With the leaps and bounds made in the graphical capabilities of video games in recent years, there is one genre that has steadily risen in popularity, the best of which results in games that are deeply affecting, immersive experiences. I am talking about the rather mundanely named ‘walking simulators.’ While hearing that title may evoke ideas of punishingly tedious gameplay (and yes, when not done right that may well be the result), there have been several terrific titles that all fall under the walking simulator umbrella. Games like Gone Home and The Vanishing of Ethan Carter have received much praise for their focus on story and exploration of painstakingly detailed worlds. The new effort by Funcom, The Park, also fits into this category.
The Park is billed as a first-person, psychological horror game, coming out just in time for Halloween. The story focuses on young mother Lorraine, who has just spent the day at Atlantic Island Park, a run-down family amusement park, with her son, Callum. They apparently seem to be the last two to leave for the day, as the place is completely deserted. As Callum suddenly darts back into the park unaccompanied in search of a lost toy, Lorraine must chase after him and track him down. As she does, darkness falls, and things become very creepy indeed. The dilapidated park becomes shrouded in grim misery as it becomes clear that a sinister force is occupying it along with Lorraine.
And that’s really as far as I can go describing the events of the game without starting to reveal some important plot details. It is then up to the player to piece together the background of Atlantic Island, through scattered notes and letters, as they journey deeper and deeper through its nightmarish locations and learn more about its shady origins.
The player has a handful of ramshackle and battered attractions to experience in P.O.V. fashion, set up in such an order so that each one progresses the story and slowly cranks up the tension. These range from a fairytale dark ride (as if they weren’t creepy enough to begin with), a roller coaster, and most forbidding of all, a haunted house.
Now, this may all be starting to sound like a morbid version of Theme Park World. But the team at Funcom have crafted such a vehemently unsettling atmosphere that I was genuinely on the edge of my seat every time I had to experience one of the rusty old rides. The obscured vision that some of the fast moving rides create is used to orchestrate a few truly unsettling moments.
Funcom cleverly allows most of the horror to stem from the player’s imagination. The most prominent feelings of dread simply come from reading the different newspaper articles, diary entries, and police reports littered about the place that all give you horrendous ideas of Atlantic Island’s dark history. From gruesome murders to freak accidents, it’s no wonder that the park seems to be doing bad business. Reading these documents helped build so much tension that I found myself proceeding with more and more caution, with every creak of machinery and gush of wind sending a shiver down my spine.
That said, the game does sometimes dip into cliches, utilizing the obvious fear of uncanny looking costumes with the story’s primary antagonists. There are also a few jump scares that you will be able to see coming, which may cause more hardened horror aficionados to roll their eyes at the predictability and contrived nature of them.
However, the game doesn’t just aim to scare you with bumps in the night; it also strives to get under your skin with emotionally distressing themes. I got heavy vibes from the similarly themed horror film The Babadook during my playthrough. The game explores heavy ideas of maternal depression and the soul consuming black hole of grief, creating strong ties to the Jennifer Kent’s film. It also unfortunately meant that I found the story of The Park to be slightly predictable.
While I wasn’t able to pinpoint exactly what was really happening before the ending, I did have a general idea of where things were going. The story does have to be commended, however, for its depth and attempt at providing its player with something more than just a few loud bangs and clashes in the dark. When I played through the game a second time, although the level of fear had somewhat diminished, I was picking up on things I hadn’t before—subtle imagery that had more meaning the second time around.
As with a lot of walking simulators, the controls and level of interaction are kept at a minimum. Aside from movement, you only have two controls to worry about: left click for interacting with certain highlighted objects (of which are relatively sparse) and right click to call out for Callum, whose response can help guide you through the game. This basic approach is very welcome in a game of this style as you never have to worry about a UI to distract from the experience.
The game was made using the new Unreal Engine 4 and looks appropriately menacing, with the environment festering in dark shadows and colourless gloom. My only complaint with the look of the game is in the character models. While not awful, the faces of the characters can look very robotic, making them look as though they belong in the park as animatronics. It isn’t a big deal, as the first-person view and small number of characters mean you only ever see the facial animations in the game’s bookending cutscenes.
I should mention that The Park is actually set in one of Funcom’s existing universes; the Atlantic Island amusement park is a key location in their MMORPG, The Secret World. If you are a player of Secret World, purchasing the game will get you a couple of extra items to put in your account, including the costume of your new favourite murderous park mascot. Be assured that the knowledge of this connection is not required to get the most out of The Park. In fact, I would argue that it’s probably best going into the game knowing as little as possible, and previous experience of the sinister park may even run the risk of spoiling the element of surprise that is so vital to the game’s success.
The main reason why I am ever so tentative about giving the game an exuberant recommendation is to do with its meagre length. I have to admit, though, that it’s a tricky point for criticism. Yes, the game can be completed in just under two hours or less if you rush through, missing important notes and rides (although it’s unlikely any player ever would with a game like this). But I get the feeling that the brisk length is part of what makes the game so effective—it’s a short, condensed sucker punch of suspense and terror. Had it been any longer, the well-built atmosphere may have started to crack, and the jump scares and constant view distortion would have approached tedium.
The price tag on Steam is $9.99/£7.69. This may seem a little too much for some players given the running time, but then again, that’s still less than the cost of a film, and in my opinion, The Park provided more efficient scares and disquieting atmosphere than any horror film I’ve seen in recent memory.
Overall, The Park is an appropriately chilling game to play for this time of year. I found the experience intensely affecting and engaging, and it has led me to think that the walking simulator style of gameplay is perfectly suited to horror games, suggesting at new story-driven possibilities for the genre. The two-hour length does prevent me from giving it a wholehearted recommendation, but if you’re a horror fan looking for a scare this Halloween, The Park is an excellent choice. Just be fully aware that you are paying for what is essentially just two hours of entertainment.
This review is based on a PC version of the game.
The Park may be very short, but it certainly leaves an impact. Taking a trip to Atlantic Island Park will reward horror fans with an unsettling tale of emotional trauma adorned with a number of well-orchestrated frights. As the game itself so ominously suggests, you should turn off the lights, plug in some headphones, and enjoy the ride.