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Tuesday, June 13, 2023

‘Homebody’ Review – Clever Puzzles and Surreal Narrative Create Unique Horror Experience

While most mainstream, big-budget horror games seem to be more action-oriented, for better or worse, indie titles have been carrying the torch for more old-school survival horror philosophies. Puppet Combo games like Murder House and Nun Massacre have cornered the market on the grimy grindhouse-style schlock of early Resident Evils, while last year’s Signalis took the vibes and structure of the first few Silent Hill games and brought it into a beautiful modern sci-fi setting. Homebody, the newest game developed by the people behind the web series Game Grumps, finds itself somewhere on that spectrum, capturing the feeling of the ever expanding mansion of RE with the surrealism and puzzles of Silent Hill.

Homebody casts you as Emily, a woman battling her anxieties as she goes to meet her long-time friends at an isolated rental house to watch the Perseid meteor shower. As you all catch up on what everyone’s been up to since the last time you were together, the power goes out and a mysterious killer shows up and picks people off one by one, including you. It’s at this point that you find yourself arriving at the house again and learn that this is in fact a time-loop game. Throughout the next seven or so hours, you’ll be solving a series of interlocking puzzles to try to figure out what’s going on in this house and how to free yourself from this perpetual loop of death.

These multilayered puzzles form the bulk of the gameplay. For the most part, you’re given fairly little direction, leaving you to your own devices to investigate the solutions to the many puzzles in whatever order you want. You’ll find plenty of locked doors available initially in the house, and becoming intimately familiar with your surroundings will be integral to your success. There’s no inventory in the game, so the reward for most puzzles is the knowledge of how to solve things quickly on future iterations of the time loop. This keeps the game from relying on the ‘collect the set of keys’ puzzle style of some of the less creative Resident Evil sections, instead giving you true brain teasers for you to figure out.

Puzzles include fluid pressure manipulation, sound replication and even a puzzle that requires knowledge of how to play the classic game Minesweeper. If you get stuck, you’ll occasionally experience dream sequences that will act as a bit of a hint system, pushing you in the right direction. Sometimes the right direction is talking to a specific character who would know more about a certain subject, giving you reason to jump back into the story part of the game while still being focused on solving puzzles. There’s a memory log that will help visualize the important information you’ve discovered, making it easier for you to recall solutions and make connections. Even with that built in, I still kept a notepad by my side the whole time to help me sketch out solutions, and I had a blast doing it.

While thinking my way through the clever puzzles was a huge part of my fun, the strongest element to me of the game was the writing, particularly around the characters. Right from the beginning you can tell the dynamic from the group just based on the early dialogue, and the characterization only gets sharper as the game continues. It’s especially sharp in the way it portrays Emily, the player character, through the choices you’re given for her dialogue, which occasionally includes options that are explicitly labeled as lies. As the game goes on you’ll see flashbacks of the group, bringing to light the rich history they have and how they’ve changed over the years. Because of the dreamlike nature of the game, these flashbacks often incorporate elements of horrors you’re facing in the house, making for a surreal experience. The game takes a stark look at mental health issues, including OCD and anxiety, but it never feels forced, always coming from genuine character beats instead of preachy out of place monologues.

Aside from your friend group’s history, as you progress you’ll discover more about the owner of the house and his ties to the killer that’s stalking you. The themes in this part of the tale echo those of the friend group, making for a thematically consistent narrative overall. The answers you find here are compelling, but not quite straightforward or complete, leaning heavily on surrealism and dream logic. Even by the end it’s not entirely clear exactly what has transpired during the night you’ve been repeating, but the way they pull it off feels satisfying rather than pretentious. Your enjoyment of Homebody’s narrative could definitely come down to taste, as many players would rather have concrete answers, but if you like your stories more dreamlike this will probably be your jam.

The level design in Homebody evokes Resident Evil, with a classic, normal-looking house that slowly expands with hidden passages and strange areas. There is a nice loop to the first and second floor, but most other areas are isolated from each other without the satisfying interconnectedness that’s seen in classic RE. Luckily the way the puzzles are designed, once you’ve exhausted certain areas and gotten all the info you need from them, you won’t have to return, making the lack of connection less essential. As the game progresses, things get weirder and weirder in regards to what’s found within the house, incorporating details of the core characters to help circle back around to its focus on narrative.

Much like the gameplay, the visual style mimics classic horror games with a low poly art style that’s presented through fixed camera angles. It can be easy to find corners of the level where the camera switches rapidly or doesn’t quite change its angle enough between shots, but for the most part it helps frame the scene well into striking shots. There’s a lot of really gorgeous imagery in the game, particularly in the well-directed dream sequences, but aside from the creepy look of the monstrous killer, the character models left a little to be desired. I wasn’t a big fan of the cartoony exaggerated faces, but your mileage may vary on the style.

I’m not someone who thinks that ‘lack of scares’ is something to knock a horror game for, but aside from the surreal and clever concepts presented in the story, there isn’t much tension in the gameplay. Because it’s a time loop, the killer feels more like a ticking clock, forcing you to try to race to get things done before the moment he shows up. This is perfectly fine for the structure of the game, but I found myself less compelled by the chase with the killer, instead resigning myself to death upon his arrival. Without inventory or combat, it definitely takes the survival aspect out of survival horror, laser focusing on forcing you to solve puzzles under time constraints. Near the end when I was trying to frantically complete all the key puzzles for the ‘final loop’ I did have some good strategic chases with the killer where I ran him in circles through in the house, but for the most part if he showed up I was just mentally preparing myself to start the night over.

I don’t know much about Game Grumps other than their previous visual novel Dream Daddy, so I was thoroughly surprised that Homebody was such a clever and nuanced horror story. It definitely feels like a lower budget project, but the team made smart scoping choices, effectively using what they had to create a cohesive experience. It’s laser-focused on puzzle solving, so if you’re someone who doesn’t like doing escape room-like activities, this might not be for you, but I had a great time wrapping my brain around it. Both the gameplay and the narrative challenged me in ways I don’t see very often, and it’s all the more satisfying for it. Homebody doesn’t capture every part of the PS1 survival horror experience, but it does an excellent job with the elements it does incorporate.

Homebody is available now on PC and consoles.

The post ‘Homebody’ Review – Clever Puzzles and Surreal Narrative Create Unique Horror Experience appeared first on Bloody Disgusting!.


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