Review: Uncanny Valley

An uncommon example of Horror done right on steam.

Developed by: Cowardly Creations
Published by: Cowardly Creations
Available Platforms: PC
Copy purchased

driving

Horror games are an oversaturated genre on Steam these days, with a new one coming out almost every other day. Far too often a 1st person, unpolished mess loaded with cheap and nasty “scares”, or flat out broken in some cases. Cowardly Creations tries something different with Uncanny Valley, a 2D survival horror with pixel art graphics. It certainly stands out, rising above many other games of the genre. Focusing on atmospheric and psychological horror, Uncanny Valley offers a short, sharp adventure that effectively delivers its horror through subtle tone rather than relying on vapid jumpscares, though not without a fair share of issues of its own.

Uncanny Valley’s narrative focused events are shown from the perspective of Tom, a freshly employed security guard patrolling a remote research facility left completely abandoned, save for a fellow security guard and a hotel maid. The game takes place over a number of days, with Tom taking on a practically nocturnal life working the late shift, allowing for a natural way for the game to exploit darkness and isolation, common themes found in horror. I found the story to be intriguing enough, with a decent mystery behind the characters and environment to be solved through exploration.

Uncanny Valley, for all intents and purposes, is split into two sections, each with their own style of gameplay. The first plays like a sidescrolling narrative adventure game with point and click elements. The game tasks you with you exploring the abandoned facility, finding clues to the building’s past and attempting to access the off-limits areas. The second half other the game is much more survival horror focused, with some shallow stealth mechanics. Cowardly Creations emphasize the importance of their “Consequence System”, where taking different actions (or failing to do so) can affect the narrative and mechanics of the game.

One of the more interesting ideas comes into play during the later stages, as damage taken can have a lasting effect. Tied into the “Consequence System”, movement limitations, periodic noises that giveaway hiding attempts or losing the ability to defend yourself are interesting ways to avoid a dead end while still punishing the player for misplays. One of my favourite moments while playing came when I broke my leg late in this section. Forcing me to drag myself through the rest of the game lead to an incredible sense of tension, stress and eventually triumph as I barely made past the finish line.

Uncanny Valley’s greatest asset is its ability to set different tones. The game revels in its ability to make players feel a wide range of emotions, including feelings of dread, isolation or plain fear. While its visual aesthetic leaves quite a bit to the imagination, only basic shapes being rendered with its style of pixel art, its visual designs are just detailed enough to allow for some truly twisted images. Effective use of both lighting and darkness, as well as a appropriately chilling visual design allow the game to really nail its intended tones. Excellent sound design is consistent throughout, with a haunting soundtrack enhancing the impact the visuals provide, while Sound effects add to the already engrossing atmosphere. On overall presentation, Uncanny Valley is quite successful.

forest

Uncanny Valley is a rather short game, a single playthrough lasting approximately an hour, although replay value is abundant. The game even opens with a disclaimer stating that multiple playthroughs are required to “fully experience” the game. The desire to replay the game comes in the form of various tasks and choices made to influence plot progression. I would have like the game to have lasted a bit longer, as the short length can make the story feel rushed. The later sections of the game particularly suffer from length issues, with sudden conclusions surprising me on early playthroughs.

Uncanny Valley is certainly not without it’s flaws, mostly stemming from some baffling design choices. Although not much is known about him at the beginning, one thing becomes almost immediately apparent: Tom is a lazy bastard. He barely makes it out of bed, he sleeps on the job and most egregiously, he can’t sprint for more than five seconds before stubbornly resigning to a less than brisk walk with a horrendous cooldown period. Even when his life depends on it, Tom seems unable to muster the effort. When I’m being chased down in a race for safety, I don’t want my character suddenly deciding he’d rather take a jaunty stroll from his imminent death.

The exploration stages of Uncanny Valley really emphasize just how infuriating this anemic sprint is. Each day, you’re given a time limit to explore, roughly seven minutes, before your shift ends or worse, you completely pass out. The game gives you collectables to find in the form of cassette and video tapes, as well as numerous messages left on abandoned computers to piece together the story of Uncanny Valley. This would normally be a good incentive to explore your facility however, the timer keeps ticking no matter what. while you analyse computers, listen to tapes and solve various puzzles, that timer will never stop, it’s lucky the game takes place over multiple days, or I’d never have bothered with its hidden backstory. Combined with the atrocious sprint, exploration can be the most frustrating part of the game, severely hindered the otherwise great experience.

timer

The game also has a few minor technical issues in regard to the sequence of events. At one point, I found myself being berated by my partner in one location, only to find them cheerfully wishing me a good shift only seconds later, in a different location. Even given that Tom has the athletic capabilities of a sloth, I know I should have been alone on arrival, not to mention the character’s attitude making a complete u-turn.

The stealth mechanics are not as tight as i would have hoped, hiding spots telegraphed particularly well. I discovered an almost game breaking exploit during one playthrough: I was able to avoid many enemy encounters by just exiting and re-entering areas until they disappeared. Design issues like these really break both the immersive experience and the challenge Uncanny Valley has worked hard for.

Uncanny Valley successfully brings its style of atmospheric horror to a 2D pixel world, offering players a short but replayable experience. By relying on atmosphere and tone, Cowardly Creations has managed to create a consistently stressful and tense experience. Assuming you can tolerate some weak design decisions, Uncanny Valley is an example of a quality horror experience available on steam.

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