If you’re someone who has ever said they miss classic survival horror games, Song of Horror is exactly what you’re after.
The earliest ‘proper’ horror game I remember playing was Alone in the Dark. Not the 2008 jacket-inventory simulator, but the four-polygons-per-character grandfather of 3D survival horror games. Rest assured that twelve-year-old me was pretty traumatised, even if it is somewhat laughably tame by today’s standards. Over the years, the likes of Resident Evil, Silent Hill, and Fatal Frame (or Project Zero as I knew it) have become the poster boys for the genre, but barring the recent Resident Evil remake games, that static camera, super slow-paced horror experience has become less and less common. Enter Song of Horror, a genuinely scary and tense game that took me back to that mansion exploring terror of my childhood.
In the playable opening, Daniel, an employee of a publishing firm, is sent to check on one of the company’s clients at their home. On arrival he finds an empty house with a strange melody emanating from a music box that leads him into a part of the structure that shouldn’t exist, trapping him in some other world. Having not been seen over the course of the weekend, a group of concerned friends set off to find him and begin a journey to find the origin of the music box and how to prevent the horrifying events from continuing.
Song of Horror is a five-episode game that plays like a very traditional survival horror game, with slow movement, fixed cameras, and numerous puzzles to be solved to unlock doors in a variety of locales. You’ll pick your character, each with their own traits, explore the area — usually a single building — and try to evade the evil that resides there. Between finding clues and solving puzzles to progress the story, you’ll face a number of traps, scripted events, and random encounters with the horrors of this world. They can, and will, kill you quickly if you aren’t able to respond correctly, and when you die you stay dead.
Yes, Song of Horror has a feature that is a rarity in survival horror games — permadeath! If you are caught and don’t react correctly and complete the associated QTEs, or if you make some poor choices with objects in the environment, you will die and that character is gone for the rest of the game. You’ll need to choose a new character, find the remains of their deceased friend to collect their belongings before continuing onwards. Should everyone fall, that’s it, and you’ll have to restart the episode. It’s punishing, and occasionally unfair, but it doesn’t half ratchet up the tension as you weigh up whether the noise you heard behind that door is liable to kill you. Of course, the downside to this is that restarting the episode is frustrating, as not only do you have to redo all the puzzles that you now know how to solve, but also a lot of the fear fades away. Luckily, the random nature of the attacks you face does keep some element of that tension in place.
The puzzles themselves are fairly standard survival horror fare, but are quite thematic. They’re challenging but certainly make sense for the game’s world, although there were a couple of occasions where I wasn’t quite sure what the next step would be. Generally finding clues in notes around the environment gives enough information to solve the problems you’re faced with though. You’ll often be trying to find keys, combining chemicals, and solving combination locks, alongside some more mysterious puzzles.
Whilst doing this, you’ll constantly be under threat from the presence that stalks your heroes. Whilst there are some scripted events, most of the time the encounters are random, either from opening a door or the horror trying to get through to you. You can often prevent the former by using a mechanic to listen for sounds at the door — which includes some nice visual cues if you want to use them — but the latter can happen at pretty much any moment, forcing you to hold the doors closed, flee to find a hiding spot, or fend it off in other ways. This often takes the form of QTEs, either by tapping buttons quickly, or pressing them in a rhythm to control your breathing or heartbeat. These are mostly thematic, and very tense due to the consequences of failure. Thankfully these don’t crop up too frequently, and there is a great enough variety of them to keep things fresh.
It’s incredibly tense. Knowing that your character could be under threat of a permanent death at any moment keeps the pressure on you in ways I haven’t really felt since the glory days of Silent Hill, which is a clear inspiration for some of the environments. Song of Horror also takes those survival horror moments in which you are asked if you’re sure you want to put your hand into that blocked sink. Convention dictates that you will want to, because you (almost) always got something useful from doing so in the games of the past. Here though, you could end up instantly killing your character by doing this. In a lot of cases, there’s enough telegraphing to help you make the right choice, but occasionally you’ll simply not be sure. If you’re stuck on a puzzle and think you’re missing an item you may well pressure yourself into making the choice here, and it can be incredibly galling to lose a hero as a result of it. Very occasionally, not choosing to do these things can result in you dying too. That incredibly punishing aspect is somewhat key to the horror here. Jump scares will actually catch you out quite frequently due to being constantly on edge.
The visuals and sound really help with this too. The lighting is particularly good, with your character’s light source cutting through the darkness just enough to feel safe in the immediate vicinity without revealing too much of what’s ahead. There are some great little details too, like a character swapping their light source to their off-hand when opening a door, or the gradual change in someone’s expression when they begin to hear creatures on the other side of a door. It’s good stuff. Combined with the ambient noise, well constructed musical score — a key aspect of the plot — and careful use of camera angles, you have a consistently tense atmosphere. The voice acting is a touch ropey at times, as are some of the characters’ reactions to horrifying events, but it’s nothing immersion breaking.
Now, Song of Horror does a top job of bringing back those survival horror elements, warts and all. Camera angle switches that result in your character going back the way they came, clunky movement controls, and occasionally tricky to see doors due to the camera position. These are things I can live with as a fan of this somewhat old-fashioned style of horror game, as I’m sure most players who like this genre could. Less bearable are the various bugs that crop up. Some are simple, such as subtitles not exactly matching spoken dialogue, or menu button prompts not displaying correctly. Others are far more aggravating, like the massive frame drops — down to 15 fps — I suffered during episodes four and five which hadn’t been present before, even in small, simple areas. Mercifully, as this is a slow-paced horror game, it didn’t cause me significant problems, but it does harm the atmosphere somewhat. There have been reports of a number of other problems, but the developers at Protocol Games have been quite active on the forums, responding to these issues, and releasing regular patches to fix them. I’ve been fortunate to not come across anything game-breaking myself.
Song of Horror is a great return to a woefully underrepresented genre, with a fear level to match. If you’re a horror fan of a certain age, this will bring back memories of those games you used to love — even more so thanks to the numerous references hidden in the episodes. There’s a great story, classic puzzles, and a genuine challenge thanks to the permadeath mechanic across a 14-20 hour game. If you have fond memories of survival horror and want a real trip down memory lane, then this is an excellent option. Just try not to die.
All five episodes for Song of Horror are available now on Steam.