Do this long enough and you’ll get sucked into a lot of evil parallel dimensions.
Silent Hill, of course. Concluse. Detention. I guess in Half-Life we were the evil dimension (the goatee is a dead giveaway). In Soul Reaver the parallel universe was probably less evil than the real one.
Anyway, on the surface they usually have a lot in common: dark, dangerous and in need of a good cleaning; but it’s fun to see how different takes on the same basic theme play out.
In the scheme of things, this particular one is pretty good, which is really what makes the whole game. It starts right there in the name. “The coma” evokes a combination of psychological and body horror, trapped behind a smothering veil of oblivion. One of the real strengths of this type of setting is how it combines the alien with the familiar to create a sense of uncanniness, like a centipede crawling up your arm.
The road to this realm of horrors, appropriately enough, leads right through high school. You play as a student in Korea who falls asleep in class and gets more than he bargains for when he wakes up; next thing you know, you’re running around a twisted version of your school looking for a way out while trying not to get stabbed. That does sound a lot like Detention, doesn’t it; but it doesn’t feel nearly as gritty and hopeless. I guess it is supposed to be survival horror, not certain-death horror.
The whole thing has sort of a graphic novel look that fits this not-totally-bleak mood: more stylized and surreal than over-the-top gory and oppressive. Plenty of tentacles, pods and other weird alien growths of uncertain origin–as well some of your less fortunate classmates–decorate the halls, and it gets subtly worse and worse as things progress. As for the stabbing I mentioned, that’s courtesy of one of your teachers, who makes a surprisingly memorable antagonist. They even add a good bit of lore to tie everything together.
Meanwhile, you’re powerless to do much except hide from it all. Kind of reminds me of Clock Tower, if you remember that one.
Same routine every time: you’re tiptoeing along a hallway when all of a sudden this maniac comes charging at you, you run and hide in the nearest cabinet, wait till the coast is clear, and repeat. You encounter a few other environmental hazards but all you have to do is run past them; so needless to say that whole side of the game gets stale pretty fast. On the other hand, combat would have been totally out of place here, so it’ s a good thing they didn’t go that route either.
What really breaks this game, though, is the implementation, in a thousand little annoying ways.
It feels like it was built by engineers rather than designers. There’s practically no communication about how stuff works and you’re mostly left to flounder around and figure it out on your own. I guess you’d expect a little confusion seeing as you’re trapped in a nightmarish hellworld, but would it have killed them to make a few quality-of-life concessions to the player?
Like the map, for instance. It’s very badly annotated, which is a real problem since there’s a lot of backtracking and most of the classrooms look exactly alike. To make matters worse, in order to artificially extend the game they constantly force you to take long, circuitous routes to your objectives by conveniently blocking off stairs and hallways. There’s not much information about the items, either–how strong they are, sometimes even what they do–and you end up having to infer a lot of it for yourself, especially the various stamina cures. Although the lack of hotkeys makes it practically impossible to use items while fleeing, and so stamina recovery is pretty much useless anyway.
In general the details of the gameplay are just swept under the rug. Most of what you’re doing is sneaking around hoping you don’t get seen, yet there’s never any clear description of how the stealth mechanics work. I sort of got the impression that running as little as possible and keeping the flashlight off helped; but then without the flashlight you can’t find items or notes.
So unless you want to creep around in the dark like a sloth the whole time, switching the light on and off and picking up the notes and such all over again every single time you die, you’re incentivized to play a scummy sort of style where you turn on the light, sprint around to scout ahead and find everything, and then reload to head back quietly and pick it all up.
It’s like you spend more time fighting the game than the things trying to stab you, and all of these distractions add up to major breaks in the immersion.
That’s a shame, because for all the problems the story still comes together nicely. The setup was great to begin with, and piecing together the paranormal mystery of where you are, and why, and what you need to do to get back home turned out to be really engaging. I thought I was doing pretty well, too, but judging by the ending I got, apparently not.
Well, I see there’s already a sequel so I guess we’ll find out what happens next. I’ll let you know.
What do you think? Do they finally deliver on the strong potential here and make up for the shaky start?
The suspense is killing me!