Modern Review: Uncanny Valley (PS Vita)
Before I actually delve into the main meat and potatoes of Cowardly Creations’ recent PS4 and Vita release, I want to discuss the title. Uncanny Valley is named after the notion that the more accurate simulations of human faces and expressions get, the more we (as in, us real humans) become aware that they might not be authentic. A great example of this are the characters seen in the Tom Hanks computer generated movie The Polar Express. The facial animations of the characters are eerily lifelike…but there’s something decidedly soulless about them and the human eye has an unnerving ability to detect the fabrication. The same can be said of the young Jeff Bridges in Tron Legacy or the recreation of Peter Cushing depicted in Star Wars Rogue One. Like The Thing from John Carpenter’s eponymous 1980s masterpiece, it looks like a human…but it isn’t. And so ends the pseudo-science lesson. I simply find the notion of the uncanny valley theory totally fascinating and this in part might be one of the reasons that I was drawn to this retro-inspired psychological horror in the first place.
Uncanny Valley is actually a fairly old game, having originally been released on Steam way back in 2015. I only discovered this after searching for information about the game prior to its release on the PlayStation Store earlier this week, and I unearthed a bunch of rather unfavourable reviews, too. Not wanting to be influenced by the actual reasons behind the various two-star ratings Google threw at me amongst the search results, I decided not to read them and instead wait for the game to arrive and play through it with no prior knowledge or information about the storyline or the gameplay mechanics. The only things I cared about at the point of purchase were that I was enamoured with the 2D, pixel art trappings and the promise of playing what looked like a retro-themed take on Silent Hill. Having experienced and enjoyed aesthetically similar games on my Vita, such as Lone Survivor and Slain (both of which have a definite horror theme), I wanted to give Uncanny Valley my full, undivided and uninfluenced attention.
The game starts with you playing as a guy called Tom (which was disconcerting at first, as I though the game somehow knew my actual name), who has just taken a job as a security guard at an isolated facility surrounded for miles around by nothing but snow-covered forests. The facility was once the home to an organisation called Melior, but now stands unused yet is eerily still full of office equipment and machinery. So far, so The Shining; and I think it’s important to reference Stanley Kubrick’s seminal horror flick at this point because Uncanny Valley draws much of its uneasy atmosphere from the 1980 movie. The feeling that everything appears to be normal, but there’s something not quite right. Where are all the workers from the facility? Why does the massive building stand empty apart from you and another security guard with who you share a shift pattern? Who is the mysterious house keeper you occasionally run into at the now deserted staff accommodation block? There are so many unnerving elements to the game’s story that you can’t help but be drawn in, driven by a desire to know more. It’s like The Shining mixed with the desolation of Pripyat and the mysterious, unnameable weirdness of HP Lovecraft’s novella Shadow Over Innsmouth.
Once you settle in, Uncanny Valley sets you the task of doing the rounds in the Melior building after dark, where Buck (the other security guard) gives you instructions on which floors to patrol and barks at you over the radio to fix the generator if the power goes down. During these shifts (which actually only last for 7 minutes each) you are generally free to roam around the deserted building and the limited outside areas by torchlight, picking up audio tapes and reading emails on the various computer terminals you find. Both of these activities will yield further information about what went down at Melior before the firm went to the wall, and also reveal the unease felt by staff at working in such a remote location, with the company dabbling in unethical and slightly disturbing research. It is once these night shifts end and Tom finds himself needing the warm embrace of sleep that Uncanny Valley truly takes a trip into the macabre and surreal.
