The Blackout Club, looking at it from afar, has the potential to be one of the best indie co-op games of this generation. Up to 4 players can group up in this co-op PVE horror game, playing as kids going off exploring some strange mysteries at night – it’s basically the closest thing to being a ‘Stranger Things’ game without actually being a ‘Stranger Things’ licenced product.
Developed and published by Question, there is obvious potential here for The Blackout Club to be an instant classic. The question is, does it reach its full potential?
I fully recommend playing the prologue before jumping into the main game so you not only get the gist of the gameplay but also the story. Basically, there are some super weird things going on in Blackwood, a very normal American neighbourhood – until these events anyway. Just what the hell is going on? Well, it’s your job to find out. There are frequent electricity blackouts and people keep waking up disoriented and days have passed with no recollection of what happened. Not to mention the teenager’s parents who are roaming around, mumbling to themselves in sleeping states and capturing people, seemingly operating from some underground tunnels. It’s a very fun premise which would make for a very good narrative-driven game, in my opinion.
You get to create your own teenager (although the customisation is VERY limited at the beginning) and embark on quest lines either alone or with friends/through matchmaking to discover what the sleepers are and just what is ‘the shape’, a being only visible with your eyes closed that stalks you. Unfortunately, the prologue is the best part about the game, feeling almost like an entirely different game to what you actually experience when you begin your night-time mystery hunting shenanigans.
While you have some interesting means to defend yourself, action in this game is usually of a stealth variety and sees you creeping around people’s homes and underground tunnels to avoid the adults. The missions are procedurally generated and often consist of getting to a house, completing a random objective before having to venture into ‘The Maze’ for a second objective, which seems to be the base of operations for the adults and ‘the shape’. These objectives could be putting up posters, following trails or gathering evidence by recording videos and pictures on your mobile phone.
As you play, you gain experience which allows you to unlock major and minor skills. You can only have one major skill active while having multiple minor skills active. These skills are actually really imaginative and I particularly like the skill where you can use your mobile phone to prank call the sleepers as a distraction.
Stealth sections are generally very tense, made better by the enemy AI types and some very interesting uses of environment and equipment:
Despite the enemies just being adult humans, they are actually quite creepy. The sleepers have face masks on and are sleep-walking, so they can’t see you but can hear you. They stumble around and talk to themselves saying very strange and sometimes funny things but they genuinely do make you uncomfortable.
As they can hear you, the environment cleverly challenges you to think about your actions. There are certain surfaces and actions that create more sound, such as marble and glass floors, or jumping from a high place and landing. These combine to make sneaking past them a tense affair because you need to be aware of their strengths and play against them; don’t be trying to run past a sleeper. There are pieces of equipment for many situations though and in particular, I like the foam grenade, which you can drop below you from a great height and create a soft landing area so you make no noise when you fall and cause you no fall damage, handy!
Then there are lucids, the dreamers who can see you and carry their own torches to hunt you down and grab you. If you are grabbed, they try and take you away to their lair which triggers a very cool animation where you must try to search the environment while you’re being dragged. If you find an item from a trash pile you can attack your captor from the ground so you can make a speedy getaway, another cool mechanic that allows for some leniency in terms of getting caught.
If you remain hidden from these enemies then you do have a few more options to deal with them, including using sleep darts (via a crossbow from a distance or on their own up close) or simply pinning them, where you can jump on them from behind and ‘steer’ them to a location if you need to make space for your team or complete an objective. Increasing the strength of the pin renders them immobile for a short period, useful for when you’re out of equipment. If you do down an enemy, you can hide their body ‘Hitman’ style to ensure no one finds them and raise awareness.
There are also various traps that you must manoeuvre but these are for when you’re carrying more equipment to better progress. There are cameras, which you can also cover with the foam grenade to stop their effectiveness and or even speed traps that sense your movement.
Gain too much attention from these enemies and you will be faced with ‘the shape’, an invisible entity that you can only see with your eyes closed. ‘The shape’ is the best part about the main game with a mechanic that is both interesting and terrifying. This enemy can hear and see you and will roam around and hunt you ferociously until you get far enough away or escape on to a high/low surface. It sort of triggers an endgame scenario where it will try to capture your whole party. If this happens without you saving your team members, it’s game over!
So, you’re probably thinking The Blackout Club sounds like a pretty good stealth game and overall that’s right. There is a natural tension to the game, made more interesting with the idea of it being procedurally generated missions for you to tackle. The equipment you use is fun and the skill system is great too. Yet, there are some glaring issues that fundamentally ruin the game.
The biggest problem is that the co-operative aspect kind of just ruins the whole thing. For me, the greatest part of The Blackout Club is the prologue, where the tension is at its highest because you’re alone and it feels like a genuine horror game in the vein of Outlast and the like. There are shadowy figures, jump scares, a bold and invading atmosphere, visual distortion, loud noises and a couple of creepy set pieces that make it a really quite brilliant introduction. There’s even an option for your camera to pick up your voice, similar to Alien Isolation which is a great and nerve-wracking addition. This does also move over to the main game as well, which is supposed to have some very interesting mechanics about the game seemingly spying on you and your actions using voice recognition but I, unfortunately, haven’t experienced anything like this yet as it is very rare.
In the prologue, the voice acting is also brilliant, it’s emotive, realistic and has you caring about the character before they are abruptly taken away from your control for you instead to make your own character without personality, or even decent hair (I like my in-game characters to look much cooler than me). It’s focused and narrative-driven and feels much more entertaining than the main game.
When you’re playing co-op, you’re at the mercy of your partners. If you don’t have friends to play with you’re stuck trying to communicate with people who either don’t speak the same language as you or who do and just wander off alone anyway. It’s a complete and utter immersion and tension killer. The atmosphere The Blackout Club creates is ruined by the need to constantly talk and ensure you’re all on the same page, which ends up in someone failing miserably and then the tension is completely destroyed.
Thankfully, you can play the main game alone but once you’ve done your first few missions it becomes very dull because it’s just not as focused as the prologue. The grind basically turns you into a sleeper IRL, repeatedly playing through missions in order to level up so that you can progress. It gets really tedious alone and chaotic in co-operative, so it’s difficult to find a balance. It’s hard to recommend how to play the game because it contradicts itself and becomes two different games. It wants to be a horror but encourages team play which immediately removes the tension because you feel under much less threat as a group.
The Blackout Club has a fantastic premise and the base idea for the game is very good. The equipment and skills are really fun to use, it builds great tension and atmosphere and it’s a fun co-op game. The problem is that this denies it from being a great horror game. If you’re looking for a game to grind with friends then this could be a decent way to spend some time. If you’re looking for a great horror game, play the prologue and then just stop. As a horror fan, I was hoping the main game was going to be more like the prologue but that’s just my opinion, there’s certainly fun to be had with friends in this creepy neighbourhood where things go bump and snooze in the night.