December 20, 2018 // 1 p.m.
Release: Out now (Early Access)
Playing The Blackout Club is a little bit like completing a Facebook quiz titled 'Which Teen Horror Personality Are You?' in that it reveals how likely you are to respond to a supernatural crisis. After several hours of play, I can confidently say that I’m a Runner. When the chips are down and the situation looks bleak, you can be assured in the fact that I will always run for the hills.
I never mean to do this. Every mission I start out confident and clear-minded. The second an enemy is alerted, however, my instinctual response is to hit brown alert and vanish in a cloud of dust to the other side of the map. It doesn’t even have to be me being chased; simply knowing an enemy had been alerted is enough to set my flight response to Concorde.
It wasn’t just me affected by The Blackout Club’s strange atmosphere and devious systems, as my teammates also quickly fell into predictable roles. My friend Craig soon established himself as the clown of the group, displaying an astonishing ineptitude when wielding his tranquilliser crossbow. He missed almost every time he fired it, and the one time he did strike true was right at the start of a mission, perhaps the least useful moment. I was even about to say, 'Maybe we should save the crossbow' before Craig arose, took careful aim, and completely wasted the one shot we had to silently subdue an enemy.
If Craig would be the first person to die in a horror film, Stephen would be the unlikely survivor to emerge from the group. I say unlikely because the first thing he did in The Blackout Club was lose his grappling hook, somehow managing to throw it over the cave that our mission started in. I’m still not sure how he achieved this. Nonetheless, he soon revealed himself to be the most measured and practical of all of us, the Bugs Bunny of our trio of Looney Tunes. Considering he was partnered with Road Runner and Daffy Duck, that isn’t saying much, but overall his performance was the least calamitous.
I’m aware that I’m making The Blackout Club sound like a Keystone Cops affair, and at times our supernatural investigations were more Scooby Doo than Silent Hill. But this mainly came as a response to how the game toyed with us like virtual marionettes. The Blackout Club is a cooperative game about a group of teenagers investigating a supernatural force that has infested their hometown, turning all the adults into hostile drones that serve a creature known only as The Shape. From their base inside a train-carriage secluded in the woods, the kids embark on missions of their own devising, venturing into town to record strange events, rescue other kids, and so forth.
The game plays like a hybrid of Left 4 Dead and Thief, involving teamwork with a stealth emphasis. In each mission you break into houses, sneak past patrolling guards, and descend into a labyrinth of tunnels that weave beneath the neighbourhood. Each player has access to a range of powers and equipment. Crossbows and stun-guns can be used to disable and eliminate enemy guards, while some characters can prank-call enemies to distract them or hack cameras to disable them.
Stealth is both light- and sound-based, with an icon at the bottom of the screen showing both how visible and audible you are. Certain enemies known as Sleepwalkers cannot see you but have keen hearing, while others such as Lucids can detect you through both sight and sound.
If you’re spotted, the Lucids and Sleepwalkers will try to grab you. You can fend them off a couple of times, but since all enemies are bigger and stronger than you, eventually they’ll knock you down and begin dragging you toward one of several red doors posted around the environment. If you happen to get dragged past a pile of junk, you can grab an item to help you escape. Otherwise, it’ll be up to your teammates to help you, else you’ll become a victim of The Shape.
The Shape is arguably the most interesting element of The Blackout Club’s horror, a supernatural being that you can only see with your in-game eyes closed. Press the Z key, and you’ll shut your virtual eyelids, leaving you in a reddish void blank save for an outline to your objective and, if he is out hunting, a ghostly image of the Shape. I love this notion of willingly blinding yourself to smaller dangers in order to see the biggest one; it’s a beautiful concept that really heightens the tension.
Another clever notion is how The Blackout Club’s stealth functions in an escalating cycle. If you get attacked by Sleepwalkers but give them the slip, the game remembers you’ve been seen. Get into enough scrapes and The Shape will come hunting you. This means The Blackout Club is constantly ratcheting the tension, as each encounter with the sleepwalking guards means you’re one step closer to having a far bigger problem on your hands.
My one issue with The Shape stems from what happens if you’re caught by it. Basically, The Shape hypnotises your character, making them wander around the game world free of your control. You can be returned to your body by another player, but if your character spots their wannabe saviour before they can approach, they will run away screaming. This makes the game too chaotic, as usually the Shape is hunting you at the same time.
Nonetheless, I love how the Shape acts as a great furnace into which all your best laid plans are cast into. I’ve had some fantastic games of cat and mouse with the Shape, sneak-running around town trying to revive my friends while desperately trying to avoid getting snared in its invisible clutches.
At a core level, I think The Blackout Club works well and has the potential to be excellent. I’m also intrigued by the setting and the story. I’m not going to discuss these specifically, but it's safe to say the labyrinth beneath the town is sufficiently strange, and the way the game approaches its theme of the horrors that lurk beneath the surface of consciousness certainly struck a chord.
What The Blackout Club needs mainly is time for refinement. Interactions are still quite spongy and need sharpening up, and the HUD is nearly all placeholder. I also think the game needs to be much clearer about when Bad Stuff is about to go down, because when you’re focussing not just on your movements but those of your friends AND opponents, it’s very easy to miss stuff. If a friend gets grabbed by an enemy, the game should emit a noise like the horn of Helm’s Deep or something. Similarly, alarms for cameras and other traps need to be much more, well, alarming.
Nonetheless, I’m confident when it’s all polished and smooth and finished, The Blackout Club is going to be great, a blend of tense stealth horror and chaotic coop capers. I can’t wait to abandon all my friends to a terrible fate in the final version.