Lead designer of the Kickstarted horror title Neverending Nightmares, Matt Gilgenbach, has successfully created one of the most macabre, mature and emotionally effecting survival horror titles not only to grace a handheld system, but any system full stop.
Neverending Nightmares is a stellar example of the genre and also an incredibly personal and thought-provoking journey. Gilgenbach has explained in many interviews during the production of the game that he not only wanted to create a desperate and bleak horror experience, but also use the game as a vehicle for him to explore some of his thoughts, experiences and emotional responses to his own psychological battle with OCD and mental health. In both regards the game is an exemplary success.
Encouraging the ‘flight rather than fight’ gameplay permeating contemporary survival horror games, you assume the role of Thomas – a young man doomed to wake up again and again in an inescapable, hopeless nightmare. Every time Thomas dies or witnesses some of the game’s truly shocking ‘intrusive thought’ moments he will wake with a start either in a new location or one of the game’s many, generous, checkpoints. It’s a very unnerving and effective way of keeping the player off guard as you are never truly sure whether or not you have died and restarted at a checkpoint or if you have just made progression in the game. A mechanic used very effectively to make the players own perception of reality as uncertain as that of Thom’s.
As you tentatively explore the oppressive corridors, the eerie silence being occasionally broken by distant chilling screams and laughter, you will often come across the other main character of the game; Gabby.
Introduced as Thom’s younger sister, Gabby acts as the main crux of the narrative and is Thomas’ only anchor to anything resembling sanity. The whole game is essentially a quest to find out who or what Gabby is (or maybe was) and what her relationship is to Thomas. However as the game progresses and Thom begins to question what is real and what is not, who Gabby is and what she means to Thomas becomes very blurry indeed.
Neverending Nightmares does a pitch perfect job when setting the scene. As you explore the environments and the wallpaper starts peeling and bloodstains start appearing so too does Thom’s mental state begin to unravel. Jump scares will have you on the edge of your seat as Thomas starts to hallucinate and lose his grip on reality. Even though Neverending Nightmares maybe relies a bit too heavily on established horror tropes such as spooky china dolls and desolate mental asylums, it still manages to create one of the most psychologically uncomfortable environments I have played in a horror title since Silent Hill 2.
The tension is further exemplified by the amazing sound design. Music is kept to a minimum and the game is all the more unsettling for it. Apart from brief string crescendos whenever a jump scare takes place, or the chilling sound of a distant music box, the only other noise permeating this hellish dream is Thom’s ragged nervous breathing – a nice detail that is exacerbated whenever Thom tries to run. These short bursts of speed are to be used sparingly however, as sprint for too long and Thomas will have to stop, pausing to catch his breath leaving you open to attack. This encourages you to take your time exploring as you never know when you will need to draw from that limited pool of stamina to escape an enemy.
Speaking of enemies there are only a handful of designs in the game and they all have the ability to extinguish Thomas’ life very quickly if given the chance. However they are used sparingly throughout the game making each encounter feel a bit more special and nerve-wracking than if you were swamped by hordes of them. Each enemy type is nicely designed though (especially the hulking baby ogre you encounter early in the game) and they all have their own different strategy when it comes to avoiding them making each encounter feel almost like a mini puzzle.
Longevity wise Neverending Nightmares is a rather short affair with your first playthrough clocking in at no more than a couple of hours before you see your first ending. I rather welcome this as it means the game manages to maintain a brisk pace without ever overstaying its welcome unlike other games such as Alien Isolation which was long to a fault. Even though Neverending Nightmares is a rather linear affair in which you will mostly be walking from left to right, upon completion of the game you are rewarded with a screen that shows where your journey could have branched off resulting in different endings. This enticing challenge to see the games multiple conclusions plus its short length encourages numerous playthroughs and is made all the more attractive by the fact that it won’t take long to get from A to Z.
In conclusion Neverending Nightmares is an original take on the horror genre both visually and narratively and the perfect fit for the Vita. It plays beautifully smoothly with no technical hiccups to speak of and if played in the right conditions (i.e headphones in and lights off!) it is one of the most rewarding survival horror experiences you will have played in recent years. Even though it is on the short side it is a game that begs you to peer into the darkness beneath your bed more than once in order to see all of the horrors lurking within. Anyone with a Vita should pick this game up and support it, survival horror fans doubly so!