Do you hate spoilers of any kind, no matter how small? Yes/No
If yes then read no further, especially if you're a horror fan. Instead, take my word for it and go cough up your $2 immediately to give Home a whirl. You won’t regret it. If no, rest assured that I would never be so crass as to reveal major plot spoilers, so feel free to read on for more details, but beware that everything I say from now on will diminish your first playthrough, as this game is best enjoyed with no preconceptions whatsoever. You have been warned.
The creation of Toronto-based indie developer Benjamin Rivers, Home is not really an adventure game, as there are no real puzzles to solve and very limited exploration, but as an engaging interactive story it has a lot that will appeal to avid adventure gamers. It's rendered in retro pixel art, marketed as a 'unique horror adventure', and in an unusual twist from the norm it's designed to be played in one sitting (of roughly 90 minutes), as there is no option to save. The latter is a bold stylistic choice, but it helps maintain the atmosphere by not allowing pauses. (EDIT: The updated Steam version of the game released after this review does include a save option.)
The biggest draw is that the choices you make affect the story in a dynamic way, leading to multiple endings and plenty of plot twists on the journey. And that’s exactly what this is: a journey. The story moves from A to B in a linear fashion; you’ll always encounter the same scenarios, but the items you interact with and the protagonist's thoughts adapt and change depending on the choices you’ve made up to that point, giving you more backstory details and impacting the eventual finale you’ll see. It’s more than simply a visual novel, but there are few problems for you to solve and (here's the first of those atmosphere-threatening spoilers coming) you can’t die.
The scene is set with the words “All I remembered at that point was finding myself alone” typed across the screen in simple white print on a black background. This is how the narrative progresses, as a series of thoughts written in the past tense. There’s no voice work in Home, just these simple text cards that have the look of an old silent movie. An unknown man awakens in an abandoned room, and while the action occurs in the present, the story continually draws on his fleeting, failing memories. Finding himself in a strange darkened house, he manages to light his surroundings with a simple torch discovered nearby. The only thing he’s aware of at first is his isolation and whatever he can see just in front of him, the blackness illuminated in just a simple halo around him.
Immediately striking is the aesthetic style, a simple pixel art reminiscent of the early SCUMM engine days. The protagonist is displayed in a constant walking position and shows no facial features aside from his eyes, while the backdrops are simple line renderings that show only the vaguest hint of what is around you. On its own this wouldn’t make for a particularly spooky atmosphere, but the aura of light against a sea of darkness makes moving ahead all the more menacing, as you have no idea what’s awaiting you down the hall. It isn't long before you have reason to feel anxious, either. Upon leaving the first room you immediately come across a dead body the protagonist doesn't recognize, caked in blood. Such oppressive uncertainty creates a marvellously claustrophobic atmosphere in the interior areas, and becomes even more effective later in the game when the man ventures outside.
The entire game takes place on a 2D plain, so you move around with the arrow keys and hit the space bar upon reaching a door or staircase to elicit a short animation that will lead you to the next area. Apart from simply walking around, controls are very limited. Pressing the up arrow shines the light a little higher for anything you might be missing up in the rafters, and pressing down acts as a sort of ‘return’ key for advancing text boxes. Various objects you pass take on a white outline, and pressing space next to one results in a text description (never breaking from the first-person hindsight narrative). Investigation is key to getting as much out of Home as possible, so you'll want to interact with everything you come across. And it’s worth being thorough, as most interactive items can be looked at twice, with important information sometimes revealed on the second look.
While there's no "action" in this game, Rivers is clearly a fan of the survival horror genre, as you can see a lot of its influences here. Door animations have a distinctly Resident Evil feel, and the mansion seems like a long-lost Alone in the Dark entry. However, it’s through the soundscape that the atmosphere really excels. There’s little music throughout (although what's here makes for effective horror droning, particularly at the beginning); instead the silence is broken by a layer of effects to create a constant unsettling mood around the headphone-sporting player. The developer has infused reliable horror staples like foreboding thunderstorms and dripping roofs with clanking industrial grindings and whirring rusted machinery sounds to assault the player with a nerve-jarring cacophony of noise. It’s marvellously orchestrated and makes the ‘jump’ moments (cats screeching and pipes bursting) all the more effective when they shatter through it all suddenly and unexpectedly.
The game has roughly eight scenes to work through, starting in the house of the dead man you find in the hallway. Early on you’ll come across a black and white photo of the man with his wife, but there's no sign of the missing spouse. Exploring the mansion reveals clues to who he was and why you might still need to be wary of what’s round the next corner. From there the gameplay follows a strict A to B linear logic throughout. For instance, it becomes apparent that there’s no way out through the front door so you’ll simply have to keep looking; eventually you’ll gain access to the basement, so with that as your only way forward, you follow this path. I only discovered a single scenario where a choice was given how to leave one of the buildings.Continued on the next page...