When games try to instill fear, they usually go about it in one of a couple of different ways. The most common tactic is to threaten: to create the feeling, real or imagined, that something terrible is about to happen to you. The other, more subtle path, is to try to generate authentic horror: a sense of creeping psychological dread. Stasis tries to walk both paths—to threaten and horrify with its tale of a father seeking his family on a derelict, corpse-filled spaceship—but its trappings keep it from ever being more than half-successful.
Created by South African game design firm The Brotherhood (that is, brothers Chris and Nic Bischoff and a small team of writers, voice actors, and musicians), Stasis tells the story of John Maracheck, a space tourist who awakens from deep sleep into a hideous nightmare. Trapped aboard the Groomlake, a seemingly depopulated research vessel operated by the sinister Cayne Corporation, John must traverse decks full of broken machinery, escaped research subjects, and a lake’s worth of blood, viscera, and worse in his efforts to find his missing wife and daughter.
As a classically styled adventure game, Stasis offers relatively few surprises. Per tradition, John makes progress by acquiring items—often through the never-pleasant process of scouring detail-rich environments for the odd interactive hotspots that will turn the game’s cursor into the hand shape—and deploying them in occasionally inventive ways. The puzzles range from annoyingly obtuse to fairly clever; you can expect to hear John’s limited variations on the phrase “That doesn’t work” ad nauseam because the game is painfully sparse with feedback about why a particular solution failed and doesn’t let you examine objects once they’re sitting in your inventory. That being said, Stasis does play some nice tricks with the ways it hides clues in seemingly innocuous places.
It’s in the horror side of its DNA, though, where Stasis is at its most interesting and also where it most often disappoints. The game employs every possible trick to get the player’s heart pounding—there’s even a good, old-fashioned cat scare—but limitations inherited from its adventure-game roots hamper many of these efforts. Most damningly, Stasis attempts to convince you over and over that the Groomlake is not a safe place and that John is in actual danger as he hobbles through its blood-stained corridors, but it almost never follows through on the threat. The game will certainly kill you—complete with an annoying one-screen rewind that often forces you back through un-skippable dialogue and cut scenes—but almost only ever at John’s own instigation. At times it feels like an old Sierra adventure game in its lethality, albeit without the same inventiveness or charm.
Barring such a fatal mistake, though, your safety is pretty much guaranteed, no matter how often you walk by that fragile glass separating you from a monstrous abomination, or how long you dawdle in a room full of life-sapping spores. As the feeling of threat steadily diminishes, Stasis attempts to bolster it with the occasional jump scare, but even these are limited in their effect by the game’s distant perspective.
Presented in a style reminiscent of DreamForge Intertainment’s classic Sanitarium (mixed with the gory aesthetics of EA’s Dead Space series), Stasis plays from a top-down isometric perspective, where the camera hovers at a distant remove from John’s travails. And while it’s scary enough when a hologram suddenly rushes across the screen or a door slams abruptly shut, that far-off point of view often saps these moments of their ability to shock, and the game’s relatively limited animation, which sticks out against the beautiful, luridly rendered backgrounds, doesn’t help. It’s telling that the most viscerally affecting moment—an interactive sequence of cringe-inducing, gut-tearing power—abandons the usual perspective and sticks you up close and personal with the horror on display.
In that moment, and a handful of other set pieces that linger well after the game has been completed, Stasis proves that, while it might not be especially scary, it is horrifying, and one of the grimmest, most disturbed games in recent memory. John Maracheck sees and does terrible things in his efforts to escape the Groomlake, and you’re rarely allowed to forget the toll these ordeal have on him. This is aided by some great writing—almost every object in the game carries a lovingly evocative description like, “The thing in the incubator is anathema to nature” or, “They cluster and protrude like the offspring birthed on a Surinam toad’s back”—and expert sound design.
At the risk of discounting the impact of the game’s excellent soundtrack, from Fallout composer Mark Morgan, it’s in the sound effects that Stasis finds its most reliable ally for inducing fear. Whether it’s the hum of the ship’s engines, the high-pitched whine of medical machinery, or the distant squelch of some hideous, unseen thing, Stasis is never entirely quiet or still, and it’s at its best when it assaults the ears in addition to the eyes and mind—even if some of the game’s voice acting does leave a bit to be desired.
Effective as it is, though, that mental impact isn’t perfect, and it’s here, as elsewhere, that the game’s hybrid identity is mostly to blame. Stumbling into a laboratory where nature is being perverted is horrifying. Walking in and out of it in frustration, desperately looking for the missing inventory object needed to advance a puzzle, is banal. And that’s the fundamental paradox of Stasis: Its adventure-game components do not serve or enhance its horrific nature and instead act as roadblocks and impediments to the storytelling and tone. The disconnect isn’t bad enough to make the game impossible to recommend—the skin crawls too much at the thought of John Maracheck desperately struggling to keep his head above the water of some hideous, corpse-strewn pond—but it does suggest that a more focused approach might have resulted in a game that was just as scary but half as frustrating.
Developer: The Brotherhood
Publisher: The Brotherhood
Platforms: Mac, PC
Reviewed on: PC
Rating: M 17+