Mood is required for this one – Lights out… Headphones on… It’s time for some horror.
Reficul 666 is a survival horror game from MAG Studios, who seem to specialise in this genre. Taken as an FPS, there is something sweeping the globe as night falls and it is knocking out all communications. You are going to be on your own, in your little part of town, attempting to meet your friends and trying to survive the nights’ terrors.
Snug in the safety of your house is where you begin your journey to survive, but it just so happens that a portal that leads to the demon lair is in your town, wouldn’t you know it.
“Alexa, How Does My Day Look?”
Pals have left notes to meet you and a local priest has apparently been preparing, so you had best get ready…these things always come down to you to solve. You are armed with a torch, pistol and lighter and you are sent on something of a linear adventure to navigate.
Live observations at the movies reveal that you should not show the monster too soon. Part of the terror is the build up. The horror movie The Descent did this very well. Sometimes the reveal is a disappointment, sometimes not. It’s a fine line in horror between getting it right and making it naff; Reficul 666 does it right. By placing the character in constant darkness save for the direction of the torchlight or the dim holy glow of the bible most of the surroundings are hidden and you can never be sure of what or where something is unless you are looking at it and when you do catch sight of a demon or a shadow it works.
Was it different when the boss demon appears at the end? No, you can’t see him clearly unless you direct your torch right at him. And what a great job the dev has done on him, he looks like a terrifying version of Dave Grohl’s devil.
Reficul 666 does a great job of making your skin freeze. They have incorporated a whispering of demons that increases in volume when you are near them; a nice warning mechanic, but also one that builds tension very well. When the whispering about dragging you into the darkness begins, it drives your anxiety levels up and the heart rate rises, then racing up to you are some shadowy demons and terror overtakes you entirely for a moment.
Peek through your fingers, I am not exaggerating. It is not a jump scare, it’s just an excellent user of tension and delivery. No matter how long I played the game and even when I carried a Holy Bible that would shock the approaching demons out of the way, it still made the hairs stand up momentarily, each time one glided towards me round a corner.
Maps are good and it has a relatively tight open world environment, unfortunately this is where most of the positives end for Reficul 666. It’s all a little dated graphically, there is little to no interaction with the environment beyond opening doors. The game has almost no colliders at all. Kick a box to reveal a key, knock a chair or a glass of alcohol over, make it smash, start a fire; these are things that make a gameworld feel alive and also provide other opportunities for gameplay.
Step into these rooms and sadly there is none of this here, plenty of areas are just rooms with boxes or a bed in and serve no purpose. There’s too much of this and you quickly learn that investigating this world serves little purpose despite it being possible to enter many of these houses.
Into The Catacombs, I Presume?
Repaid by understanding this you are left with a linear adventure where you follow notes from one empty house to another until you eventually transport to the catacombs of the demon. It is a little uninspiring, but the catacombs level is planned better and has a decent feel to it, despite still suffering from looking good but having too little interaction.
Raw music sound is virtually non-existent, it’s just the murmurings of the satanic shadows that stalk you. Most of the time the only other thing I could hear were my clogs snapping heavily on the metal road. At least that’s what they sounded like I was wearing. Perhaps the whispers are all you need in a horror game, but I think people underestimate the subconscious addition sound done well can give a game and there are probably opportunities here.
Reficul 666 is listed as being in early access and indeed many of these issues could be developed and improved if early access goes well. The issue here is that Reficul 666 is a repackaging of an earlier effort called Reficul VR which was effectively the same game published back in 2018. There have been some improvements since then, but they are minor and cosmetic.
Peek at the core design and mechanics of the gamed and they are pretty much the same and it lacks depth. It needs a clear outline of what it hopes to become and a developer log that tracks progress to have confidence to part with what is a relatively high price for the current available material.
It’s Not All Bad
Now, there are actually lots of places Reficul could go from here to become a good game. You could have safe houses that you need to secure, perhaps some base building elements, meeting some of your other friends could be good, especially if their character is developed and they then get killed. All sorts of things here have potential, but one thing is certain it needs more of something.
