Song of Horror aspires to live up to the greats who have come before it. Legendary survival horror franchises like Resident Evil and Silent Hill are more than influences, they are role models whose impact on the game is incredibly clear.
However, Capcom and Konami’s giants of the genre leave very big shoes to fill. Luckily, the team at Protocol Games are scholars of survival horror, not amateurs fumbling around in the dark.
Before we go any further, something needs to be clear. Like the works of the authors who inspired its difficulty settings, Song of Horror is a slow burn. It is an adventure game devoid of combat. But that’s the point; the game isn’t about fighting, it’s about surviving. Your only hope against the nightmares that lurk in the dark is to run away, to hide, and to hope they don’t find you.
Song of Horror is survival horror in its purest form.
Song of Horror’s story centers around a music box. But like any horror story, there is more to the box than meets the eye. It is home to a sinister presence bent on consuming all those who hear its song.
The disappearance of the box’s last owner, a famous but reclusive author, and his family, puts you square in the middle of a supernatural mystery. What happened to Sebastien Husher and his family? Can the evil entity, known only as The Presence, be stopped? Is anybody safe? It’s up to you to find out.
An Atmospheric Tour De Force
Fans of classic survival horror games will instantly feel at home with the game’s fixed camera angles and tanks controls. If Song of Horror’s gameplay is inspired by games like Resident Evil and Silent Hill, its narrative is heavily influenced by the works of H.P. Lovecraft. The Presence, the game’s main enemy, is rarely seen, but it’s always there.
The game is more interested in making you feel its monster’s presence rather than outright showing it to you. Like in all good horror, this works to its advantage. What you can’t see and what you don’t know is scarier than anything.
Song of Horror is a tour de force in atmosphere. Oppressive and tense, you’ll never really feel safe.
Nor should you, because you’re being hunted.
The Presence is an AI that actively observes you. It studies and reacts to how you play. Think of Left 4 Dead’s AI Director, but scaled to a single-player experience. In other words, you’ll spend you time in the game adapting to the AI’s challenges.
The results of The Presence’s mechanic are truly impressive. Since you don’t know exactly what the AI is looking for or what it reacts to, you’ll spend every moment thinking strategically. Should you run across the hallway to the next room or walk there? Will you sacrifice safety for speed? Is something waiting around the corner? Should I come back later?
Things happen so gradually that you will be left wondering if you’re just being paranoid or if there really is something there. Things don’t go from 0 to 100 in a split-second.
There’s buildup. Tension. Uneasiness.
With every groan of a house’s pipes, every creak in the floorboards, every ambient sound, you feel a tinge fear run down your spine.
One Life To Live
As if being hunted wasn’t enough, Song of Horror pulls another punch: permadeath.
Each of the game’s five episodes lets you choose a character to play as. Every character has their own strengths and weakness, as well as their own reasons for appearing within an episode.
But here’s the thing: if they die, they’re gone forever. This adds another layer of stress to the game. As you progress through an episode, you do get attached to your character. As an extension of yourself, you want to see them make it out alive. And because nothing is scripted, it is your decisions and skill which determine their fate. Needless to say, you’ll take it personally if they die.
In my first run through the opening episode, I went with a character named Sophie. I picked her because, of all the characters I could have chosen, I liked her backstory and felt that she had a pretty good reason to pull up to the Husher mansion. I got through 95% of the episode when The Presence took me by surprise and I watched helplessly as it pulled Sophie into darkness.
She was gone for good and I was sent back to the character selection screen. This is another unique mechanic that Song of Horror implements well. If a character dies, it’s only their story that is over, with one exception that will become clear if you play. You simply select another character and go back in.
Progress isn’t lost, because any advancements the previous character made are conserved. There is one challenge though: you’ll need to head to where the previous character died to pick up key items.
For as fantastic as its atmosphere is, the psychological pressure exerted by The Presence, and for how unique the character system is for the genre, Song of Horror isn’t a perfect game.
First of all, the game won’t blow you away graphically. It gets the job done, but that’s about it. Granted, we need to keep in mind that the game originally launched for PC in 2019. I also noticed a few dips in the framerate. Enough to draw my attention, but not exactly detrimental to my experience as a whole.
Secondly, it has a major issue with voice acting. I’d like to say that it’s hit-or-miss, but it’s mostly miss. There is no doubt in my mind that the voice actors hired for the game are talented individuals, but a lot of the lines struck me as being phoned-in. At best, characters sound relatively uninterested or unsurprised by the events occurring around them. At worst, there’s just a complete disconnect between the character’s voice and their model.
As a game without combat, Song of Horror falls victim to the same issues that plague other games of the type. Because you can’t defend yourself, you need to hide from threats. To its credit, the game tries to make hiding a little more interactive. Hiding triggers a minigame during which you need to keep your character calm by pressing the triggers to the beat of their heart.
If you intend on finishing the game, you’d better be ready for minigames. Sometimes, you’ll have to keep The Presence out of a room. This entails running up to the door, then mashing the action button to build up strength, followed by the right trigger to block it.
And there are other, more immediate threats. The Revenants, The Silence, The Abyss, and The Requiem will all seek to impede your progress. While there is no combat in the game, some of these enemies require successfully completing a minigame to survive the encounter.
The problem with these minigames is that they are just quick-time events in fancy dress. While I applaud the developer for trying to make encounters more interactive in a non-combat game, it does become tedious after a while.
Song of Horror – Add This Song To Your Playlist
For fans of old-school survival horror on consoles, Song of Horror is a fantastic entry in the genre. The love and respect that Protocol Games has for the classics is obvious and shows in every little detail in the game.
A supernatural mystery worthy of Lovecraft, the story is almost infinitely replayable due to the excellent implementation of The Presence AI and the large selection of characters. Although it suffers from tedious minigame mechanics and sub-par voice acting , it remains an enjoyable game that every fan of the genre should have in their library.
If Song of Horror had existed somewhere between 1996 and 1999, I can confidently say that it would be mentioned in the same breath as Resident Evil and Silent Hill. That’s high-praise, but it’s well deserved.