This is a Snapshot, a quick, un-scored review of a game we think you should know about.
I have a problem with "found footage" horror movies. No matter how good they are, almost all of them end the same way. Whoever has the camera gets attacked by something, and the camera falls to the ground, inevitably on its side. Either you get a final glimpse of the pretend cinematographer as their life ebbs away, or you get to hear their off-screen cries of agony as some unseen terror eviscerates them.
It's not that the device doesn't make sense (how else could it end, really?), it's just not a very satisfying way to wrap up a story. It's abrupt and disappointing and, at this point, trite. What indie horror game Paranormal has taught me, however, is that all of that changes when the camera is placed in your own virtual hands. The tired movie trope suddenly becomes interesting – and you can't yell at the idiot with the camera, because the idiot is you.Paranormal – Kickstarted last year – borrows liberally from found footage horror movies, most notably the Paranormal Activity franchise. As artist Mattel Clark, you're out to prove to the world that your house is haunted. Armed with only a video camera, your job is pretty simple: wander through your home at night and wait for things to go bump. And bump they will. Paranormal is essentially an interactive haunted house, filled with randomized scares that you stumble across or inadvertently trigger.
These range from slightly creepy things like cardboard boxes moving of their own accord to panic-inducing moments where unseen entities shove you to the ground. The simplest scares are the best: loud knocks from nowhere, a stranger standing in the dark. More than a few of these made me jump out of my chair, involuntarily yelling. Just the environment is unsettling enough. As an artist, Mattel's house is littered with sinister sculptures, bizarre paintings and faceless posing mannequins. (Did that one just move? I think it moved.)
You'll also uncover notes that detail the house's history, providing an explanation for the haunting. You won't find the same notes every time you play, making the story shift ever so slightly, though it's always centered on the same characters.
A single mechanic ties everything together: Mattel has to go to sleep to let his camera recharge. Fail to do this, and a dead battery will result in a dead Mattel. What makes it fun is that Mattel's death will change based on where he is in the house. If the camera runs out of juice in the kitchen, for example, Mattel may be impaled by poltergeist-thrown knives (and yes, the last thing you will see is the camera falling to the ground).
Getting to sleep on time and recharging the camera moves things along, beginning a new day of evidence gathering and bringing about a new set of hauntings. As the days pass, hauntings become progressively more pronounced and aggressive, eventually working their way into Mattel's bedroom itself, lending a sense of urgency to Mattel's quest to solve the mystery behind it all. (In keeping with horror tradition, just heading out the front door and never looking back isn't an option.)
I suspect that the effectiveness of Paranormal's tricks will probably fall along the same lines as that of its clearest inspiration, Paranormal Activity. Either you will be abjectly terrified, like me, or you'll find the whole thing kind of ridiculous. Like any horror story, it's silly if you're not in the right frame of mind. Headphones and low light are recommended.
The only other thing that stands in the way of full enjoyment is the fact that Paranormal isn't finished. It's currently available via Desura and Steam Early Access, but developer Matt Cohen has made it clear that Paranormal is still in active development. That means you may encounter a few bugs. During one session I managed to walk through a solid door, and a persistent, pulsing sound effect refused to stop. Some surface textures don't look right under the glow of Mattel's flashlight. The glitches are all bearable, but definitely noticeable.
The story is pretty thin, and you can complete it in under an hour, but the randomized hauntings make Paranormal good for several runs – and of course you can inflict it upon your friends after that (Protip: Bring a camera). Cohen is also working on a free expansion called "The Town" – again, recently Kickstarted – which promises to expand Paranormal's random hauntings to a large scale town.
Some horror fans may want to wait for Paranormal to become a more polished experience, but even unfinished it's packed with frightful and inventive ideas. It's rough around the edges, but if you can look past the occasional bug, and if you have a talent for suspending disbelief, you're in for a scary good time.