With the recent boom in horror games, developers have seemingly mastered how to startle us. From the animatronic terrors of Five Nights at Freddy’s to the urban legend killer found at the heart of Slender, there are plenty of ways to get your kicks if you’re a fan of the genre. While I respect the craft, what bothers me about these titles is that the fear doesn’t stick with you. A jump scare is great at jolting you, but it rarely leaves a lasting memory. Although it does feature some cheap scares, what separates Neverending Nightmares from its contemporaries is that it’s about more than just trying to startle you.
Here’s a scenario for you: if you found yourself in an endless nightmare, what would you do? Such is the predicament young Thomas faces. After his sister wakes him up from a dream that featured her murder, Thomas begins to explore his house. The thing is, though, is that his house is slowly turning into something out of a David Lynch fever dream. The more he explores his surroundings, the more the building continues to transform. Eventually, the house Thomas believes he lives in merges with a cemetery, an insane asylum and other hellish locales.
If you couldn’t tell, Neverending Nightmares is difficult to unwrap. During my first playthrough, I certainly couldn’t tell what Thomas was dreaming and what his reality had become. Even when I got to the ending, I was still confused by what had transpired. In fact, the ending probably added more to my confusion, as the mystery of just who his “sister,” Gabby actually was continued to confound. Is she actually his sister? Wife? Child? Each of the three conclusions of the game tells a different story, and none of them make more sense than the other.
Even if the story is tough to decipher, the scares served up by Neverending Nightmares are more than terrifying. Based upon creator Matt Gilgenbach’s struggles with OCD and depression, the unsettling mood of the game provides its biggest chills. Due to the unrelenting and anxiety inducing atmosphere, I was constantly on edge during my trip through Thomas’ nightmares. The uncertainty around what is and isn’t real never allows for the player to get comfortable. What could start off as a simple walk to the kitchen could instantly devolve into a sweat inducing stroll through darkness. In a way, the constant mood changes help demonstrate the effect that depression and OCD could have on the human psyche.
What really drives home how horrific the experience Thomas is going through, though, is the excellent use of sound. The eerie, sparse soundtrack helps set the unbearably tense atmosphere of the title. Although Infinitap Games would prefer if you experienced the game through headphones, I found that the speakers on my television were still effective. A spine-chilling whisper in the dark or the rumbling of footsteps that emanate from the DualShock 4 speaker drew me further into the dream. Without the accompanying audio, I’m not sure the title would have been able to provide the same effective scares that it does.
While not on the same level as the audio, the visuals of Neverending Nightmares are creepy as well. Utilizing a unique style that recalls the work of Edward Gorey, the game looks unlike any other horror release out there. Almost everything is drawn in black and white, and has the look of something that wouldn’t be out of place in a sketchbook. Shading and coloring help set the mood, with deep shading used to convey the encroaching darkness and splashes of color used to draw your eye to a necessary detail. The purple flower in the hands of a porcelain doll or the smearing of blood on the wall stand out against the colorless backdrop.
It’s not just the color of the game that helps it stand out visually, though. It can be hard to figure out where you are moving at times in the game, due to the fact that several hallways and rooms are reused. You can tell you’re moving deeper into a nightmare, though, by observing how the background changes from level to level. You walk through a normal looking hallway at first, but in each subsequent go-around, something changes. The wallpaper begins to rot, or the dolls begin to multiply. It’s an effective way of conveying that things are getting worse, without coming right out and saying it.
The problem with Neverending Nightmares is that while it is effective as a horrific experience, it’s not a particularly great game, so to speak. To put it bluntly, this is basically a walking simulator sprinkled with the occasional moment of avoiding monsters. You have no way of combating these creatures, and your actions are basically limited to opening doors and looking at things. Over the four or so hours the game lasts, most of your time will be spent trudging straight forward. There’s just simply not enough variety to be found here.
Even as a walking simulator apologist/fan, I have to say that this was testing my patience at times. Not because I was scared, although I was, but rather because it is a pretty linear journey. Games like Firewatch or Gone Home at least let players explore their environments and uncover new secrets. Here, though, there’s not much to find outside of the main path, so it makes exploring every nook and cranny feel pointless. The only break from linearity you get comes from unlocking the three different endings the title has.
Ultimately, how you feel about Neverending Nightmares will be decided by what you want out of your video games, Are you in the mood for an atmospheric journey into the darkest corners of the human mind? If so, then go right ahead and grab Infinitap Games’ personal tale. However, if you value gameplay just as much as story, this is a tough one to recommend. The lack of depth and repetitious nature of the gameplay may outweigh the memorable frights that the game provides.
This review was based on the PlayStation 4 version of the title, which we were provided with.
Relentlessly chilling, but lacking in replayability, Neverending Nightmares is for those who value memorable storytelling more than solid gameplay.