To say that the independent video game scene reinvigorated the world of horror games is something of an understatement. Although a few mainstream developers held true to horror elements in games, the growth of indie horror has truly helped shape the way that it sits in the gaming sphere. Through the birth of popular franchises such as Amnesia and Five Nights at Freddy's, horror once again returned to the fold, with a strange and terrifying new shape.
However, it's been a fair few years since the likes of Slender and Outlast first made players scared of things that went bump in the night, and it's fair to say that the formula has grown a little stale. After all, there's only so many times a first-person horror game in a destitute location can still pull the same hair-raising effects, no matter how good the quality. That's where The Crow's Eye comes in.
At first glance, there's a familiar pattern here. Those comfortable with modern horror trends have a lot of boxes to tick off, from the enclosed, abandoned location through to the ever-so-vulnerable player character, all the while taking note of the gloomy color scheme and the overarching shadow of some terrible, unnamed threat. However, beneath the surface there is something very different at play in the game.
The Crow's Eye puts the player in the role of a character trapped within a university where students and faculty mysteriously disappeared twenty years prior. The university itself is - at first glimpse - devoid of life, aside from one other person: a menacing, depraved voice over the tannoy, equal parts threatening and intrigued. As it turns out, this voice has set the player a number of puzzles to overcome, to further proceed through the university and get the answers they are looking for.
It's a fun central plot, and those who have already played Resident Evil 7 perhaps know how this could play out, as per the sections of the game that relate to Lucas. Each successful solution comes with a mixture of pride and frustration, as the player slowly makes their way deeper into the bowels of the college. Although The Crow's Eye doesn't quite reach the same level of quality as those brief moments of Resident Evil 7, it still pulls together that same feel, with that same endorphin buzz behind each puzzle solved.
This is also where The Crow's Eye helps itself stand out from the crowd of other first-person horror titles available. It steers clear of some of the tropes that have plagued the subgenre, with a smaller emphasis on panicked retreat from indefatigable monsters and more of a focus on thoughtful play. The Crow's Eye is not a game that makes the player feel particularly rushed, although the university's foreboding atmosphere does make the player want to move along at a fairly speedy pace; to suggest the game is relaxing at all would be a major mistake.
This move away from more direct physical threats - although make no mistake, there are some to go around - has thankfully been matched with the exact kind of horror that developer 3D2 Entertainment has tried to create. The Crow's Eye has a very different feel to its peers, with a greater emphasis on the slow-burn side of terror. If Resident Evil 7 recreates the gritty nastiness of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Five Nights at Freddy's brings the pop-up animatronic scares of a haunted house ride, the The Crow's Eye instead has a more insidious, post-gothic feel; a sparse The Woman in Black with tinges of the less cosmic side of H.P. Lovecraft.
It's here where horror fans might find something to really sink their fanged teeth into, as The Crow's Eye is much more of a classical horror, with an appropriate amount of dread to boot. It has jump scares, for sure, but they are not another retread of the tacky buzz of static. Instead, they revolve around some nostalgic elements once more, such as the pangs of the cuckoo clock or the rare hidden enemy placement. The game tells an old-fashioned story, and is all the better for it.
That said, The Crow's Eye does follow through with some very familiar elements. Although some of the trappings of modern horror games are avoided, some long-standing parts of the genre are still here, such as the availability of audio logs and letters between other characters. These are handled very well, though, closer in feel to their roots in System Shock 2 rather than the awkwardly-written scribbles seen in some other games.
This environmental storytelling helps create a sense of sorrow, perhaps similar to that seen in The Chinese Room's Everybody's Gone to the Rapture, but it also builds a satisfying narrative. The story of The Crow's Eye is both compelling and clever, and those comparisons to BioShock in terms of storytelling style aren't entirely unfounded. It's a game that's worth exploring, that's for sure.
The game's storytelling at atmosphere are certainly its highlights, but it does sometimes feel like the gameplay itself is struggling against its overarching plot. Unfortunately, although the grand ideas of The Crow's Eye are more than enough to carry it, it sometimes falls on the smaller intricacies of its mechanics. As these intricacies make up the bulk of the user's involvement, however, this could cause some irritation for some.
Some elements are minor bugbears that some players could certainly overcome. The Crow's Eye implements a save feature seen in many other horror games, where saving the game is only possible in specific locations. It's something that horror fans will no doubt be familiar with, and it's something that's been used very well in games such as Alien: Isolation, but here it adds an element of unnecessary frustration - as the gameplay is that much more low-key than its peers, this is perhaps an area where 3D2 Entertainment could have relinquished some control to the players themselves, more in line with other puzzle games where a break to think can do wonders.
Meanwhile, some of the puzzles themselves can become a little irritating. The Crow's Eye adjusts its footing and moves a little into the realm of Portal, and although this change of pace is certainly refreshing, the mechanics themselves leave a little to be desired. There is a very thin line when it comes to first-person jumping puzzles, and the game does not quite reach the level of quality required in this regard. It's far from a game-breaking element, but The Crow's Eye's strengths certainly lie in its physics-based puzzles, not in its physical-based ones.
Indeed, overall The Crow's Eye is at its best when remaining somewhat static, allowing the user to play out the conflict between the rational solution to puzzles and the irrational fears that the game so cleverly hints at with a breadcrumb trail. It's full of great ideas, and more than does enough to separate itself out from the crowd. The game's clunkier moments may put off some users, but those willing to persevere and put atmosphere and plot above pure gameplay could find themselves with an enjoyable game - albeit one that could cause a few sleepless nights.
The Crow's Eye is out now for PC. Game Rant was provided with a PC download code for the purposes of this review.