The dream sequences place Tom in a host of unconnected scenes and locations – police stations full of corrupt cops, alleyways populated by mutilated corpses and tenements full of what can only be described massive green faces bursting through walls…because that’s what they are. The desolate reality merged with the horrific dream sequences, both in turn coupled with no real idea of what is going on (initially at least) do make Uncanny Valley a truly unique and genuinely unsettling experience. For this, I cannot fault it. The game does start a bit slowly, and is a little bit more of a walking simulator than you would expect, but after a while the creepiness ramps up and the action starts…and then it goes fully Silent Hill and you find yourself running down shadowy corridors, shooting zombies in the head and being chased by crowds of invincible silhouettes. What does it all mean? What was Melior doing out there in the place beyond the pines? Well…I won’t spoil it for you, but rest assured it’s pretty creepy and makes Uncanny Valley stand out on the Vita especially as a game well worth investigating.
Another, not so positive aspect of Uncanny Valley, is just how full of glitches it is. At first, I wondered if what I was encountering was a play on Eternal Darkness’s way of messing with the player. Remember the ‘corrupt memory card’ prank and the other ways in which the Gamecube classic tried to freak you out by breaking the fourth wall? Well, Uncanny Valley has plenty of these moments…but they aren’t intentional. A major bug I found was that if you are in the middle of attempting a puzzle when the game forces Tom back to his bedroom to get some sleep (it’s a bit like the mechanic used in Shenmue where Ryo Hazuki has to keep popping off to bed when it gets late), then the game will not load the following screens. It’s hard to explain, but essentially you can still move around and interact with items and other characters…but you cannot see anything on the screen. Pressing pause will make the black mask flash for a split second, revealing the game as it should be before going back to a black screen. In this case, the game had auto saved and no matter how many times I reloaded my save, the black screen glitch was replicated. Annoyed, I restarted the adventure resigned to the fact that I’d just wasted two hours of my life.
Interestingly though – and as a testament to the message you get upon starting Uncanny Valley for the first time – on my second play through I got a slightly different experience. Different conversations with the same characters, different items in the game world to collect and slightly different dream sequences. Uncanny Valley boasts several different endings and you are encouraged to play through the whole adventure multiple times to see everything the adventure has to offer, and the fact that this annoying glitch forced me to restart after just two hours allowed me to get a look at what the developers intended. There are some other clever aspects to Uncanny Valley, such as the ability to heal certain parts of Tom’s body with bandages, and the damage model will hinder progress (such as making Tom walk slower or not allowing him to move boxes at all if his arms are injured). There are standard puzzle elements too, such as finding key codes and unlocking doors and there are also some nice little touches like being able to interact with the vast majority of background items. However, the muddled way in which the story is revealed to the player, and the general air of not knowing what to do next does detract from the overall experience.
In a nutshell, Uncanny Valley is an intriguing and refreshing experience – certainly on the Vita, anyway. It looks pretty great and the animation is brilliant, while the sound design perfectly builds suspense and a feeling of uncertain and otherworldly horror. Sadly, there is a distinct air of style over substance. The somewhat aimless wandering around and slow pacing of the opening sections will probably leave many gamers cold, and the occasional game-breaking glitch means that many will likely never get to see the further recesses of either the Melior facility or Tom’s subconscious. Indeed, if I hadn’t decided I was going to review Uncanny Valley here for RetroCollect, I probably wouldn’t have restarted the game at all. Ultimately though, if you’re hankering for a new approach to horror on your Vita (or PS4, as cross-buy is included in the price), then by all means give Uncanny Valley a few of hours of your time. It looks good and the general weirdness peaks the interest just enough to make you want to see just how bizarre the game can get, and with multiple endings there’s a decent level of replay value.
Since playing Uncanny Valley, I’ve been back and looked at those reviews I mentioned in the opening section of this review and for the most part I agree with the criticisms levelled at the original Steam release. Not much seems to have changed since the jump from PC to console, and even the same glitches appear to have been dragged along for the ride. That said, as a Vita game there’s not really a lot of competition for Uncanny Valley and it’s really quite an interesting take on survival/psychological horror. Head into this expecting a Super Nintendo version of Silent Hill and you’ll be disappointed. Head into it expecting an intriguing new slant on the genre and you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Just remember not to attempt any puzzles before Tom’s bedtime.
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