Imagine, if you would for a second, the wonderful, macabre, and frighteningly human title that came out in 2001 and made this entire industry worth it, Silent Hill 2. When people talk about that game, their attention rightfully goes towards the brilliant music, world design, and frankly necessary discussion about mental health and the world around us. Yet the black sheep of that discussion is always the gameplay, as the most vocal patriots of the quiet town don’t want to mention that, mechanically, Silent Hill 2 sucks. It sucks intentionally, with a stiff control scheme and sometimes bloated gameplay as you’re playing as a pallid and unstable writer who looks like he gets his 5 a day every year, but yes; if you stripped away everything that makes the game good, the choices that inform the sluggish gameplay, you’d just have a frustrating and pointless game. Much like the executioner dragging his axe to an appointment he really doesn’t want to make, I too must discuss Save Them on the back of that assertion.
If Save Them has one thing going for it to save it from the chopping block, it’s the atmosphere, which it creates masterfully and revels in. Black Void Media tell you firmly from the beginning that the game is best enjoyed in a dark room with the sound all the way up, and they’re not joking; this game excels at sucking you in and making you live in its beautiful barren environs, world-building will clearly become a long-established strength for Black Void in the future. They’re also quite adept at bringing ideas to life in their titles which lends Save Them a little artistic merit. The developers leave it up to your interpretation, but the impression I got, based on the stark visuals borne from the monochrome art, is that the game is about a mass murderer — perhaps a school shooter — suffering with bipolar syndrome who switches between neutral and dark states at the game’s whim. There’s the light world, where everything is fine, not happy, and you’re free to go to the end of the level at your leisure, then the negative world, where everything begins to attack, and the incessant whispering noise in the background becomes far too much to bear. It certainly struck a personal chord about how the world can feel cold in depression, even when things are “fine”, so the game gets marks for mental illness portrayal, even if the means of doing so — a loner with a gun — feel more Postal 2 than a more sincere artistic effort.
Certainly, the creative choices that the game makes indicates that this title could have been wonderful under the right eyes or with two more people on Black Void’s team. For example, you’re gifted with a shotgun, but as you traverse the levels, you realise that the people in “your way” really pose very little threat to you. Indeed, if you fire off a shot, your enemies cower in fear and run away. The implication gets doubled when the game switches to the negative world, when they’re warped into long-limbed creatures that mewl and quickly become hostile. What does that imply? We’re all monsters in the dark? A continuation of the chilling, “They looked like monsters to you?” line from Silent Hill 3? Even more credit where it’s due is that the graphical design is inspired. At its base, it looks simplistic. Black and white. But the sharpness, blinding like a headache from out of nowhere, doubled with the Rorschach-esque art style triggered by the switching between worlds, proffers decent topics for conversation on what this game wants to say. Tragically, there’s no further dialogue that can take place about what the game wants to communicate as the gameplay is choking the life out of Save Them.
Sadly, this is where the game so tantalisingly and so tragically peeks its neck out: this feels like an art game, but it doesn’t play like one. Instead, it plays like a GBA movie tie-in game from 2003, and this is reflected in the weak programming related to platforming, as well as the poor and questionable choices in level design. The controls feel stilted and slippery, lacking the precision that anyone trying to traverse the thin platforms and big gaps that Save Them seems to pride itself on. What results is a control scheme that only serves to detract from the macabre and twisted picture being painted, working against it, as it it were transplanted from a totally different title. You’d think that the ghost of Shrek 2 had gone wondering. In addition, there are also some bizarre platforming design choices that bring the entirety of the game into question. There’s a hideous and bizarre section towards the beginning of the game with narrow platforms and a low ceiling, and making your way across feels impossible, but even worse, totally misplaced in a game with such lofty artistic aspirations, where complex gameplay is allowed to take a backseat. I think that this particular scene is symptomatic of the whole of Save Them. It’s like two games battling against each other, fighting to get out. One wants to be a quintessential gamey-game, the other an artistic experience. Nobody wins.
These ultimately betray and contradict the scope of the game, and bafflingly so — this game blatantly tries to make a narrative point, which gives it more than enough licence to not build it like a standard game. It’s all the more heartbreaking considering that all other parts of the game fit into place; it takes a decent account of mental health, has polished production values, and really endeavors hard to put players IN the game. It’s just that the gameplay itself is agonising and outdated, and stings all the worse considering just how much the team got right.
Ultimately, the best way to describe Save Them is that the idea is good — really good — but the execution is lousy, and unfortunately, the gameplay is just too rickety to support the weight of the ideas that the developers had. Perhaps this is just a case of having a bad time out at bat; Black Void are still new and perhaps this experience will lead to better titles from them. After all, you can learn how to make a better game, but ideas are like children — hard to conceive and hard to let go of. Give them some time and a few years. I have no doubt they’ll be your favourite developers after they mount some experience that meets their creativity in spades. For now, though? Save Them. Your pounds, dollars, and pennies, that is.
VERDICT: Save Them suffers the throes of an identity crisis which means the game never grows beyond its intentions. It dies beside its sword, ultimately unaware that you must save yourself before you can save anyone else.
Save Them is now available on Steam.