The one thing you can say about Gatti Games new title Stifled is its definitely different. Placing itself firmly in the horror genre it manages to invent a whole new way to frighten you using no jump scares, no sudden ear-piercing sounds and not even atmospheric music, in fact there is barely any sound in the game at all. Every noise you hear is created mainly by you the player via footsteps or speech throughout the entire game. And the reason for this lack of audio is simple, most environments in Stifled are black, pitch black and your vision is determined by the sound you make.
If you think of how a bat see’s or a submarine detects via its echolocation then you can imagine your viewpoint. It requires you to use the PSVR ‘s microphone to create minute sound which then sends a wave though the environment displaying everything in its basic form within your current location. A small whisper will highlight the environment close but a loud shout will send the pulse further afield giving you more of an idea where you are and hopefully show you the way through.
But, with those simple choices come big consequences because while you are trying to find your way you are constantly being stalked by monsters that can only see via sound waves. So, I tiny whimper may be useless in showing you the route clearly but it won’t highlight your location to the monsters. However, risk a loud shout to help increase your spatial awareness and they can be on top of you within seconds. And this little twist in the gameplay is why Stifled stands out in a parade of identikit VR horror games.
The developers have cleverly left the scares to the one thing that can scare you the most, your own imagination. The story in Stifled isn’t the best I’ve seen but it does become quite interesting as you progress. You play David Ridley who through his grief has started to mentally fall apart and throughout your playtime he will gradually slip into madness taking you along with him. It’s a very mature theme to deal with in a game but unfortunately it doesn’t have the same credibility or realism to match last year’s Hellblade, but it’s certainly an interesting take on the minds deterioration into insanity.
Like most recent FP horror games, the story develops based on your interactions with the environment. Some areas (including the initial start) are properly presented giving you a nice slower, safer pace to explore and discover, but these are very brief sections before the darkness once again sets in. And I must say it’s these dark moments for me that have been some of the most frightening yet on the PSVR.
Having to stand completely still because a simple step forward could land you on something noisy (puddles are one example) while holding your breath so the PSVR microphone doesn’t give you up as a red outlined monster creeps right in front of you with its mouth clearly chomping at the thought of finding you is just terrifying. And to the developers credit it really ensures you follow the games simple but basic premise of making very limited sound.
Developer Gatti Games have also included a non- VR version which plays the same but to be honest after playing the VR version it really doesn’t have the same feel in relaying the fear and dread of being stalked. Another little addition is the fact you can swap between control options if you choose too, you can either use a microphone plugged into the Dualshock 4 or you can just opt to press R2 to create the sound waves (a tap for short burst or a hold and release for a big burst). And these options can be used in either the VR or the TV version but again for the more immersive experience I recommend the VR where and if possible.
However, like most games in this genre Stifled does have some issues that end up causing frustration and annoyance. The first are the checkpoints which seem to be inconsistent and vary in time between each one. Spending 10mins of shuffling and being mute to avoid the stalkers only to be sent back because you breathed too heavy (or farted, yes it happened!) is very annoying. And not knowing the point you need to reach to cross that invisible next checkpoint line is the most frustrating part of all.
Secondly as scary as the stalkers are there A.I certainly isn’t on par with the quality of the rest of the game as after duplicating certain sections due to issue no.1 it became obvious they hear somethings sometimes and completely miss them the next. It’s only a little niggle but it takes away some of the fear you have internally built up when you encounter one of the monster’s. But if you can put aside these frustrations then what awaits is a fresh and interesting take on the horror genre.
Overall, Stifled is exactly what it wanted to be, a horror game with a new hide and seek gimmick. It doesn’t have the graphic prowess of VR horror master Resident Evil or the story telling masterclass of the last of Us but what it does deliver is clean and simple gameplay with basic but accomplished visuals and a whole lot of self-induced fear. Clocking in at around 4-5 hour’s dependant on how long you spend investigating and having to remain still, it’s certainly a tidy little VR game. It doesn’t reinvent the horror game but it does offer an in-site into what developers can do to rejuvenate and revitalise an ageing genre that is a true gamer favourite.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Sony Playstation 4 code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.