Swedish mobile developers Simogo bring us Year Walk, a creepy, snow-bound horror story for iOS devices about a man trying to see into the future. (I bet he can tell what’s at the end of this review without looking.)
Not many people in the games industry like to work outside their comfort zone. Think about it: Nintendo have basically made a business out of sticking rigidly to what their core audience want (and no, Mad World doesn’t prove any different). Every famous name – Kojima, Spector, Molyneux, Meier – all of them have a genre or an artistic direction they’re known for, and they rarely if ever step that far away from it. On the strength of Simogo’s latest release, Year Walk, maybe we should be pushing more developers to challenge themselves.
Simogo are a tiny Swedish outfit who built a reputation off the back of some small but perfectly formed iOS games – the arcade puzzler Cosmic Spin, the endless runner (driver?) Bumpy Road and last year’s brilliant rhythm action/stealth game Beat Sneak Bandit. They were all pretty slick, polished, easy to pick up but hard to put down, yet they were largely bright and cheery things designed for casual players and score-chasing obsessives alike. Year Walk is a wild about-face. It’s a horror game, a chilling piece of arthouse melancholy a bit like Silent Hill made by (Belgian art-game developers) Tale of Tales and, well, this has to be one of the most memorable releases in 2013.
Year Walk is based around the ancient tradition of the same name, when people ritually purified themselves before setting out on a lone pilgrimage on the last day of the year. Trudging through the darkness, cold and alone, they hoped to run into supernatural figures – demons from Scandinavian mythology – who could offer the walker a glimpse into the future and answer their questions about the next twelve months. You play a young man in nineteenth century rural Sweden about to take his own year walk, but over the course of the game it becomes apparent there are some answers he doesn’t want to hear.
Don’t turn around
Year Walk is half-way between a first-person view and a 2.5D game of sorts. You see what your character sees as he wanders through the snow, but you can’t actually turn around. Arrows at the top or bottom of the screen show you when you can move forward or backward, usually matched with visual cues like the sight of something interesting in the distance. It’s like navigating a maze when you’re only ever facing in one direction. There are no buttons, no menus – you drag the world towards or away from you to move, and tap or swipe things to interact with them.
Despite this odd control setup Year Walk still features a gorgeous, truly haunting world to shuffle through. It’s simple, with lots of repeating scenery, but hugely effective. The effects and score are terrific and both the backgrounds and the monsters you’ll come across have an eye-catching, ghoulish quality, like the more disturbing sort of children’s picture book.
Lots of developers take horror as an excuse to test the boundaries, to go over the top. Conversely, there’s a solemn atmosphere to Year Walk’s production values even when things get bloody, and this air of restraint makes the game seem truly mythic, like a short story in some forgotten collection of ancient fairy tales.
The downside of this is the game is over a little too quickly, even if you’re not that great at brainteasers. Year Walk is none too challenging; once you realise how the puzzles work you can charge through the whole thing in a couple of hours at most. There’s a “true” ending to unlock, and a decent chunk of lore to browse through in the accompanying (free) encyclopedia app, but there’s very little replay value in a technical sense. You can certainly argue Simogo just didn’t want to make something you have to go through over and over again to fully appreciate, but there’s still a sense of mild disappointment when you realise how simple the mechanics underneath really are.
Still, if you can accept Year Walk is basically an interactive short story, it’s unlike virtually anything else available on mobile hardware and a brilliant little artistic experiment. It’s hard to call it honest-to-God scary (a couple of the jump scares got me, but nothing major), but for a studio that’s never tried horror before this is a wonderfully creepy game, haunting and emotive. We may be only a little way into the year, but I’m pretty sure I’ll remember Year Walk when next winter rolls around: like a great short story, it sticks with you for much longer than it takes to finish.
Year Walk, by Simogo, is available now for iOS devices.