The Crow’s Eye feels more like a forgotten early noughties game than one released this month. The graphics are flat and weathered, and its method of building suspense in a creepy abandoned house setting is very familiar. However, with its blend of thriller, mystery and psychological horror genres, The Crow’s Eye does harbour surprises amongst its clichés.
The Crow’s Eye is the fictional tale of a police investigation into the disappearance of four students at the Medical University of Crowswood. The University was closed in 1947, and during the investigation, more and more people began to disappear. Our protagonist, an unknown young man, wakes in 1966 in the now-abandoned university. Signs of life are present, but clearly no one has entered this old stately building for some time.
The game starts with the man waking in a darkly lit room; the only door out is locked. On the desk is a personal tape recording made by a detective, unsure if he is capable of taking on the investigation of the university. His doubts and worries are quickly legitimised when we find the keys and leave the first room, as we are greeted by a far more hysterical voice. This voice is not pre-recorded and comes across the tannoy to welcome us to the start of ‘the experiment’.
The game thus unfolds along the 1966 timeline, while we also piece together the progress of the investigation in 1947. The more we explore, the more voice recordings and letters we find, which outline how our character and the mysterious voice over the tannoy might be connected. The game’s levels are split between different areas of the university, some taking place in the creepy old building, and others in futuristic basement levels. Through exploration and puzzles, we get closer to escaping and to finding out what exactly we are escaping from.
In the first few levels, suspense is constructed with the usual building blocks; doors creak open and slam shut of their own volition, and lightning crashes outside at the most opportune moments. Each level has a restrictive map, so it is relatively quick to explore the whole area and work out how the next is reached. Our protagonist walks slowly - painfully slowly - through classrooms and cafeterias that look like they were left in a rush. Sometimes the goal is to search for keys to a locked door, and other times for a vent to crawl through. What ensues is a mix between the old Thief games (but without the stealth) and a Saw movie. The game never quite decides which one it wants to be more.
The Crow’s Eye’s strength lies in its blend of exploration and puzzles with smaller tasks, such as crafting. The game rewards time spent exploring with more information and more materials to craft with. Often puzzles cannot be completed without a full area reconnaissance, and to do this requires a fun mixture of skills, especially when the environments become harder to navigate in later levels. The protagonist can craft lock picks, bandages, and eventually an electromagnet that is needed for some trickier puzzles later in the game.
His actions are fairly limited, so it is easy to work out how each puzzle is overcome by what is given to you. Small boxes, for example, mean that there will be some climbing involved. There are also some more old-school puzzles that involve mathematical precision to get certain coloured boxes in their correct colour slots. These are a nice contrast to puzzles that require running and jumping to complete.
As the game progresses, the protagonist adds different abilities to his repertoire, eventually being able to sprint and jump greater distances with the aid of an adrenaline syringe. The introduction of these new abilities at a steady pace throughout the game keeps the levels feeling fresh. While the puzzles are harder to complete in the beginning, by the later stages most formats have already appeared more than once, so it is instead the story that takes centre stage.
Quite a few puzzles take several attempts to complete. For this reason, it’s worth exploring and picking up as many items to craft bandages with as you can. The later levels involve a lot of jumping to and from isolated platforms, which can be quite awkward to control in the walking simulator format. If the health bar is relatively full, when you make a mistake you are zapped back to the nearest platform, but if it runs out, our protagonist has to go back to the last save. This creates incentive to explore for crafting materials, and to always make sure you save at one of the old ‘Fortuna’ machines that are sparingly dotted around the levels.
While the puzzles are original and enjoyable, the game's core concept of ‘the experiment’ feels a bit too close to horror cliché. The story stays interesting because of the excellent writing showcased in the letters and tape recordings, and the very authentic-feeling voice acting that brings them to life. They do a brilliant job of sketching out the story of Crowswood from several different angles, hinting at all the horrific things that may have happened there. In the end it was these bits of audio that created a tense atmosphere, rather than anything in the environment itself.
The Crow’s Eye isn’t a very scary game, but the gameplay is fun and the story is just creepy enough to want to follow until the conclusion. You do have the thrill of wanting to escape the university, if only to get to somewhere with proper indoor lighting. Its cons are outweighed by the innovative puzzles and the creativity of the narration; just don’t click on it if you’re looking for big jump scares.