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Game Night: Shoot Up a Theme Park in ‘Crow Country’

My goal with this column is to discuss interesting indie games that, in the flooded state of the market, might otherwise have flown under the radar. It was in that spirit that I picked up Crow Country, a ‘90s-style survival horror game with graphics that recall the original PlayStation.

I was wrong. At time of writing, Crow Country is a solid indie hit, with an 84 on Metacritic and an Overwhelmingly Positive rating on Steam. The job was done before I started. People know about this game. I’m going to write about it anyway.

Primarily, it’s because this game shouldn’t work. Crow Country (CC) looks like a John Carpenter movie made from Duplo. At first glance, I thought it’d be a parody. Instead, CC is a short, tightly-plotted horror game that saves its best scare for its last half-hour.

In 1990, a Georgia businessman named Edward Crow has gone missing. The investigation leads Mara Forest to Crow’s theme park, Crow Country, which is supposed to be abandoned. Instead, it’s full of strange machines, urban explorers, and hostile mutants, which attack Mara on sight.

I’ve seen people compare Crow Country to Resident Evil, and I can see why. It’s got some of the same energy as old-school RE, where it’ll break up the action with an occasional surreal puzzle. Some of CC’s weirder moments are explained as repurposed park attractions, like an escape room that’s been turned into an actual death trap, but others simply exist without further comment.

However, I’d argue that CC has more in common with the original Silent Hill. Both games are significantly more interested in horror than survival, and load you down with so many useful resources that it’s difficult to die. CC is about as challenging as it’ll ever be in its first hour, when all you’ve got is Mara’s 9mm popgun. Once you get a chance to expand your arsenal, you’ll tear through the rest of the game. (For now, anyway. The developers’ road map does mention they’re working on a hard mode.)

More importantly, CC leans on some of the same visual tricks that Silent Hill used back in 1999. A lot of ‘90s games tried to use early 3D graphics before there was any way to make them look good. As a result, there are a lot of action games on the platform that all fade into a sort of depressing Monet blur.

The typical workaround was to use pre-rendered backgrounds, but Silent Hill actually used the hardware’s shortcomings to its advantage. Now the low draw distance is actually creepy fog, and the blurry, indistinct walls around you are a surprisingly evocative recreation of slow decay. If every game on this hardware ends up looking like it’s set in a water-damaged industrial zone, why not do it on purpose?

With Crow Country, its bleak color palette and blurry textures work to create a genuine sense of desolation. Everything in the park is slowly rotting, aside from a few stray machines that work better than they should. When you’re outside, it feels like you’re inside an old, smoke-damaged photograph. If you tried to create the same visual impact with a photorealistic approach, it’d take twice as long to work half as well.

The character models are the only potential sticking point, and I got used to them faster than I thought I would. In fact, the mutants are a genuine highlight. If there’s a single theme at work in CC’s monster design, it’s distortion. All of them have too much of something and not enough of another; they’re warped, like broken toys.

One thing that CC doesn’t do well, on the other hand, is conveying interactivity. Back in the day, designers would make a point of highlighting useful objects by making them stand out from the backgrounds, as with the Resident Evil “item glint.” Modern games do the same thing with context-sensitive button prompts.

CC doesn’t take either approach. You just have to walk around hitting the X/Square button on anything that looks vaguely remarkable. It’d be nice if there was an option to make items in your vicinity slightly brighter than everything around them.

I’d also argue that there’s a distinct point at which CC’s puzzles go from clever to obtuse. Many of them present just enough of a challenge to force you to break out a notebook, but a couple of them run off of pure adventure-game moon logic.

One forces you to get out your phone to look up ‘90s trivia, while another makes little sense unless you’ve found a half-hidden document on the far side of the park; a third is actually just a resource sink. It feels like the developers ran out of time and had to ship the game with a couple of placeholder challenges instead of actual puzzles.

Both aspects would be more annoying if the game was any longer, but a blind run through CC might take you 6 hours. I’d like to emphasize the word “blind” there, too; CC has marketed itself on having one big plot twist that has to do with Mara, but it’s not the only one in the game. You really want to go into any horror game as cold as you can, but it’s particularly important here.

In fact, my entire opinion on CC shifted after I’d seen its ending. Before that point, I would’ve complained that CC’s biggest problem is that it’s more creepy than anything else. It’s got a couple of effective jump scares, but little genuine tension. The last 15 minutes suddenly pulls it all together, which elevates Crow Country from a slightly above-average Halloween indie to a genuine must-see. If you’re going to play it at all, you’ve got to finish it.

Take my opinion with a grain of salt, as I’ve been a fan of this genre for a long time. That being said, Crow Country is one of the few indie survival horror games that feels like it genuinely understood the assignment. It’s not simply recreating the developer’s favorite ‘90s game with the serial numbers filed off, or using horror as an excuse to be pointlessly surreal. Its inspirations are just a starting point. If Crow Country’s Playmobil-style character design puts you off, I get it, but don’t let that keep you from checking out what’s likely to be one of the best horror games this year.

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