Published on November 11th, 2017 | by Sean Warhurst
Stifled PS4 Review
Summary: A solid and relatively accomplished effort that’s more than worth a look for survival horror fans.
Echo the Dolphin-Man...
An immersive indie horror game built around the intriguing use of sound as a major mechanic, Stifled thrusts players into an oppressive darkness where your greatest asset for survival may also be the very cause of your demise.
Legendary schlock filmmaker William Castle understood that in order to set your product apart from the pack you needed a hook, a gimmick that offered up an experience that your competitors were either unable or unwilling to provide; Castle famously hooked motors to cinema seats in order to replicate the sensation of receiving an electric shock with his film “The Tingler”, amongst other, less notable publicity stunts designed to place his films directly in the public’s eye.
Stifled’s developers, Gattai Games, unfortunately may lack the budget and bombast of William Castle in his heyday and the profile necessary to widely promote their game, but it can’t be denied that they’ve at least mastered the art of having a compelling hook to pique the public’s interest.
Stifled only allows players to see things through echolocation, which basically means you’re essentially a dolphin – or Daredevil, if you’re too Hardcore for dolphins – using sound in order to discern the features of the environment around you. It’s an inventive mechanic and one that I personally am surprised that we haven’t seen used to full effect in video games before, although The Deep End Games’ Perception did go some way towards exploring similar gameplay themes.
You can choose to turn off your mic and use a button to create pulses but I’d definitely recommend against this, as much of the tension and fun comes from using your voice in-game, and this experience is only bolstered when playing in VR.
Stifled opens in a suitably disorientating fashion; you awake in a small apartment but your vision is obscured by a fog that only seems to dissipate whenever you create a noise. Cue a brief sequence where you can explore your surroundings and acquaint yourself with the controls, all punctuated by, in my case, a constant string of random yelping and inarticulate vowel sounds in order to see further than a foot ahead.
Plot details are scarce in the beginning but you soon begin to piece details together in order to form a bigger, if not exactly more comprehensive, overview of the events that are unfolding; the basic premise sees you take control of David Ridley, a widower whose descent into the abyss of grief has started to fracture his very perception of reality.
After the opening sequence ostensibly familiarises you with the core conceit of the game, a traumatic memory plunges you into a dank and foreboding sewer system and this is where the game opens up and the real fun begins.
Immediately after entering the sewers, you’re plunged into darkness. Not just ordinary, regular darkness either – An inky, stygian absence of light that’s almost claustrophobia inducing when playing in PSVR.
The visual style of the game shifts noticeably as you venture forth into this foreboding new area, taking on a graphical style that reminded me of the old 3D vector games of the Eighties, only much more refined and with cleaner lines.
Stifled also reveals the second major component of gameplay here as well – The survival horror elements.
As is the current trend, David is just a regular dude who would realistically stand no chance going up against freakish ghouls, so your only options when it comes to enemy encounters are to quickly hide yourself from sight and distract the beast with a well-timed throw of a rock or, failing that, leg it whilst screaming maniacally in the vain hope that you’ll shake whatever is nipping its teeth at your heels.
You soon discover that, in order to survive, you must tread a fine balance between using sound in order to reveal your surroundings and avoid alerting patrolling enemies who are, yep, you guessed it, extremely sensitive to sound. This makes progression in Stifled a constant risk and reward scenario, where you must often sacrifice stealth in order to discern where exactly to go.
This trade off reaches a dizzying crescendo when, after alerting a foe, you’re forced to make a hasty retreat whilst also making as little sound as possible lest you reveal your position to any other nearby enemies in the vicinity… Yet, paradoxically, you MUST make noise so you can see enough so that you actually have a hope of eluding the creature that’s pursuing you.
It’s in these moments where all of the elements come together that Stifled works best, constantly keeping you moving and swearing as you narrowly avoid attacks, or, more likely, succumb to what will likely be one of more than a few deaths… Stifled can be quite punishing when it wants to be.
It’s not just your own sounds that you have to monitor either, as the environment is littered with obstacles like puddles that, if stepped in, will give away your location as quickly as if you’d sang Yankee Doodle Dandy into the mic.
Sneaking through the tunnels and avoiding enemy encounters make up a substantial bulk of the gameplay for Stifled and, if you’re faint of heart, then this may not be the game for you; I’ve poured countless hours into horror titles, including what’s on offer for PSVR, and there were moments when Stifled threatened to push me into a terror induced cardiac arrest as my heart struggled to keep up with the massive rush of adrenaline that comes with being chased down.
The caveat however, is that this experience doesn’t translate as effectively when playing on a regular console set-up, merely feeling like another entry in the hide-and-survive genre; it’s when played in VR that the true potential of the game is revealed and budgetary constraints and the limitations that come with them are a lot less evident when playing in this way.
When not holding your breath as a glowing red nightmare stalks around you, you’ll be exploring the environment and piecing together just what exactly is happening both to David and the world around him. Although there are some cliché elements to the plot, the narrative structure is relatively solid and well-paced and doesn’t exactly play out how you’d expect, which is a relief as frantically going on an impromptu jog whenever an enemy spots you isn’t exactly enough of a foundation to build a game upon, no matter how exhilarating it can admittedly be.
Graphics and Audio
Although rather simplistic outside of the “real world” sequences, I actually grew rather fond of Stifled’s stark visual style and, considering the limitations of PSVR’s graphical capabilities, going with such art design definitely works in the game’s favour; however, the minimalist graphics also makes any jaggies evident far more visible to the eye… I did play on the OG PS4, however, so this may not apply if playing on the Pro.
The sound design is pretty effective from an ambient sound perspective but the voice acting performances are a little on the nose; it’s forgivable and thankfully doesn’t crop up all that much but your mileage may vary depending on whether you remember the days of horrendous video game VO work and subsequently built up a tolerance to stilted, wooden dialogue delivery.
It’s great to see developers, particularly smaller ones, not only support VR gaming but also expand upon it in a meaningful and, most importantly, fun way; the central mechanic of using your microphone in order to see fosters constant engagement between the player and the game and is a large part of why this charming little indie effort stands out so far from the pack, for me at least.
It’s not perfect, of course; constantly dying in certain sections can become tedious after the third or fourth attempt, something that’s compounded by the A.I occasionally bugging out, and the aforementioned voice acting could break immersion for some. There’s also no real replay value after you’ve completed the story, although personally I think that even a one-time playthrough is more than worth the low price of admission.
As a PSVR experience, Stifled is highly recommended and will get the pulse pumping faster than a drum solo, but it’s going to be a slightly harder sell to the average gamer, as when played in regular mode the game’s shortcomings are made much more apparent.
Still, it’s a solid and relatively accomplished effort that’s more than worth a look for survival horror fans, especially at its bargain basement price, and the integration of echolocation is a mechanic that’s to be commended and, hopefully, expanded upon in the future.
It’s just a shame that most don’t currently have access to the best method of playing the game and may dismiss it based on impressions from the 2D version, which is admittedly a much weaker game when removed from the limited line-up of VR experiences and put into competition with the myriad First Person Horror games available…So, with that in mind, feel free to add another point to the final score if you’re a PSVR owner in the market for some fresh horror titles.
Primary Format – PlayStation 4 (Reviewed), PC
Game Genre – Horror
Rating – PG
Game Developer – Gattai Games
Game Publisher – Sony Interactive Entertainment Europe
Reviewer – Sean Warhurst