An endearing mess
I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to love a game more than The Blackout Club. It’s just…the game feels as if it’s doing its best to push me away at every moment.
The Blackout Club (PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows [reviewed])
Released: July 30, 2019
The Blackout Club begins with a prologue that sets up a 10/10 game. Seriously, it’s a wonderfully crafted introduction to both the story and gameplay elements that will have players excited to jump in and experience the rest of the game.
And then the rest of the game destroys your soul.
The prologue sets up an intriguing story of “The Blackout Club,” a group of kids who are banded together to find out what in the world is going on with their town of Redacre. You see, the adults of Redacre turn into these pseudo-possessed sleepwalkers at night but act completely normal during the day, as if nothing happened. So it’s up to the kids in order to discover evidence of some sort of “greater evil” and try and recruit as many people as possible.
The actual game is almost nothing like the prologue. The actual game is a series of randomly generated missions on an ever-growing map that lead…nowhere. After 18 hours of playing the same mission structures over and over again, I know next to nothing more about the plot itself. There also doesn’t seem to be any sort of ending to the game at all. I have unlocked everything there is to unlock with the exception of a few skills and have lost all drive to even continue.
Players begin in a hub zone where they can choose their starting gear, spend skill points, get some insignificant lore, and otherwise just dick around. Starting tools consist of a crossbow, taser, and grappling hook; each having their own benefits to various playstyles. I personally opted to use the taser or crossbow for most missions, though that was because my friend always carried a grappling hook. In general, most of these tools end up rather useless in practice.
After starting a mission, random objectives are created and must be completed in order to gain experience and level up. These objectives often involve getting items from around the map and/or placing items around the map (like recruitment posters for The Blackout Club). While doing so, players must avoid two types of enemies: Sleepers and Lucids. Sleepers are blind (sleepwalking, basically) and will notice any sound in their vicinity. Lucids can see and hear, so players must be extra careful to be quiet and stay in the darkness. There are also drones and cameras that can spot the players, but there really is a need for new and interesting enemy types in The Blackout Club.
Well, actually there is one more enemy. It’s called the Shape and it will only show up after the player(s) have messed up a handful of times. Being spotted, making noise, taking out enemies, and other missteps all add to an invisible meter. Once that meter is filled, the Shape shows up and chases after a specific player. Players are able to close their eyes to see hidden things around the map, and the Shape can only be seen with eyes closed. When it’s close, players have a UI element to notify them, but to actually know where it is, players have to temporarily blind themselves. It’s a great mechanic that discourages messing up because once the Shape is out to get someone, he does not go away until he catches them. If the Shape does take a player’s mind over, another player can revive them, though if this keeps happening, the player dies.
That’s basically it. Completing missions rewards experience, which can be used to gain new skills in various skill specialties. Many of the skills feel useless or clunky to use, though they do come in handy from time to time. Leveling, more importantly, unlocks new areas of the underground part of the map, accurately labeled “the Maze.” The problem is, since missions are randomized, the map almost doesn’t even matter. There is a lot to explore in the Maze, but the mission design is so sterile and repetitive that most of the lore-gathering comes slowly over time as missions just so happen to push players towards different parts of the sprawling underground.
There really is some great environmental storytelling here, but it all feels pointless in the end. My friends and I spent forever grinding missions to get to level 12 because that’s when the last section of the above-ground part of the map becomes available. We unlocked it after 18 hours of playing and were so excited to explore. And it was perhaps the most disappointing thing in the game. It’s such an uninteresting part of the map that basically adds nothing to the plot/lore that we just stopped playing. Maybe some more journal entries unlock or something if we were to keep playing but….ugh. It’s already at the point where we take bets as to which of the very few mission objectives we’ll be assigned before doing them mindlessly. There’s no update on the prologue or the world at large. Just…more missions.
The moment-to-moment gameplay isn’t bad. It can still be rather tense to sneak past enemies or accidentally make too much noise and try to recover. There aren’t many cooperative stealth/horror games (though The Blackout Club is much closer to stealth than actual horror) out there, and The Blackout Club is right on the verge of greatness, yet always falls short. I can’t count all of the times that some exciting escape or silent sneak was happening, only to be foiled by a climbing bug or some other sort of jank. Needless to say, it’s frustrating.
There are some really interesting mechanics that are really too vague to feel as if they are executed with any solid plan. One is when players close their eyes to see “hidden” messages and objects. Footsteps will be visible leading to the next objectives, posters will display secret messages, and I already mentioned the Shape. But other than that creature, everything just feels small and ultimately meaningless. I wish the game did more with this mechanic because it is super interesting. The prologue does a great job with it, and then it all falls flat (a common theme here).
Early in my playtime, my friends and I were getting specific messages sent to us when we closed our eyes. Like, it was responding to things we were doing in the game. From what I understand, this was the developers literally sending us messages and taunting us. How cool is that?! Well, it hasn’t happened since. It is also possible, after completing a mission, to receive an item that can be sacrificed in the hub area. Doing so allows players to communicate with one of the gods and ask them a question. Like, literally ask them a question with your voice, using your microphone. The devs then voice the gods and can respond to the question. These question-and-answer sessions are played to other players after each mission. There is a bit of lore here, but a lot of it feels simple and meaningless.
But, I did hear one player ask the gods “swiggity swooty I’m coming for that booty” and the gods responded, so yeah.
Those things are super cool but in my 18 hours of playing, I have never once had the luck to get the item used to sacrifice and ask the gods a question. Evidently, the chances increase by collecting bonus evidence, but searching for bonus evidence scattered around an ever-growing map quickly becomes a torturous exercise. Speaking of torturous exercises, don’t even bother playing this game solo. One, it gets borderline impossible as the map size increases and two, it’s just….uninteresting. Playing with friends is a blast because, well, you’re with your friends. Playing solo just highlights the grind and jank that permeate The Blackout Club. Plus, if the Shape gets you solo, it’s game over since no one is around to revive you.
Oh, I almost forgot. There are also Stalkers in the game. Stalkers are other players that can invade your mission. They show up as human characters but instead work for the enemies. They sneak around, take pictures of your deeds, steal supplies, and commit other misdeeds. Doing so can unleash the Shape sooner, causing chaos for the players. Players can find and catch the Stalker to stop them. Doing so gives the player Stalker credits to then play as the Stalker in other missions. The problem here is that again, players are relying on Stalkers invading their mission in order to have a chance to play as a Stalker. So many interesting elements of the game are locked away from a large amount of the player base.
I’m so torn on The Blackout Club. The prologue is an amazing experience and the game itself, while drastically different, still kept my friends and I coming back. But it’s not a good game. There are too many bugs and mishandled mechanics holding it back, in addition to a huge bait-and-switch on story and lore. I do think there is a lot of potential here, as The Blackout Club fills an empty void in the market, but dang it’s just so disappointing in its current state.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]