Reficul 666 does have one hell of an atmosphere, but it needs to develop and finish well. Available on Steam in Early Access, you’ll get about an hour or two out of Reficul 666, but it is a long way from justifying the price point in current form.
Of course in another form Reficul666 read backwards spells something else – Lucifer. Like the first word in every paragraph you just read.
To start this Black Iris review, I must preface by saying at first it feels like I’ve clicked the wrong link… that I’m not paying attention somehow, because I think I am viewing one of the shortlist finalists for a major Art award at the National Gallery.
The game has a stuttering whirr of noise behind it at times, rather like the time you stuck a peg in the spokes of your bike wheel as a kid to make it sound like a Ducati and it includes some short silent black and white videos of time speeded bacteria growing across a petri dish.
You know the sort of art I’m talking about.
The opening titles are disconcerting Blair Witch Project style shaky close ups of trees and foxgloves in the woods and all of this builds a sense of tension at the start.
But no, all is well, I have indeed downloaded The Black Iris, developed by Arboreta Games. I say all is well, but in fact the premise of the game is quite the opposite.
You play an engineer tasked with shutting down some research stations in the woods (it’s always the remote woods isn’t it) in North Eastern Scotland, with all of the workers disappeared or dead.
You can tackle things in any order and the pixilated graphics are made to lend themselves to the theme, at times making me feel like I am reliving the last 15 minutes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, with it’s disorienting, psychedelic presentation. This works well in creating a world blistering between the normal and some chaotic otherverse.
The Black Iris is a third person, over the shoulder supernatural horror adventure game drawing heavy influence from movies like Beyond the Black Rainbow; where black irises play a significant part in the movie and the setting for all the terribleness of the film is a research facility called Arborea, clearly where the developers here get their name from.
Another inspiration appears to be a similar horror movie, The Void where they take the triangular shape prevalent in that movie and make it look like the Pyramid stage at Glastonbury, but in fact it turns out to be a Church to a new lunatic cult for sacrifice of the individual…wait it is Glastonbury.
In any case horror references abound in the game design, the chaotic mind-altering focus around the sphere in Event horizon is another and the developers do achieve their aim of making a credible interesting take on it.
Most of the Black Iris reviews I skimmed through have missed the way this game is balanced. Sure there are flaws; the graphics are blocky and there are moments when you inexplicably pass through walls of buildings and the entry to buildings instantly rotates the camera view but not the movement controls making for some stuttering to the play, but they get so much right.
Diversions, delay and misdirection to your mission, an ability to interact with your environment and you need to in order to progress. There are empty bottles lying on the floor of some buildings for no other reason that you can knock them when you walk and the noise makes you stop to look at what happened; mist emerges from a door when you open it, for no other reason than to try and add atmosphere.
These little things are painstaking to construct, but elevate the game beyond what might have been a simple linear adventure. Why make your life more difficult than all of the above by deciding it should also be set in the rain? Because it matters and recognizing all these things matter to convincing world building and drawing the player in, is a mark of good development.
One of the best things about The Black Iris is the score; it matches the feel of the game perfectly, with the sinister, suspenseful and uncomfortable rattling and the sound of wind and rain, it all adds to the experience.
The game has been regularly patched and improved since its release; there are plans for controller use to be added and the developers are keen responders to feedback. So go join the nearly 4000 other people who have downloaded this in the first two weeks since it dropped on Itch.io.
Black Iris is the first ever game developed by Arboreta and considering that it is a marvelous achievement and I can’t wait to see what they do next. You will get about 30-40 minutes play out of this and the best bit? The developers will let you have the game for free; but they ask you to consider paying what you like for it. Here it is worth pointing out to you that all of the profit after Itch.io gets its 10% will go to their local food bank in West Dunbartonshire.
I hope you have enjoyed this Black Iris review as much as I have enjoyed both playing and writing about it. Black Iris is available on Itch.io:
Take my word for it, you won’t be disappointed if you pay the suggested amount to be taken on this short trippy adventure. And it’s better modern Art than you’d see for more money in any Gallery, so really you’re winning.
Based on the horrifying works of Trevor Henderson, Siren Head: Retribution is a free first-person horror that was developed by indie developer Nathan Brower, and released on Itch.io in March 2020.
