S.O.N, or South of Nowhere as it stands for, is a first attempt at a psychological horror game by RedG Studios, exclusive to the PlayStation 4. It’s the studio’s first game and since being announced last year, the development has undergone some issues, but we now finally have the finished product. The game takes about an hour to complete and takes place in an infamous forest known as ‘Clarencaster’, where hundreds of people have gone missing.
As Robert Alderson, you must enter the area known as ‘South of Nowhere’, a hideously dangerous part of the forest, home to caves with evil secrets.
Your perspective throughout S.O.N is set to first-person, this definitely amplifies the horror that little bit more but it is probably the only part of the game where I felt connected to the protagonist. You move painfully slow which feels more like an attempt at trying to prolong the game rather than for any other practical reason. It also plays more like a walking simulator than a horror game, with the brunt of the game seeing you roam around aimlessly before having to do a few repetitive tasks, usually fetching keys or pulling levers that lead to more keys and levers. It’s extremely monotonous and destroys any impact of the simple story or atmosphere.
Furthermore, attaching the run button to holding L3 is a pretty poor choice. There either needs to be a toggle option so you don’t have to cause yourself a thumb ache, or just change the button to a trigger. Also, as there is no reticle to show the centre of the screen, it becomes very difficult to interact with objects successfully. I found myself moving my character and camera around for abnormal time periods just to pick up a static object. I felt more like I was trying to shoot the object from miles away instead of standing next to them trying to pick them up.
On the other hand, I think possibly the most impressive aspect of S.O.N is the visuals. For such a small studio, it’s a pretty decent looking game. There is one particular monster design that I really liked and looked like it could have come straight out of Silent Hill. Also, there were some rooms that had set-ups with mannequins and cloaked statues that genuinely look eerie. However, just like most aspects of the game, they lacked substance. They never seemed to serve an obvious purpose to the story in most cases and oftentimes looked like they were just thrown together because they assumed churches, mannequins and blood are creepy (which luckily they are).
In terms of performance, I did experience a few issues with texture pop, with some blades of grass disappearing completely or sometimes having faded colour, even when stood right next to them. Although, it was only a couple of minor issues and was largely bug-free, which I found impressive.
The weakest piece of this psychological horror puzzle is the story. What baffles me most about S.O.N is that what I know about it, I only know from the description provided by the developers. I’m all for games where you piece together information yourself, but to have literally no way of knowing who or where you are for 90% of the game is very troubling. It was only when I finished the game and looked back over the description where I found out the protagonist’s name! He has absolutely no voice whatsoever, not even a grunt or a scream, so understanding his feelings is impossible. You come across disturbing demons and ghostly apparitions but your silence means you also feel no fear because your character doesn’t react at all.
The attempts at storytelling are limited to a few words on walls and a few newspaper articles on the floor that don’t really add much depth. In the beginning section, the first item you interact with is a radio that has two channels for you to flick between. I spent most of my time in the forest section repeatedly checking my new radio to see if there was going to be any contact or hidden messages, but they just kept repeating the same sentences and sounds that I was only just able to understand with headphones on. It kind of felt like an idea that could have originally had more to it, but for some reason was just never fully realised, meaning it was a slightly pointless addition other than maybe adding a slight sense of isolation with the outside world.
The biggest inclusion of the story comes right at the end. There is a choice you make that gives you one of two different endings and unfortunately, neither one of them makes much sense. It seems like one is good and one is bad but just like the rest of the game, it’s relying on some seriously confusing imagery and symbolism to tell the narrative. It feels kind of rushed and not well-thought-out but I’m hoping that the developers don’t give up on the show over tell option because they can learn from games such as Silent Hill and A Chair in a Room: Greenwater; they have the tools but the execution just isn’t as good.
The atmosphere in S.O.N is passable to a degree, but only because of some fair lighting design in some sinister areas. There are some pretty neon lights that give the biggest inkling to what has led you down this creepy as Hell rabbit hole, by spelling out words that seem to label you as a person who has done some pretty bad things to good people. While the lighting is the most effective part of the ‘horror’ aspect, it’s also probably the biggest frustration with the game.
Good design means you should always know where you’re going, even if it looks like a place that you really don’t want to explore. S.O.N fails in this area because it’s just so damn dark. I found myself literally backing into areas, facing the nearest light source in case I got lost in the abyss. For a game that clearly wants you to explore, it takes the fun out of it completely. In fact, the only thing I found remotely interesting was very early on where you find a clock that has the real-time that your PlayStation is set to, which I would say is by far the biggest immersive aspect of the game.
The biggest problem here though is that I never felt in any threat. Horror games excel when you feel like you’re facing something that seems insurmountable but somehow pull through. There should be an adrenaline rush when you finally escape that monster, or finally kill that thing you’ve been saving ammunition for. S.O.N does neither. There’s only one part of the game where you can actually die and it’s probably the daftest threat in a horror game I’ve ever experienced…
There is a tiny section where you can get killed by a ghost that looks like it’s been cut and pasted from the Grudge, which chases you at a snail’s pace. The most fun I had in the game was leading the poor thing around the room because it was so slow. It did kill me on my second play-through though because in that room there is an object to pick up and I spent about 15 seconds trying to get it and got an instant game over screen. Designing a threat based on the fact you can’t easily interact with objects is just not cool.
The lack of tension in the game is coupled with jump scares that are almost laughable. They consist of waiting until you enter a new area, then playing a loud sound with little to no context. They’re usually the same sound too; I think there are three sounds used to scare you in the entire game and they just get swapped around at random intervals to try and scare you. It’s not earned and it’s not effective. In fact, the sound design is almost completely none existent. There are a few rumbles and a couple of sound effects such as a squealing kettle but otherwise, the world just feels empty. Even completing objectives or pulling levers has no sound to let you know you’re wandering into the right path.
There’s a good game hidden here but it just hasn’t been unearthed. The studio clearly has some top talent and will definitely improve on their next title. The lighting, if considered more carefully in the darker sections, will be a huge plus because overall it definitely added to the ‘creepy’ factor. The biggest problem though is the story, it’s pretty much non-existent and makes the game just feel like a walking simulator without a point to it. The horror visuals are there, RedG Studios just need to combine that with an actual threat and a story that means you have reason to not want to die.
S.O.N is a hugely disappointing first outing for RedG Studios. It’s not all bad as there is definite potential to make a game that will have an impact with a story that’s just a little bit clearer and with a protagonist you actually care about; give them a voice! Unfortunately, this isn’t that game and even though the developers have lowered the price to $15, it’s still pretty steep for a game that took less than 90-minutes to complete two play-throughs of. Honestly, the smartest design choice about this game is the title for the double meaning, which says a lot. I would wait until the price comes down on this one because it’s just not great value for money.