First person horror games aren’t exactly hard to come by, especially after the success of Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Slender, so Saibot Studios’ Doorways series already had a pretty tough job of creating its own corner of the genre but it has won a few fans since its inception.
Releasing in episodic form, Doorways follows the story of Thomas Foster, a special agent of the Doorways team trying to locate a mysterious group of psychopaths. This leads him into their psyches which, in turn, allows them into his own. It drags him into very strange worlds, each focusing on their own psychopath and their chosen method of murder, torture and general unpleasantness. This third episode focuses on Dr Katherina Stein, a surgeon believed to be carrying out experiments on humans. As it turns out, these experiments aren’t exactly nice.
Doorways: The Underworld starts you off in underground caverns, with no other option than to wander around until you find something of interest. Unfortunately, that takes a little longer than necessary and leaves you trudging aimlessly through mines and what look like cells, until a previously locked door opens by itself.
The mines do offer some stunning lighting effects though, with shadows bouncing off walls and crawling into the furthest corners of your vision. Combined with the eerie ambient sound, the wind sounds oddly threatening as it blows through the dark tunnels, and disembodied screams echoing through the cells as you look for documents explaining what is going on, or merely for a key to unlock the area’s exit.
This game certainly isn’t lacking in atmosphere.
However, it does appear to be lacking in variation. The whole mine area, which took around an hour to navigate but would take much less if you weren’t focusing on each little nook and cranny, looks the same. Darkness, rock and stone, lights and wires dangling from the walls – all of it feels a little “cut and paste” in this opening section. Each subsequent area has the same problem, although different thematically from one another they still repeat the same patterns.
The gameplay too, feels very much the same. You wander around in the darkness looking for a specific object (or several objects) to complete a puzzle that will trigger the next part of the game, which usually entails a chase of some kind. That said, the first chase does get the heart pounding and makes you sit forward in your seat. Claustrophobia sets in as you’re forced to hide from a hideously deformed creature, probably a result of the good doctor’s experiments, and messages appear on the walls to both inform and terrorise you into action. It’s a neat little disguise for the tutorial.
If the creature does manage to trap you, a brief loading screen follows your death and you’re then dropped right back at the start of the chase, losing no progress. This is likely because in such tight confines, it’s almost inevitable that you’ll be cornered at some point. If the monster spots you, the resulting chase is panic-inducing, forcing you to run and hide as the lights turn red and are thrown about on their holdings, shadows jumping furiously about the environment. It’s a nice touch, simultaneously alerting you to danger and using basic visual techniques to induce panic.
This idea isn’t used beyond the tutorial section though, which is a shame. It makes the next chase sequence feel dull and uninspired by comparison, even more so by its repeated use throughout the second area.
This is Doorways: The Underworld’s biggest failing. For a horror game, it becomes tedious and predictable very quickly, losing almost all its atmosphere in the process. You still panic a little when chased, but its effect is dramatically reduced because you already know it’s about to happen before the monster even emerges from the darkness. You know that that collected key or valve will trigger another chase once used, and you know exactly where to go to avoid the monster – this is also down to some pretty by-the-numbers level design.
By the end of the caverns, I had already grown so tired of the chases that the next one was merely a formality. In a game reliant on shocks and scares, this isn’t acceptable. It does try something new later on, adding an extra dimension to the puzzles/level design, but it’s far too late in the game and is soon joined by an ill-advised, poorly executed platforming sequence.
The game’s story doesn’t really go anywhere, either. Notes and documents try to build a back story, but end up feeling like nothing more than a bunch of loosely connected tales that may or may not hold any significance to the overall plot. This basically sums up the entirety of Doorways: The Underworld – a series of random events that barely feel connected.
It is a well made game, though. Its environments are detailed, its sound design is unnerving and I didn’t experience a single bug in my time with the game, which is testament to Saibot Studios’ skill in creating a solid, if unimaginative, experience. With a bit more boldness in its creativity and storytelling, Doorways could have been something to rival Amnesia: The Dark Descent, but fans may still get a kick out of this series.
Just don’t expect any real scares.