Only last week I was praising games that wanna be weird, and as such I must commend the weirdness of The Chant, a third-person action adventure where a retreat akin to Jared Leto's definitely-not-a-cult finds itself crashing into a weird nightmare realm akin to the Upside Down from Stranger Things. The thing is, if anything I don't think it's weird enough. If you're going to do a game where the main character uses flaming witchhazel sticks to lash energy-crystal monsters with vagina-flower faces, my view is that you go hard or go home.
Jess is invited to the spiritual retreated (on, of course, an isolated island) by Kim, both having lingering issues over the accidental death of Jess's sister when they were all children. There Jess joins Kim, Maya, Sonny and Hannah under the spiritual tutelage of Tyler, a bearded bro whose dialogue might as well be "Everything is cool, nothing sinister is going to happen here, [wink wink]". Tyler, whose family owned and operated the island previously, has thrown up a couple of white tents that look like the Fyre Festival disaster relief ones and called it a day, not bothering to clear any of the nearby buildings of alarming skeletons, weird ritual leavings, and terrifying bestiary notes. I did actually really enjoy the environmental storytelling, especially around Tyler's low effort retreat.
Apparently, nobody else bothered to kick even a single tyre around the place, or ask something like, "Hey, so what was your family's deal again, Tyler?", but almost as soon as Jess turns up things go seriously off the rails to destination Spooky Town, our final stop. Tyler slips everyone some mushroom tea and starts a group chant, which cracks open portals to The Gloom (everyone starts calling it that just on general consensus, I guess) and causes each member of the group to have a freak out themed around their personal issues and the colour of crystal necklace they're wearing. Kim, for example, has outbursts of anger, so has a rage-out with her red crystal. Sonny's yellow-crystal need for respect and affirmation leads him on a selfish crusade into a disused mine full of monstrous toads.
The plan is that by collecting everyone's crystals, among other things, you can stop The Gloom and its attendant horrors. Patches of the world are Gloomy, colour coded to the aforementioned crystals (so, you can only traverse bits of red Gloom after getting Kim's red crystal), and within these are wretched eye-floaters and angry fanny-flowers as well as larger boss monsters. You might also run into Demogorgon-esque creepy crawlers and humanoid cultists with animal skull heads, all of which can pop up outside of the Gloom. The skull-heads in particular are a nice bit of enemy design, and they behave slightly differently according to the skull. Horse-heads charge in and out a bit skittishly, while bears take big lumbering swings.
I spose I just wish The Chant escalated more sharply from there. It's like how aliens are often imagined as humanoid-ish, or at least a recogniseable number of legs. But why be constrained by limbs at all? I know there are limitations in making anything, but in a game where your antagonist is a malevolent manifestation of the human psyche, I was hoping for something much weirder than things I'd kind of already seen in other art. You even get quickly used to the Gloom itself, which is sort of a cursed coral reef vibe with occasional eye rocks.
Jess is disturbed a-plenty, in any case. Though she can dodge and shellack the monsters with crafted spiritual-ish weapons like burning sage, essential oils and salt - the ingredients for which are quite scarce, so best used judiciously - combat is messy. There's more precision in balancing Jess's three key self-resources: Mind, Body and Spirit. Body is your physical health, which can be restored by snarfing a raw ginger plant. Spirit, for which you can eat foraged bright blue mushrooms (do not try this at home, kids), is used to power special attacks from your crystals, including slowing time. You can also sacrifice Spirit by meditating and recharging your Mind. It's sort of a step up from the ol' insanity metric. Jess will literally 'lose [her] mind' when in darkness or traversing the Gloom, and some enemies will try psychic attacks. If Jess's Mind bottoms out then she'll have a panic attack until you can get somewhere that feels a bit safer.
I can see how it makes sense - Jess has established triggers, for example, related to her sister's death - but I'm still not sure how I actually feel about it. Varying mileage and so on. Having your health bar effectively split out into three, however, does work, and keeping an eye on each and maintaining a kind of balance became bascically my main concern in the game, and it's far more interesting than your standard health/stamina dual bars.
They also don't refill after cutscenes or when you return to the camp, which is a small thing, but one I appreciate. It keeps you slightly anxious about each encounter, and helps to make The Chant feel like one continous ordeal. It's actually quite a compact game, and even though Jess has to go to different areas, finding Resi-ish keys to open locked doors and shortcuts, there's even a kind of fast travel system through the Gloom if you can't bear to walk around what is quite a small island. This compression does apply to the storytelling, though, to the extent that you get an explicit speedrun of each character's issues in dialogue almost immediately before they become relevant. It's a very noticeable pattern and I can't help but think it could have been teased out a little more.
The Chant gets a bit predictable, in other words, both in terms of the story and the weirdness. For me the intelligent things it does didn't quite balance that out, which makes it, once again, a game that would work really well for Game Pass.