The hunt for the ingredients to the perfect horror game is as arduous and trap-laden a path as the one we end up walking when that experience comes together. The rustling bushes. The distraction of fast moving shadows. Mundane combat that stumbles gracelessly into dull repetition. The shock of cheap scares. Those looking for the true call of horror find it somewhere else, wrapped up neatly in nine simple, blood ridden words. “Is it really going to make me do that?” As a community built Half-Life 1 mod, Cry of Fear arrives with as much an opportunity to solidify genre clichés as it does to break free from them. Fortunately it manages, early, to scare that other form of fear away.
An opening train ride through an unrecognisable city sets the scene. A possible homage to the game upon which it is built? Highly likely. It’s an inspiration in a passing sense, though, one that’s more considered than the immature impression the Half-Life 2 posters may leave on you. (You find them plastered across the walls of the bedroom you awake in after the train ride takes a turn for the worse.) You recognise the game’s origins in its Half Life inspired pacing, the muddy textures that come with the engine’s age and its Resident Evil style save system that has you scrounging for a tape recorder in the dark. This is at once an ode to games past, and an experience aware of, even if not fully able to act upon, where they’ve failed.
It’s the opening moments where Cry of Fear first puts your resolve to the test. A dark room, a pitch black hall, your only weapon an old-fashioned camera useful for nothing other than its blinding flash. You know what you have to do here of course. The horror puzzle has never been a difficult one to assemble. It’s actually coming to terms with what you’re doing that’s the hard part. It’s a known question with an even greater unknown answer. The tension continually heightens to the point where the beep from the mobile held in your unsteady hand – simultaneously a storytelling device and your only light source – is enough to send your headphones flying.
Cry of Fear is a rollercoaster without the sour connotations the word draws after it’s been used to hit Call of Duty over the head a few million times. It’s a rollercoaster in an emotional sense, smartly dispensing with the million mile an hour thrill ride and replacing it with rocky, inconsistent pacing that never lets you settle in. Some games telegraph their terror, with haunting music leading into the “scare moment”. The exact quantities may differ, the length of each segment of the fear symphony will change depending on who’s playing, but they usually allow you to wrap yourself in the comfort of predictability. Cry of Fear maniacally breaks its own rhythm in service of its greater goal of smart scares. It plays the instruments of horror in a different time scale.
The ominous overtones are as unsettling as its backing track, where the music is constantly building towards a crescendo, but pulling back before the peak. Every step forward has the opportunity to lead to unsettling music, a startling moment, or just as easily, nothing at all. In doing so, it weaves the quilt of suspense with large patches of downtime, stitched together with straight up scares, that’s only barely held together by your will to continue. It leaves certainty by the wayside and security back at home. Anything, anywhere, could be out to get you and the game revels in it.
Within some of its cramped, dimly lit office building rooms is where Cry of Fear locks away its only missteps, the horror game tropes it cannot fully escape. Here you discover unnecessary bosses and times where the rudimentary combat is overused and meanders into a tiresome click fest. Thankfully, while they’re not Cry of Fear’s strongest points, the game moves you away from them quickly enough. Before you know it, you’re back on the campaign trail, where you tip-toe down a linear path with small, but smart glimpses at a larger world outside. You spot a pathway snaking away from a barricaded doorway and you can’t help but think of somewhere safe. Will daylight ever come? Are there other friends out there?
Really, the only true friends you make over time are the ESC key, and if you’re lucky, and it’s nearby, the Mute key too, because they’re the only true way to escape from the droning background hum of Cry of Fear’s dimly lit hallways. You’re never sure why you’re here, or how for that matter, but then, you’re never really given time to contemplate it. If Cry of Fear isn’t scaring you outright, it’s letting you scare yourself with the moments it allows you alone, where you manage to convince yourself that there must be something around that corner. As always, the only way to prove the game wrong, or right, is to take a look.
“Am I really going to make myself do this?” To mutter that at all is enough of a sign that the metaphorical horror train is on the right track. To have it spluttered from between gritted teeth, as your eyes dart across the screen? That, truly, is a sign of horror genius. To its credit, Cry of Fear has you spluttering it more than once.
Cry of Fear is available for download on MOD DB.