Worse Than Death (Review)

I’m not a horror person in general. I don’t watch scary movies. I don’t play scary games. I’ve never locked myself in a bathroom and chanted BLOODY MARY. I’ve never bungee jumped. I know people say “that’s not horror.” WHY ISN’T IT? You’re tying a rope around your feet and throwing yourself off a tall structure. If the point is to be scary, isn’t that horror? If you want an extreme sport, go play hockey using samurai swords and a puck that’s on fire. Bungee jumping is horror: a simulation of something that should kill you, only you walk away without the dying part. And it’s not for me. None of it is. Maybe I was traumatized by walking past those creepy-ass Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark covers in book stores as a child, but I just never got into the genre.

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Worse Than Death mixes comic-style art with neo-retro pixel art. It’s a bit jarring. I never really felt like either style was specifically in service to the game. It’s just how it looks. That’s fine, I guess. I normally hate it, but I’ll let it slide this time.

There’s always exceptions, but it’s certainly not something I seek out or get excited about at all. But, as Indie Gamer Chick, I feel it’s important to wet my whistle in as many areas of gaming as possible. I’ve actually bought tons of indie horror titles over the years. Most of them I don’t even remember the names of, let alone ever get around to playing. In those rare instances where I do, they have to live on their gameplay or storytelling merits, and most are utterly forgettable. I have a hunch I probably won’t forget Worse Than Death, but for the wrong reasons. It’s one of those games where you think you get the twist ahead of time, and then when you realize you’re wrong and the game goes in a completely off-its-nut direction, you can’t help but laugh.

The inspection screens always use the comic book art style. I suppose that was out of necessity, because these screens would be incomprehensible pixelated vomit puddles with the large-dot, faceless characters. Still, it makes me wonder if the whole game should have been done like this. It’s perfectly good comic book artwork. I’d buy a graphic novel by this artist.

In Worse Than Death, a pair of besties arrive at their ten year high school reunion. You’re Holly, and you’re trying to convince your BFF, a Fonz-lookalike named Flynn (I typed THE Flynn, which he should totally roll with), to attend the reunion party. He doesn’t want to because everyone is a bit pissed that he wrapped his car around a tree and killed the their friend, Grace. Yea, that’s just the sort of thing people hate. I don’t even get why you’d bother to show up if you’re a known pariah. Like, these things ARE optional, you know? I’m not exactly an expert on high school politics or dynamics. I was home-schooled. I kind of wish I hadn’t been. I would have gone to school with future NBA star Jeremy Lin if I had attended, and he would have no doubt fallen in love with me. I shit you not, I could be Mrs. Lin right now! Well, actually, probably not, as the minute he signed with the Houston Rockets would have been the moment I’d of filed for divorce. Anyway, among the things I do know about high school is that class reunions aren’t legally binding. If two people didn’t want to go, I can’t imagine why they would. “So the plot can happen” is basically the answer, though there is a kinda, sorta unseen force that seems to have pulled them there, maybe?

Thankfully, the developer didn’t skimp on sound design. Eerie songs and spooky sound effects play throughout Worse Than Death. Channel your inner SNES fandom and PLAY IT LOUD!

Anyway, supernatural shit starts happening and bodies start piling-up, as bodies tend to do. I kinda figured this was going to be the “everyone is already dead and this is purgatory and/or hell” trope. It’s not, and which is the only spoiler I’m going to do. I’ll just say that the plot goes so far off the rails that you question if it ever belonged on the rails in the first place. By the final third of the game, and especially the ending, the story is absolute bat shit on a stick, and not necessarily in a good way. The more that was revealed, the less tense the atmosphere got, which made the jump scares less effective and everyone’s motives less consequential. People keep dying, but it never feels like it matters. It’s supposed to be about secrets and the damage they do, but the back stories are kept too vague, to the point that the destructiveness of those secrets feels somewhere off in the background. By the end game, Worse Than Death had long since ceased being tense or frightening and had just become silly. I went from totally on the edge of my seat to giggling at what a train wreck the whole thing had become.

Of the three hours and change we spent playing this, probably twenty or so minutes was spent trying to figure this fucking thing out. My sister, Angela, finally got it after she took a bathroom break that mysteriously required her to take her tablet and ask what the name of the game was again. Funny how that worked out. This “puzzle” was clunky as all fuck and probably should have been explained better.

