By Adam Smith on April 29th, 2014 at 1:06 pm.
I’m terrified of a goat. How has it come to this? To be clear, it’s a Satyr rather than a farmyard animal but the features that frighten me aren’t Dionysian or mythological in the slightest. I’m cringing from the echoing clip-clop of hooves, a piercing bleat and a belching whinny. Depths of Fear is a game about being hunted and murdered by monsters in ever-changing labyrinths.
Like a surreal and low budget horror film discovered on an obscure television channel during a night that has lasted too long, it’s jarring, hugely imperfect and strangely alarming. I’ve happily lost myself in it for two evenings now.
You are Theseus and you must travel through the labyrinth to kill the Minotaur. Depths Of Fear: Knossos is Eldritch based in the world of Greek mythology rather than the lands of Lovecraft. That’s the simple way of looking at it. The most puzzling thing about this unusual game is that it creates more terror with the creatures of myth than Eldritch did with its own collection of monstrosities. This is a game that recognises the horror of the labyrinth as well as the thing that inhabits it.
Like Eldritch, Knossos is a first-person game that takes the player through a series of randomly generated levels with distinct themes. There are powers to collect, weapons to purchase and altars that bestow abilities in exchange for wisdom and worship. There’s a strong emphasis on stealth, mainly due to the horrifying boss creatures that lurk on every level. Those terrors, including Cerberus and Medusa, are the core of the game and the reason that it has managed to impress me, although it has often done so in spite of itself.
The game is split into several areas, accessed from a central hub, and each is the habitat of a specific boss. While the areas have a few levels within them – each with a locked trapdoor to unlock in order to move on – the bosses patrol every stage, using their unique mechanics to terrorise the player at every step. They can only be vanquished at the lowest level of their zone so the preceding floors of the labyrinth act as both threat and opportunity.
Scour every corner and there might be chests containing treasure, books of knowledge or weapons, including extra projectiles. On the other hand, there are groups of catatonic zombies and skeletons waiting to pounce from the shadows. They’re like broken animatronics on a derelict ghost train, standing with their chins slumped against their chests. They wake and attack if the player comes too close, and then they pursue. Fleeing can leave you like a bride dragging a train of rotten flesh and bones.
Standing and fighting isn’t tough, and the combat is literally a case of pointing and clicking, but large groups can overwhelm quickly. More worrying still, any hesitation brings about the risk of discovery. The sound of the hooves creeps closer and the light of the Satyr’s torch bleeds across the room as the beast approaches. Perhaps it’s Cerberus who waits in the dark, snarling and whimpering, or worse – the Minotaur itself, its approach heralded by an infernal psychedelic lightshow and disturbing audio fluctuations.
It’s a game that lots of people will dismiss, even if they take the time to download and play it for a little while. The animations are terrible and every sound effect sounds like it was recorded in a different room to the last. I won’t argue in defence of the animations – the first time I saw the Satyr I lost every scrap of confidence I had in the game for a moment. It looks like its attempting to ice skate while hovering several inches above the ground. The weirdness is almost certainly an intentional disruption, just as the out of place but evocative seventies sci-fi synths are, but most of the animation seems poorly crafted as well as odd.
The audio is different. The aforementioned music is so at odds with the mythological setting that it unsettles the theme as much as the bleats and bellows of the monsters unsettle me. The sound of wandering beasts travels through the labyrinth like a living thing, seeming to come from every direction at once and bringing about paranoid sneaking and twitching.
Not everybody will be convinced by the atmosphere but the janky and incoherent assets remind me of a broken down theme park. Most of what could be called shoddy could also be called a clever manipulation of minimal resources – discovering the potential for surreal sculpture in a junkyard. The junkyard reference isn’t intended to be derogatory. Knossos, in its own small way, reminds me of art made from found objects. It’s a fabricated Chimera, stitched together by a digital Frankenstein.
A lot of people won’t give Knossos a second look and I don’t intend to convince anyone that it’s a masterpiece. It’s a surprisingly threatening piece of work at its best though and a true horror game. But it’s also been snack food for me, a brief series of trips into the haunted house between the feast of Dark Souls.
I can’t live on a diet made up of Souls alone but I have been spending most of the last few days locked into the world of Drangleic, crawling toward the final confrontation, bloodied and bowed. The first time I needed a break to fend off the clouds of anguish was shortly after my seventeenth attempt to kill The Pursuer, a particularly zippy enemy in a cramped arena. Browsing through recently released games on Steam, I thought I’d try Knossos, expecting to skim across it and depart.
It’s found a place to live on my hard drive though and it’ll be there for the foreseeable future. It doesn’t have the assurance of Eldritch but its sheer peculiarity makes it somehow more complex. There’s a dream-like quality to those swirling sounds and shifting spaces. I’ve fallen into holes packed with swarms of spiders, cowered with my torch extinguished as something awful slithers through the great dark of the labyrinth.
Knossos may be a snack but it’s an unusual and interesting taste that may well be ignored. If any of these paragraphs make it sound appealing, for the price of a pint it’s a taste I’d advise you to acquire. It’s an easy game to mock, an easy game to dismiss and it occasionally seems unfinished or unaware of its best qualities. But within the crude corridors of the labryinth, something horrible is hunting and it’s well worth digging deeper to find out precisely what that is.
Note: at present there’s no way to invert the mouse y axis, which I find unreasonably offputting. The fact that I stuck with the game despite that is testament to how much I was surprised by its unusual charms. Edit: Inverted mouse controls now patched in!