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Horror Darlings: Saturn 9


Saturn 9 managed to do a lot of great stuff in a short amount of time. Seriously, if you want to have a couple of good scares and only have a half hour to play, it'll do the job. It's also got some really neat ideas that I haven't seen implemented in years, affecting the player with some meta game elements that no one's bothered with since Eternal Darkness. It hits a lot of ideas pretty fast, and its shifting nature kept me unsure what to ever expect next. It's really smart and interesting horror, and well worth the price of a cheeseburger.
It starts off with some exploration, feeling like point and click style horror. You're dropped off on a derelict space ship (Are there ever any working space ships in these games any more?) and told to pick up some data that got left behind. You're given free reign to walk around the ship but you don't move very fast, something that made me uncomfortable right from the start. You can choose to run if you like, but the main character's got the cardio of one of those people you see in Wal-Mart riding the little motorized carts. He slows down really fast is what I'm saying. I was worried about running into anything in the game because of that, since I knew there was probably little chance I'd be getting away.
Movement speed is an important consideration in horror games, something I didn't consider much until I played this game. It's strange, because it was a huge factor in Echo Night: Beyond, another horror game I liked in which you move pretty slow. You move and jump quite slowly, so you have to factor that into any encounter you have or even think you might have. It's the second one that I'm most interested in, as something as simple as movement speed can be scary before you've even seen a creature. As someone who's played a lot of games, I come to expect that I will encounter some kind of creature or monster when I'm playing through a game. It's very rare for a horror game to go without having some kind of encounter with the source of the bad events leading up to the game, whether through combat or just by running away. Games like Decay (with no controllable encounters) don't happen all that often, so more often than not you're going to be fighting or running from something. With an encounter as an inevitability, a slow movement speed is worrisome.

It's cool, because Saturn 9 managed to start playing with my nerves as soon as I'd taken one step. Seeing how slow I moved had me stressed about whether I could run from a creature when it came for me. The game hadn't indicated whether there was something lurking around inside the ship, but as soon as I saw my first streaks of blood on the floor I started assuming there was. This put added stress on me about my movement speed, and again, you have me getting scared before I've done anything more than walk around for a bit and turned a corner. What was I going to do if I came upon a dangerous monster and couldn't even run from it? Was I dead as soon as I got caught? I love these moments at the start of horror games when you don't know what to expect. It's always so tense.
This is in keeping with the kind of powerlessness I enjoy seeing in horror games, but taking it a step further. I've played a lot of good horror games where the protagonist is either poorly armed or completely defenseless, and both types can be really scary if they're set up well. In most of those games, like Clock Tower or SCP-087B, you're capable of moving at a rate that might not feel super speedy, but at least feels like enough to get away from the enemies. This game doesn't even give you that, instead providing you with a slow space walk instead. It's the kind of pokey movement you see in sci-fi movies all the time, where people in bulky space suits plod along. Again, I saw this used to great effect in Echo Night: Beyond, where you were given complex tasks to do but couldn't move especially quickly in your space suit. It made any encounter terrifying since you had to take this slow walk away from the enemies, hoping that you'd started moving away from them early enough that you'd get away. It's deliciously tense, and just about takes away the only way you have of getting away from enemies. Now, not only can you not fight back, but you can barely even run away.
The difficulty with playing around with movement speed is that you run the danger of really aggravating the player. This happened to a lot of people who played Echo Night: Beyond, and required a certain patience in order to enjoy it (except zero gravity jumping, which annoyed %100 of the people who played it). Saturn 9 manages a movement speed that works during most of the gameplay, as the facility isn't especially large so you can still get to where you need to go in a short amount of time. Even when you do have an encounter with the enemy it still feels appropriate as the creature you meet moves at a similar pace as you do. Just the same, after repeated failures that slow pace really can get frustrating, diffusing my fear and making me angry with the game's mechanic. It does a solid job for the most part, but it does get pretty annoying by the time you're finishing the game. It's a hard thing to balance, though, so I'm still impressed for how long it worked well.

Let's get back to the beginning. You had a flashlight that didn't illuminate all that much, one you could turn on and off (why you would ever turn it off is beyond me). It covered a decent visual range when it was on, just enough to make things uncomfortable since I couldn't see much of anything around me. There were also lots of tight corners, something that worked well in SCP-087B. There were all these little gaps and crevices even in the hallways, and since I was still expecting to be attacked it loaded each unseen corner with danger. I thought the creature could be hiding in any one of them, and the limits of my flashlight didn't help me feel any braver. It kept the area around me that I felt safe in very small, and since I had to keep sweeping my light around to see, I knew the creature could get the drop on me fast.
This is the opposite of a lot of the areas in the later Dead Space games. Many of those places weren't especially well-lit, but I found the game did add more lights in areas where I was going to encounter enemies. The lights were put in so combat felt more fair, but they took away some of the sense of dread when you couldn't see your surroundings. Knowing that something is out there in the dark and fearing the moment you flick your light over the creature or turn a corner to see it howling at you adds a lot to horror games, and Dead Space stopped being able to manage that in later iterations. Saturn 9 did a really good job of it during my run through it, making me feel like I was one wrong turn from seeing the creature every time I moved.
I was really impressed by the game's ability to drop a jump scare in, too. Jump scares tend to be really inelegant, dropped in whenever the developer wants a cheap scare. The difference between a good one and a bad one tends to revolve around how likely I felt like one was coming. For an idea on some really good jump scares, I actually recommend the movie This Is The End. It's not even a horror movie, which is the interesting part, so I just was not expecting the jump scares in it at all and they got me every time. They caught me by complete surprise several times in the movie, something that Saturn 9 did quite well. It would weave them into moments when I was in the middle of something and my mind was on a puzzle, taking me off guard when my mind wasn't on my surroundings. It would give me something to concentrate on before scaring me.