So, I must have hated it right? Well.. no. While I feel Worse Than Death ultimately failed to deliver on the promise the opening chapters had, to the point that the end game felt like it was satirizing its own story by time the end credits roll, I still never lost interest in seeing where this was all going. It helps that the writing is razor-sharp throughout. Developer Benjamin Rivers clearly has a gift for making compelling characters and creating dialog that feels almost always authentic. Some of the tropes, like the school bitch or the aggressive bully, feel forced and unnatural. But the relationship between Holly and Flynn feels totally real and affectionate, with the slightest hint of apprehension (which, by the way, the end-game makes sense of with the only aspect of the story where the payoff DID work, and there’s even an after-the-credits gag that put a smile on my face). Maybe the plot is completely off its rocker, but the characters made me and my entire family stick it out for the full three hours or so of gameplay. That was nice.

Worse Than Death’s #1 survival mechanic is waiting in the background while specters walk back and forth, a mechanic that loses its zing a bit when you’re often straight-up told you “feel cold” when they’re around. Plus, a lot of levels have places you can hide but no ghosts, which sort of spoils that later chapters will have the ghosts appear in those rooms.

Well.. maybe gameplay is too strong a word. In fact, you don’t encounter your first puzzle element until the second chapter of the game, and that element is simply finding a code for a door lock. Mostly, the game consists of story bits, exploring relatively small areas for clues, and finding keys or passcodes to open doors. There’s a handful of almost-Escape Room-like puzzles, but don’t buy this game for the problem-solving elements as they’re very basic overall. The survival-horror part of the game is handled better. You’re given not-so-subtle warnings when a danger element is approaching and must either hide in the background or make a run for it. These encounters are constant, but I never actually died from them. There were moments where I got particularly bold (IE impatient) and legged it, only to see a ghost was right there, but still managed to live. It never completely stops being tense, but as a horror experience, Worse Than Death was a lot better when it relied on atmosphere and jump scares. The game might have been better served removing all the hiding stuff completely.

I struggled with the ultimate verdict on Worse Than Death more than most games. To its credit, I was never bored playing it, except with the radio puzzle where we had it on the right channel but didn’t realize we apparently had to flip the switch up and down, and one brief spot where we got lost late in the game that was actually on me. Otherwise, the writing is always compelling. The characters are realistic enough to grow attached to. It does mistake “startle” for “scare” far too much, but what survival horror game doesn’t? It’s so much better when you’re walking by a mirror only to see a shadowy figure run across the reflection. THAT’S the type of horror it does best, and should have stuck to it. After the first hour, I would have bet the farm I was going to award Worse Than Death my Seal of Approval on the characters and atmosphere alone. I mean, yea, it’s weird that the character has to describe the details of seeing a dead body that’s hanging from the ceiling (“OH GOD, HER EYES JUST KEEP STARING OUT!”) because the chosen graphical style isn’t very good at showing off small details, but it’s still always eerie.

That’s a dog? Was its cause of death “infection by The Thing?”

But, that damn direction it took. I sat at my keyboard for ten minutes looking for the right words, and all I could do was make a “mmmmph” sound. I was so ready to feel an uneasy dread going into the finale, and instead I was just giggling by the end. Even worse, I was doing so at the game and not with it, because the ending is so sincere that it makes my heart hurt that it didn’t work for me. A bad ending normally doesn’t sink a video game, but in the case of Worse Than Death, it absolutely needed an incredible payoff. A mystery killer is great! Worse Than Death felt almost like I Know What You Did Last Summer, easily the most underrated horror movie that came out in the wake of Scream. Even if the game did silly things like instant-cure headache medicine (yea, because that’s how pills works, right!) or ghosts that come dangerously close to feeling Scooby-Doo like. I could forgive all that, because it sure seemed like everything was building to a great ending. Then the ending happened, and it sucked, and it retroactively made everything before it feel like a waste of time. It’s so jaw-droppingly whackadoodle that, after getting over the initial shock, we all just started laughing. It was such gloriously awful shit.

So, I can’t really recommend Worse Than Death. Granted, I’m one of the last people who anyone should go to for advice on which horror games to purchase. But, if you’re a non-fan like me, I feel safe in saying that Worse Than Death is not going to be an exception. Either way, I’m totally going to check out other games by Benjamin Rivers. No question he has a gift for dialog and atmosphere. Paying it off? Well.. to be determined. What about all the successful jump scares in the game, you ask? So what? I can do that too. Give me a pack of balloons and a thumbtack and I can startle my family every time with minimum effort, but that hardly makes me Stephen King.

Worse Than Death was developed by Benjamin Rivers
Point of Sale: Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Steam

$1.99 (normally $9.99) wasn’t really worse than death in the making of this review.

About Indie Gamer Chick
Indie game reviews and editorials.

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