There are multiple times you can be killed throughout the game, mainly by The Lingered. Since they cannot be beaten or destroyed, you must use clues found throughout the school to figure out how to sneak past them or avoid them completely. Although deadly, it’s less survival horror “action” and more an additional kind of puzzle to solve. These sequences are used to great effect as well, with only a small amount of game time devoted to avoiding the spirits compared to leisurely exploring and uncovering the story, which serves to heighten the tension when they do appear.
One thing that always irks me in horror games, however, is when developers deny the ability to save anywhere. I never liked it in Resident Evil and I still don't like it now. Unfortunately, Detention also decided to go with this well-worn trope. Whilst I understand the idea is to instil dread and make you wonder if you can survive until the next save spot, I personally feel it's a hindrance to the experience. It doesn't scare me; it just makes me frustrated and takes me out of the game. I don't want to be thinking about when I last found a save point when I come across a dangerous situation; I want to be fully in the moment. The good thing is that the save spots are set close enough together to minimize inconvenience, and I ended up only dying once when I wasn't paying attention. I still would have preferred a save anywhere feature, but it isn’t a big deal in this case.
There are a few different types of puzzles to overcome. Mainly they’re of the standard inventory variety, but there's a smattering of number and lock puzzles, and a musical conundrum with an audio cue to help you solve it that could leave those not musically inclined scratching their heads. All of the clues you find scattered about the rooms in the school are collected in a journal, which you can use if you get stuck, along with various notes that serve to flesh out the local history and character backgrounds.
The great thing about the puzzles is that due to the dreamlike setting, they follow a twisted sort of logic. It mightn't make too much sense in the real world, but within the confines of the game they are integrated perfectly. Using a bucket of blood to reveal a code or searching for creepy puppets in a basement to use in a stage play about execution brought to mind the Silent Hill series in the puzzle department, and yet the obstacles and their solutions never felt derivative.
Another excellent aspect of Detention is its graphic design, which reminded me of The Cat Lady, another great psychological horror game. The two games both feature the same type of character models and side-scrolling movement. Here the appealing 2D characters look hand drawn and almost colourless, traversing backdrops that drip with creativity. From the claustrophobic hallways to dirty, dingy bathrooms to the surrounding countryside, there is no shortage of variety, and the imagination on display constantly surprised me with each new reveal.
One minute I was exploring a long, ominously empty classroom, the rain falling heavily on the roof above, which left me feeling alone and defenceless. Then the next I would be searching a dank, flooded basement with jail cells and incense burners, or playing a beaten-up piano in a large music room, the empty seats serving as a reminder of the life that used to frequent the halls. The play areas became more labyrinthine as I progressed further into the bowels of the school, but I still managed to find my way around due to the distinctive design of each room.
The game ran without a single bug or glitch during my playthrough, causing no slowdowns or crashes and consistently stayed at a silky smooth frame rate. This should always be the case, but it often isn’t so it’s a noteworthy achievement for such a small development team releasing their first major game.
One possible sticking point is its relatively short play time, clocking in at around four hours. But while that might sound a bit too brief, what Detention lacks in game time it makes up for in the haunting horror experience while it lasts. There are two endings based on certain actions performed near the endgame. One can be seen as "good" and the other as "bad," but each is satisfying in its own right. Although I felt that the lead-up to both ending sequences dragged slightly and took a little too long to reach the climax, it's definitely not something that seriously detracts from the overall experience. It's not terribly hard to activate each ending, with a save point shortly before the fateful branching decisions, but you may find it worth going back and replaying the game to search for any backstory items such as notes and newspapers scattered around the school you might have missed to gain a deeper understanding of the narrative.
Simply put, Detention is a fantastic melding of narrative, gameplay and graphics. It's got a highly unique setting that is supported by excellent sound design and music. While admittedly the subject matter is very dark and depressing and might not be everyone's cup of tea, it's highly recommended for gamers who love their horror served with heavy atmosphere, dreamlike puzzles, a dash of gore and a thought-provoking story that will stick with you long after the experience is over.