Most horror games feel like they need to telegraph their jump scares a lot, placing them in long areas that are too quiet or lead up to them with some frightening music. Anyone who's played a lot of horror games or seen a lot of horror movies can feel when a jump scare is coming because of these things, and it makes them a little disappointing when they happen. You don't know when it is going to happen, but you can tell that it's coming and you are mentally prepared. This also makes every moment leading up to the scare filled with tension, but not the good kind. It's the kind of defensive tension where you clench various muscles and wait for something bad to happen. You've braced yourself for these scares by the time they happen, and they come more as a relief than a genuine jump. They feel more frustrating as a result, whereas a really good jump scare will catch you off guard, make you leap out of your seat, and then leave you shaking.
Saturn 9 seamlessly wove a couple of really good scares right in the middle of some tasks it asked me to do. I would be right in the middle of solving a puzzle, my mind playing with some possibilities, and then the game would play a terrible musical note while the creature appeared. The game is short so it only caught me a few times, but they got me every single time it happened. The game went out of its way not to scare me during long, quiet points where I was expecting it, instead distracting me before jumping me. It was extremely well done.
One of those tasks it got me in was when I started to run out of oxygen. The game warns you in a computer log (Can I just say here that I love the interface running across the mask of your space suit? It looked great) that running low on oxygen can cause hallucinations. I didn't pay it any mind until I actually started running low and the game started messing with me directly. A few seconds into my walk and the game brought up a system warning from the Xbox itself, something that made my jaw drop and instantly reminded me of my days with Eternal Darkness. It did a few other things that I don't really want to spoil, but suffice to say the game does some neat stuff.

The game didn't have time to do a whole lot with it, but what it managed to do was scare me directly with some odd things. It wasn't the same as fearing for my digital avatar's life, but focused more on what a gamer might be frightened by. It didn't have a great deal of effect on me because I'd played Eternal Darkness before and knew what the game was up to, but I imagine some of what it did might get the jump on a new player. It's nothing mind bending, but seeing it implemented in a game that already had a pretty good handle on several different horror ideas was a real treat.

It's not horror in any kind of classic sense, as I doubt most people are as afraid of getting their memory card wiped as they would be of someone trying to kill them. It does bring up an interesting point about horror games, though, as you really aren't going to die if you avatar is killed, are you? You're just trying your best to immerse yourself in the character's plight so that you can live through them for a while. That's really the only way that horror in these games work, but trying to scare the player directly with things that would frighten a gamer is a neat trick. It wasn't done as well in Saturn 9 as it was in Eternal Darkness, but the idea of it is a fun one. It breaks the fourth wall and is a little silly to do so, but it's a nice way to catch a player with a scare in an unexpected way.
Saturn 9 ends with a sequence right out of the Slenderman games, and to be honest I felt this was its weakest point. Everything leading up to it had been playing with atmosphere, player expectation, and careful choice of scares, but this was where it just didn't hold together. Player movement felt really frustrating when it had to be used with something chasing you, but the monster didn't move any faster than you did. It unintentionally made the sequence kind of goofy. Also, rifling around a room for five items hidden in random spots just didn't feel all that scary, and was more like a chore I didn't want to do. The more time I spent poking around looking for the final item, the more annoyed I got that everything looked the same and I couldn't find my way. I should have been more frightened as time moved on since wasted seconds meant more opportunities for the monster to catch me, but all they did was give me more time to dwell on how the mechanics and lack of direction were bugging me. Slenderman style sequences can be done well, as they were in White Noise Online, but this one just lacked the same punch.
Why? Probably due to how well the game had been setting up its scares previously. My expectations of what the monster could do were pretty high by the time I ran into him. I'd been expertly frightened by the thing a couple of times, but watching it hobble along while I slowly picked up data pads just sucked all the fear out of it. I just wasn't afraid of the thing, which was a shame. The game had so much going for it, so for it to end on this note was a bit of a drag.
For its length and price, Saturn 9 was packed with excellent horror ideas and shows me that Raoghard (the developer) has a firm grasp on how to frighten people. Through careful jump scares, limited movement, and some neat fourth-wall breaking effects, the game just does a great job of constantly shifting how it frightens the player and keeps the scares coming. If anything, it's shown me to keep an eye on Raoghard for any more horror releases. They're bound to be worth my time and money.
Saturn 9 is available for the dirt-cheap price of $1.00 from the Xbox Live Indie Marketplace.
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The Gameslinger   1



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About JoelCoutureone of us since 11:26 PM on 05.27.2013

Contributing Editor for mashthosebuttons.com, destitute but determined fantasy novelist & short story writer at joelcouture.com. I wish I was paid for either of those jobs.

I love horror games. If you scare me, I will give you money. I also love terrible games, as it's a lot harder to make a game that's so bad it's hilarious than it is to make something that is just bad.

For some reason I'm not super clear on, I am obsessed with J. Jonah Jameson.