In Siren Head: Retribution, you take on the role of a mechanic who gets a little more than he bargained for, while performing some routine maintenance.
“It should have been easy to drive up to the Chattahoochee National Forest ranger station. It would have been easy to meet up with Riley and Dan for another quiet evening. It should have been easy to leave.”
Siren Head: Retribution on Itch.io
We were lucky enough to get one of the first interviews with Nathan Brower, to get a peak in the mind of an indie game horror developer (who doesn’t like horror games!).
Hey Nathan! Thanks for doing this interview. Siren Head: Retribution is an open world horror game based on Trevor Henderson’s work. There are a number of Siren Head games but yours has been lauded as one of the best by more than one reviewer. What sets it apart, in your opinon?
Hey, and thanks for having me!
I think the primary difference between this and other Siren Head games is that Siren Head: Retribution gives you a bigger world to explore, and since some points of interest are shuffled between playthroughs, you have to often find a different strategy to win the game.
So just to go off on a slant – how did you get into dame development?
My dad is a computer wizard, and he taught me Java at young age. I was always interested in computers, and being able to write instructions to tell them what to do really engaged me. Later on, I made several mods for Star Wars BattleFront 2 (the classic 2005 version), and released one to the public. Seeing all the comments and videos of people playing my creation truly filled my heart with joy, and it was that moment that I realized this is what I wanted to do.
Holy mother of Lord baby Jesus on a tricycle… I personally think this is the best Siren Head game I’ve played so far!
Andy R – YouTube
You worked on the game with your brother… are you good colleagues?
Yes! Matthew actually came to me with the idea of making this game. He realized that Siren Head was a popular internet topic right now, and if we wanted to get our names out there, creating a game based on the character would be a good idea. I was actually against this at first, as I have a project that fills my days currently, and taking time away from it made me uncomfortable. I slept on it, and decided that he was right, there would be a good chance that many people would see our work.
Now, Matthew is not a game developer, but he is a great story teller, and he’s written several. One of which is a rather lengthy sci-fi novel that he’s looking to publish soon. Naturally, he would be in charge of all the writing in the game. He also stepped up and did most of the sounds you hear when playing. The title screen music (and the chase music which is a variant) was created by him recording sounds in our garage.
Was making a horror game that is so foreboding difficult in terms of keeping your spirits up… or can you disassociate from the mood of it when developing?
So I have to admit. I do not actually play horror games, and do not watch horror movies. I’m basically a big chicken! Part of my initial resistance to developing this game was being scared by my own creation.
But I must say: between having knowledge of where Siren Head was probably going to be, overall desensitization, and being able to see through the console what he was thinking at all times, there were virtually no instances I was scared through development, which was, for a scaredy cat like me, a pleasant surprise.
Was there ever a point in the game where you thought “Yeah, that part will scare the pants off the player!”?
Ok so I fibbed a little during that last question.
For some context, the astute player might realize that Siren Head is actually teleporting about the map over the course of the game. There are various reasons for this, but I had to do my best to hide this mechanic, as Siren Head does not canonically teleport.
One of the ways I tried to hide this was by making the actual audio source that outputs what Siren Head is yelling at you, track to his location. So, when he would teleport away, instead of having the noise immediately vanish, it would sound more like he’s simply walking away. When I first jumped into the test world to try this out, I was a little freaked out by the sounds pitch shifting up and down. I was not expecting it, and it sounded quite creepy. This is actually the doppler effect, and I considered removing it to hide his teleportation a little better, but since it scared me even after all the knowledge and desensitization, I knew I had to leave it in.
What was the biggest challenge about creating Siren Head: Retribution, and how would you do things differently?
I would say the most challenging part of developing Siren Head: Retribution was getting Siren Head to correctly navigate through the trees.
For those familiar with Unity, Siren Head tracks to the player through a Nav Mesh Agent. In order for a Nav Mesh Agent to walk, you must provide a Nav Mesh that shows where to go. You can mark GameObjects as ‘NavMeshStatic’, and this will tell the Nav Mesh that you don’t want any agents walking in that area. This works great for things like buildings, but the trees were a different story.
