Review: White Night

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Sometimes, ambience is enough. As in, the way the Old World rustic vibe and candlelit tables at the new steakhouse in town is enough to distract you from the fact that the New York Strip you just dropped thirty bucks on is proving only slightly better than eating a pair of marinated Vans.

In White Night, ambience is pretty much everything. From the torchy jazz soundtrack to the game’s arresting black and white color scheme, developer OSome is all about creating and maintaining a distinctly visible vibe, and they’ve managed it brilliantly. Trouble is, in this case, it’s not nearly enough to offset this horror-puzzler’s frustrating mechanical shortcomings. If only the actual gameplay were quite as effortlessly artistic as White Night’s look.

Set in a gritty and grimy post-depression era America, White Night’s like a Raymond Chandler novel crossed with a classic Hitchhock flick, a story filled with hard-boiled and gothically overwrought dialogue. After appearing to run down a ghostly girl on a rainy and deserted highway, our trench-coated hero finds himself badly wounded and at the doorstep of the foreboding Vesper Manor. Let’s just say that aid and comfort are not among the things that are waiting inside.

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The visuals are often just jaw-dropping, especially when the camera takes a wide view of the surroundings. The ways the black and white palettes shift, wax and wane depending on the play of the light is an example of an artistic vision expertly deployed.

Light is both the solution and the central problem in White Night. To advance the plot, you’ll need to explore almost every inch of the manor’s several floors and rooms, looking for clues, diary entries and key objects. To do that, you’ll need to beat back the all-consuming darkness, a task that can be accomplished in only one of two ways. If you’re lucky and/or hawkeyed, you’ll stumble onto a switch and be able to flood your environs with electric light. More likely, you’ll need to rely on the brief and limited light offered by striking an ever-dwindling supply of matches.

Vesper Mansion is infested not just with the disappointed hopes and fears of its religiously fanatic clan, but with an army of truly creepazoid cursed spirits, hovering in the corners and on the ceilings in various states of agony and despair. They’re terrifying to look at and immediately fatal to touch, and this is where White Night’s game mechanics sail off the road like our hero’s Studebaker.

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In a move that’s all too reminiscent of those infernal typewriters from the original Resident Evil, you can only save the game by camping in one of the manor’s comfy armchairs. But Mr. and Mrs. Vesper (or Venter-Cross, if we’re being honest) apparently skipped the volume discount order at Ashley Furniture. The chairs are few and far between, which means you’re always faced with the fun task of retracing your stumbling steps through the mansion to find the last chair you passed, blazing through your match supply as you go, or praying that the vengeful spirits don’t invade your space before you can figure out the solution to whatever obstacle’s preventing you from advancing. Let’s just say there’ve never been many prayers answered in Vesper Mansion.

The save system’s not the only thing conspiring against you—the camera’s on the side of the demons, too. In way, way too many instances, the camera’s fixed position makes it all but impossible to see what you’re about to bump into or what you’re supposed to be discovering, which means you’re basically stumbling around in the dark even when you’re not stumbling around in the dark. On at least five occasions, it took slow-scanning every inch of every wall multiple times to find the one spot with which you need to interact. And here we thought pixel hunting went out with the last iteration of Myst.

These drawbacks sting especially hard because White Night’s look and well-crafted story are just begging to be enjoyed and explored. You can see the ways the developers tried to use a limited resource (light) to amp the tension the way limited bullets amp the tension in a survival horror game. The difference is that in a survival horror game, you’re not forced to scan the screen to find the trigger.

SkipIt

Pros:
+ Amazing black and white visuals
+ Effective and well-written dialogue and story

Cons:
– Save points are as scarce as actual living human beings
– Insta-kill spirits
– Fixed camera angles + pixel hunting equals frustration

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on Xbox One, also available on PC and PlayStation 4
Publisher: Activision
Developer: OSome Studio
Release Date: 3/3/2015
Genre: Puzzle/Survival Horror
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1
Source: Review code provided by publisher

About the Author

Aaron R. Conklin has been writing about games and games culture for more than 15 years. A former contributor to Computer Games Magazine and Massive Magazine, his writing has appeared on IGN.com and in newspapers and alt-weeklies across the country. Conklin's an unapologetic Minnesota sports fan living in Madison, Wisconsin, home of the Midwest's most underrated gaming vibe.