Brace yourselves, fellow gamers: October is coming. In honor of the flood of horror games and “let’s plays” about to be unleashed upon us, this week’s game is a dead-of-the-night test of tolerance which pits the player against four murderous psychopaths at large. Saibot Studios’s Doorways, an enigmatic horror adventure for the PC, dares gamers to cross the threshold and delve into nightmarish realms plagued by insanity and saturated in shadows.
Doorways, at its current stage of development, is an odd experience. With only two out of a probable four (or more?) total chapters released thus far, the story remains, for the moment, incomplete, the riddles largely unsolved. Without a TARDIS (or at least a flux capacitor) it’s impossible to know exactly where this mystery is going – especially in light of the developer’s promise that each threshold will lead to a different world. There are hints of what might lie in store for the future, but for now, all I can do is shrug my shoulders and wait for chapter three.
As far as the currently released chapters, I can say this: the writing is wonderfully gloomy, though it strays on rare occasions into the realm of overly dramatic and trying a little too hard to set the player up for a scare. Sam A. Mowry, who many gamers will recognize as the voice of Alexander in Amnesia: The Dark Descent, Dr. Eminiss from the Penumbra series, and Alric in Torchlight, lends his delightfully wicked vocal chords to protagonist Thomas Foster, a man sent by a cryptic organization known as Doorways to investigate the whereabouts of four crazed murderers. Thomas’s obvious mixed feelings of repulsion and awe in regard to the killers suggests a personality as twisted and dark as the worlds he must traverse to find them.
Unfortunately, there is such a thing as too much darkness, even in a horror game. While nighttime terrors and hallways riddled with dust, cobwebs and shadow are staples of the genre for a reason, too much of a good thing becomes a migraine when the dark-to-light ratio is excessively out of balance. Doorways stumbles right into that trap, with an environment so completely obscured at times that it is nearly impossible to see anything at all.
Chapter One basically feels like an Amnesia mod (specifically, Candles) with a dash of Saw-esque torture voyeurism. The level quickly degenerates from a potentially nightmarish journey into just a nightmare, leading the player on a not-so-merry chase through the woods and into an old, abandoned building (fitted with the very finest in creaking doors and inexplicable moanings and groanings) for a morbid scavenger hunt. While enemies technically exist, they function more as lurking, annoying obstacles than anything else, and most of the scripted scares fare little better in terms of panic-inducement – though, admittedly, the first one is a decent shock. The atmosphere strives for a slow, intense buildup of dread, but falters early on and falls somewhere between only “kind of creepy” and “somewhat meh,” due in part to over-repetition of sound effects and a soundtrack on too short a loop.
As for the scavenger hunt, once again, the game suffers from the error of indulgence running to excess. Puzzles are to be expected in survival horror scenarios, but when the puzzles are too complicated, too long, or too repetitive, the initial fascination is lost and the player is left only with a growing sense of irritation. Add to this the “fun” of digging around for small, miscellaneous objects in near-impenetrable darkness and a less-than-conclusive conclusion to the chapter, and suddenly rage-quitting begins to look like quite the attractive alternative.
However, Chapter Two is, in some ways, worth the journey. Assuming you’ve turned up your brightness dials up to eleven, the environment in this level is a bit creepier and more enjoyable to explore, and achieves a higher aesthetic quality than its precursor. Something of a cross between a spooky cathedral and a closed museum, the world of the second murderer (a deranged sculptor) skews reality with exaggerated perspective and hauntingly lifelike statues, giving the player a distinct sense of being watched. While the enemies this time around aren’t much more dangerous than the ghostly apparitions which populated the first chapter, they are at least more visually and abstractly intriguing. One particular sequence involving a long hallway and a gathering of creepy statues actually manages to be quite disturbingly beautiful, even scary, and it’s a shame the rest of the game doesn’t follow suit.
Doorways, for all the faults in its execution, does have its moments now and then, and may be worth at least a quick look for adventurers not yet jaded by previous horror experiences. It is a project built on a sturdy foundation of intriguing concepts and imaginative potential, and with any luck, future updates will allow the developers to more fully explore the deep, psychologically disturbing depths the game is capable of. At its current stage, it remains an interesting, if imperfect, first attempt.
The first two chapters of Doorways are available for purchase via the official site, with the third and fourth chapters currently slated for a 2014 release.
[review pros=”Delightfully dark writing and voice acting, decent graphics, excellent concept with lots of potential” cons=”Visuals too dark, overly complex and tedious puzzles, lacking in a sense of danger or true atmospheric tension, frustrating gameplay, somewhat psychologically shallow” score=65]