You see, the Unity terrain system will mark all trees on the terrain as ‘NavMeshStatic’ regardless of the actual tree prefab. Since all foliage, not just the trees, were placed using the terrain’s tree system, it created a hilarious display of Siren Head tip-toeing around every flower and fern, but mostly just caused unsolvable tracks and rendered poor Siren Head motionless.
Ok great, I thought. I’ll just erase the small plants just leaving the trees, bake the Nav Mesh, and simply undo the erase operations. This worked, but there was still a problem. The trees created a big ‘X’ in the Nav Mesh due to the highest LOD level being two planes in a cross. This resulted in Siren Head giving each tree way too much girth and still resulted in unsolvable positions.
Since Unity ignores the tree prefab’s static setting, I couldn’t immediately come up with an elegant solution. I thought my options were to remove the cross from each tree prefab, bake, then add them again for each of the many trees for each time I had to rebake, or manually add a capsule enveloping the tree’s footprint, for each of the trees in the scene.
I wasn’t excited about either option.
At some point I realized I could actually automate the capsule creation process with an editor script that loops through each tree at a given prototype index and instantiates a capsule at the same scale. With this, I was able to erase all the foliage from the terrain before baking a Nav Mesh to just leave nice capsules where I actually wanted Siren Head to avoid. And if I ever needed to rebake, it was a simple process of running the script a few times. Hoo-ray!
Do you have any advice for budding indie game developers?
Let me preface this by saying I am certainly no expert. However, I do think the following advice is valuable, and I wish I had followed it much sooner.
Don’t let your own taste for game quality stop you from putting yourself out there. Especially in the early days, it’s easy to create something that doesn’t live up to your standards. Heck, Siren Head: Retribution doesn’t live up to mine!
In that same vein, it’s important to limit your scope. Could I have spent another several months polishing and adding things to Siren Head: Retribution in an endeavour to bring the game up to my standards? Of course. But you have to draw the line somewhere. Drawing that line in the sand in terms of scope will help you finish way more projects instead of spending countless time on one project in the goose chase of your high standards.
Because in my opinion, that’s really what matters. Finishing projects. Putting a bow them. Learning from each of them.
And of course, being able to show something to the person that asks: “So, what do you do?”
Siren Head: Retribution
Siren Head: Retribution is available now from Itch.io
Ikai is a first-person psychological horror game that is bound tightly to Japanese folklore. The player will live the horror from Feudal era’s beliefs as the priestess of a stunningly designed shrine.
Now, some might say that Japanese horror games get a bad rap. Many are immediately compare to the Resident Evil franchise – which is unfair. That’s like comparing every car manufactured after 1964 to a Ford Mustang. It is just not possible. There are certain elements of a game that either make it unique, or outstandingly similar to the rest of the genre.
EndflameStudio have stepped away from the constraints of traditional horror gameplay, and submerged the player in a fantastically produced period Japanese horror story that will not only be fresh for the veteran horror gamer, but astonishing to new players in the genre.
Fear and anxiety prevail after the darkest tales from Japanese folklore come to life in this first-person psychological horror game. Live the horror from the feudal era’s beliefs as the priestess of a temple.
Ikai – Endflame Studio
Hey guys! First things first – how did the team get together?
Two of us were working on a company that had to shut down. We thought that instead of looking for another job this could be a good moment to start our own company and try to do the games that we always wanted. We needed an artist to finish setting up a basic team covering all roles, so we asked him if he wanted to join us on this adventure since he was also looking for a job.
The three of us already met at university and at that time we did some projects together. So we knew how each others work.
Your first release, Ikai, is a Japanese first-person psychological horror. What gave you the idea? Why feudal Japan?
We teamed up without any idea in mind. So, the first thing we did was brainstorming which kind of game we wanted to do and we were able to do. A first-person psychological horror was the genre that best fit our skills. But with the genre only we couldn’t do much, we needed a theme, a story.
We all love Japanese culture and are familiar with it, also yokai stories fascinated us. After a little bit of research, we found out that not many games have yokais in it and the ones that have are usually action games, not horror. There are actually some horror games about it but, only a few ones and released quite long ago. The ones nowadays normally approach to J-horror with ghosts of girls, targeting a modern Japan. That is why we wanted to go back to an older sense of fear and include yokais in it.
