-hand and managing resources. Play the game more and you get the ability to select minor upgrades (including extra bullets, more health/sanity, or a faster car) before beginning another game, though these are about as helpful as bullets against Yog-Sothoth. This isn’t a grind-to-win kind of game; you still need to figure out the puzzles (which are different each game, of course) and plan your trips wisely and navigate the mazes of the towns which have fallen to the invading evil. It’s a hard game, but a fair and honest and addictive one. And the game over screen reminds me of Out of this World, and that’s always a good thing.
Consuming Shadow is only in its beta, so even greater things may be in store. And, like all of Yahtzee’s games, it’s free. Pick it up here.
*The purists amongst my literally dozens of readers might complain about me comparing this sorta-adventure game to their beloved roguelike genre. But does it not contain random procedurally-generated content and permadeath? Much like Spelunky, you can consider it a roguelike-like and let’s end the stupid debate there.