POOLS – Dip a toe

No running! No bombing! Shower before using the pool!

POOLS is the very definition of a walking simulator, but it somehow manages to be far creepier than it should be.

Liminal space horror games are quite a thing at the moment. Games like The Backrooms and Paratopic make use of otherwise innocuous empty spaces to make you feel uncomfortable even when there’s no threat. Unlike these games, POOLS has no real narrative and points out in the description that you’re not under any direct threat. Even so, this is an unsettling exploration of flooded corridors.

There’s no real setup here, with your character waking up in what looks like a hallway in a swimming bath. Walking around, you’ll find various oddly shaped pools in the maze-like environment, with your only goal appearing to be finding the way out. Along the way, you’ll walk down near pitch-black passageways, traverse enormous foyers, and wade through waist-deep water.

Yes, you can use some of the waterslides. I don’t think I want to use this one though.

The maps themselves are confusingly laid out, and you’ll often find yourself with the feeling of being utterly lost. But if you keep going, you’ll eventually find your way out. It was rare that I’d find myself going in circles in POOLS, and when I did it was really only in a small area that I could quickly progress from. Even so, I constantly felt like I didn’t know where I was going, and would find an exit by chance. I get the feeling that this is by design though. You’re wandering, lost and confused, trying to get out of something that you don’t understand because it doesn’t make sense.

When I say it doesn’t make sense, I really mean it too. As you progress through the four stages in the beta — there are six in the full release I believe — things become increasingly weird, and even scary. It starts innocuously enough, with a giant rubber duck that seems to stare through the monitor, but it gets more and more bizarre. Grasping hands on a ladder down into a submerged drain, rows of statues that simply should not be where they are, and everyone’s favourite Escher-style environments that you don’t want to think about navigating. There are a lot more examples in POOLS too, but I don’t want to spoil them. Needless to say, playing this alone, in a dark room, with the volume turned up is creepy.

This duck frightened me way more than it should have.

This is an impressive feat, as literally nothing happens in the stages, each of which lasts around twenty minutes. But the out-of-place, nonsensical objects and environments do a great job of keeping you off balance. The lack of music and sole use of your footsteps and running water does a great job of increasing that sense of isolation. The lovely visuals certainly don’t hurt either. I’m normally not one for tight fields of vision and use of chromatic aberration, but here it adds to that sense of unearthliness that really carries the game. 

Now, POOLS is absolutely not a game for everyone. There will be those who will deride it as not a game, or find the idea of it laughable, but I’ve actually enjoyed this. I’m genuinely looking forward to getting into the two maps I haven’t experienced yet, if only to see what bizarre things I’ll come across this time. You should absolutely look at what this game offers in trailers and screenshots before leaping into the deep end, but I for one am glad I took the plunge on this one.

I don’t want to go swimming anymore, mum.

POOLS is available on PC.

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