The company that I work for maintains a round-the-clock security presence at its front door. When I leave for the day, I usually give a nod of acknowledgement to the chap sitting at the lobby desk and wonder how he’ll occupy himself during his stint on the dreaded night-shift. After playing Uncanny Valley, I now sympathise with the guy, hoping to goodness that one night he won’t stumble upon my employer’s shady secrets and be mysteriously absent for his shift the following evening.
Developed by Cowardly Creations, Uncanny Valley puts you in the role of Tom, a troubled yet enthusiastic individual who has just taken up the post of nightwatchman at a remote, defunct robotics factory in the middle of the woods. After a whirlwind introduction to the skeleton staff that keep an eye on the place, Tom gets to work on his first shift, unaware that the facility he must patrol night-in night-out harbors a deadly secret.
A 2D survival horror of sorts, the game does a spectacular job of creating a creepy, unsettling atmosphere and part of that comes down to a disjointed narrative that doesn’t reveal its hand straight away. A disclaimer at the start of the game warns of multiple endings, encouraging repeat playthroughs in order to unravel new clues and plot points that may appear insignificant at the time, but can have a larger impact later in the game.
Part of this excellent mood building boils down to Tom’s character. As a sufferer of parasomnia, many of the scares that come in the early parts of the game are products of his own fiendish nightmares. From being chased by an army of shadowy creatures, to wandering through corridors lined with flesh and body parts, the game doesn’t shy away from giving us full-on guts and gore right from the outset. The minimal soundtrack is haunting, while some of the images depicted would have made H.R Giger blush, which isn’t bad going for a game that chooses a pixelated graphical style.
It comes as a disappointment then that the gameplay doesn’t quite live up to the high standards that have gone into setting the mood. Branching storylines aside, there isn’t a huge amount to do in Uncanny Valley, at least not for the first half of the game. You see, working as a security guard isn’t the most glamorous job in the world and even the most inquisitive mind will struggle to sink their teeth into a good mystery, given that the game essentially runs on a timer that barely grants you enough time to find anything of note. Imagine if Majora’s Mask had been set in an industrial complex instead of Hyrule and you’re on the right lines.
From the moment you wake up, you’ll be on the clock, so you have around six minutes to get to work, take over from your surly partner and explore the the top half of the facility before your shift ends. During this time you can freely patrol each floor in any order you like, searching for items and clues that may or may not have some relevance later in the game. Cassette tapes and emails can be found dotted around the environment, giving some backstory and perhaps indicating that not all was well in the factory before it shut its doors for good. Just don’t expect to find every little detail as, before you know it, Tom will announce your shift has come to an end and you’ll have about a minute to make it back to your bed in the neighbouring condo building.
For reasons which we won’t go into here, you’ll get a few days to make the most of your job before you’ve already written a resignation letter in your head. There are some events that will occur within this time period, such as solving a puzzle in order to turn the generator back on and seeking out your two companions in order to branch out the story. However, it seems like these objectives have been included to pad out the gameplay and give the player a sense of purpose in a game where there’s really not a whole lot to do. At least, not for the first hour anyway. For in the game’s second half, it takes a dramatic turn and transforms into something else entirely.
Located within the robotics facility is a series of sub-levels that for the most part are inaccessible. Hit all the right beats (or sometimes the wrong beats) in the story and you’ll eventually wind up down in the basement, wishing that you’d never stuck your beak where it didn’t belong. To reveal what exactly lies beneath would be taking us into spoiler territory but suffice to say that it’s a big enough reveal to warrant a complete shift in gameplay style, making you yearn for those earlier days of your monotonous day job.
It’s at this point the game becomes a straight-up survival horror, by adding enemies into the mix along with, if things weren’t terrifying enough, a health system and some stealth mechanics. You’re still free to explore each floor as you wish, hunting for items, clues and even weapons at this stage, but you now also have to stay out of the enemies’ sights if you’re to remain intact. Should you get caught, you’ll lose a little bit of health, depicted in a manner that literally sees flesh hanging from your 8-bit bones while you shuffle your way from one corridor to the next.
While the controls up until this point have been tolerable, the cracks begin to show during this frantic second half. The L1 button on the PlayStation controller allows you to run, but you can only maintain speed for a few seconds, before our reluctant avatar becomes winded and has to walk to catch a breath. The square button flicks your torch on and off, but it does not seem to work while running, for unknown reasons. Finally, there is a small selection of weapons and tools scattered around the facility but finding them in the first place is the tricky part. Aside from the one gun on the premises, most of these items can only be used while in close proximity to enemies, so one mistimed attack could be all that stands between you and one of the game’s “bad” endings.
Despite boasting meatier gameplay, it is this back half of the gameplay that lets Uncanny Valley down the most. While it certainly strives to live up to survival horror greats such as the early Resident Evil games or Silent Hill, it appears almost out of the blue, separate from everything that has come before. To backtrack a little, the game does a fantastic job of setting the mood, particularly through the use of Tom’s nightmares. If some of these dream sequences had introduced us to the survival horror elements a little earlier, then perhaps we would have the experience required to take on what is arguably the most challenging part of the game.
Which brings us back around to the disclaimer message at the start of the game. Indeed, Uncanny Valley does have multiple endings, but unlocking all of them and their respective achievements is no easy task. Each time you restart the game, you’ll have to endure the mundane first act, survive the intense second half, all while being conscious of which actions will lead you to each respective ending. A single playthrough may only take a few hours, but it still feels like an awful lot of work for a choose-your-own-adventure game that includes a small amount of survival horror gameplay elements.
Uncanny Valley may be brimming with good intentions and some great ideas, but it struggles to assemble them all into one coherent terrifying package.. While it succeeds in creating a sense of atmospheric dead right off the bat, it certainly isn’t enough to justify the ticket price for what is ultimately a relatively short-lived experience, even if you do factor in the PS Vita cross-buy initiative. In the end, it is the threat of repetitive gameplay which is a much scarier thought than the pixelated horrors that are depicted on screen.