At that point we knew we had found our spot in the market with Ikai, a first-person psychological horror set in feudal Japan.
With the demo of Ikai released, Endflame is now on the radar of many indie gamers. Have you been happy with the feedback so far?
We have! We have received very positive feedback, people liked the game and wanted more. One of the things we were worried and wanted to test with this prototype was if the idea could be well received and if the public actually wants this kind of game. It makes us very happy to see that people are eager to play the full game and that motivates us to keep working on the project.
The aesthetics & mood of Ikai has been captured expertly. Did you draw on any inspiration for the locations?
We are only three and none of us is a concept artist. We used real pictures as reference to create the aesthetics, yet there is no specific place. As for the mood we just did trial and error until we had something that felt right.
A lot of Ikai is based on dark folklore and superstition, and the premise itself is true psychological horror. Is it difficult to keep upbeat & have a good time when developing something like Ikai?
We are all having a good time developing Ikai because we are doing what we love, making games, and we are doing the way we like. Having that freedom is what makes us happy and motivated on the project. We don’t think the theme really affects us much here.
During brainstorming, it’s quite easy to get swept up in a particular feature of a game. Were there any features you had to cut due to time/team capabilities?
We actually had a realistic planning and didn’t have to cut much for the demo. Sure we will in the final game, milestones are not always easy to fulfill on time if not.
The only thing we had to cut was a specific event, similar to the one of the arms from the walls. After some time of iteration and iteration, we were struggling to get the mood with that event and had to discuss about what to do. Spending more time on that wouldn’t grant us a successful outcome and if it were on the demo, it wouldn’t have the quality we expected. Consequently, we decided to remove it.
What are you most happy about with the game so far?
“…we wanted to approach to the Japanese theme with the respect it deserves”
Endflame Studio (Ikai)
There are actually two things that make us feel proud and happy about our game.
The first one was to get a creepy mood, an environment that could make the players feel unsafe even when having not seen the monster yet. It is the first game we develop having the full control of the project and were worried of being unable to achieve this aspect. We can tell from the reactions that most of players feel tense, so it’s kind of relieving.
On the other hand, we wanted to approach to the Japanese theme with the respect it deserves. As enthusiasts of the culture we felt we had to express it the best way we could. After receiving positive feedback from the Japanese market itself, we can’t help but feel happy about the reactions.
What has been the most challenging aspect of the game development process so far?
We had experience on programming, design and art already. We can keep improving and there will always be challenges but, the most challenging aspect came from a role that must be present in every game development: marketing. Having no experience on that, we had to cope with it from the very beginning. It is something we are still working on and find it difficult to reach our audience. However, we keep trying as much as we can to get visibility and get people to know Ikai.
Indie games have proven amazingly popular during the Covid-19 pandemic. Some development teams, however, have found it hard to adjust to the “new normal” of working remotely. Has any lockdown restrictions affected the development process (maybe in ways you didn’t anticipate)?
In regards to remote working, we were already used to it, thus it didn’t change much. What we didn’t anticipate was that our friends wouldn’t be able to come and help us out with the testing. We ended up doing it online, asking them to record themselves as if they were streamers so as we could see their reactions. But, we feel sorry that some of them couldn’t try it out because of having very old computers that can’t handle screen recording, run the game and also the webcam video.
What advice would you give to anyone looking to develop a first person psychological horror?
Launch a demo. We are still halfway of development but, know the right way to follow mostly because of the feedback we have received after releasing a level of the game for free. It is a very good way to test out the audience and see what have you done right or wrong and still have time to improve it before the final launch.
A question for each of the team: What was the first game that got you hooked on gaming…?
Guillem: Pokemon was very popular on that time and asked my parents to buy me the game. They bough me Pokemon pinball… Still a great game.
Iván: I hardly remember it, because I have played many games since that time but, I would say it is Sonic the hedgehog
Laura: I started playing video games with my cousin’s Game Boy and I fell in love with Pokemon Fire Red. That was when I got hooked on gaming.