There’s a new genre of game afoot, friends. It hasn’t been around too terribly long, but today we are going to talk about a shining example of this new means of multiplayer mayhem, and oh-ho-ho is it unlike anything else on the market right now.
First, the genre. We’re talking about asymmetrical multiplayer games.
Asymmetrical multiplayer games are somewhat self explanatory as a concept, but can vary greatly from title to title. The triple A title this year was Evolve, and the idea was that one player takes control of a horrifically powerful monster and the team of squishy space mercenaries tasked with hunting it are the other human players. Traditional gaming would have you choose identical classes from equal footing and facing off against the same number of foes in order to have an even chance at winning.
But no, not in an asymm game. The idea is to make the two teams or opposing players so offset that they feel as though there is a clear advantage towards one side of the fight. Some of these games find a tenuous balance that makes playing both sides fun, like Depth. In Depth you play a humble game of sharks versus divers, and take turns playing as either man eating horror beasts or fragile but well armed man-shaped snack packs. There are pros and cons on both sides of the fight, but most everyone sides with the shark team because their advantages are far more glaring and obvious.
Today I’d like to introduce you to a little diamond in the rough called Damned. At a glance, Damned is a four on one game of tag where four players play as humans trapped in a haunted setting, who must avoid springing traps, being caught and summarily murdered by a horrific monster (played by the fifth player). Currently there are three monsters to choose from, and they all have a vastly different play styles and hunting techniques to employ while in search of their prey. As humans, your job is to simply escape by finding keys, unlocking doors, and prying open barricades. This is complicated to say the least; obstacles aren’t limited to a skinless claw-monster roaming the halls of a clearly long abandoned asylum.
As a human, you are playing a horror game. Damned does its damnedest (har har!) to make you fear every little twitching shadow and hissing radiator, and it succeeds. Horror games, in an effort to scare you, often have to take things away from you to make you feel less powerful and highlight your mortality. Sometimes a game takes away your ability to move or react quickly to a threat ,or even limits your motions, making controlling your character more difficult. This isn’t the best way to cause fear in a player because it isn’t the monster causing your difficulty, it’s the game’s control scheme.
In Damned, you control your character through a first person view. Through their eyes you open doors, rifle through drawers, sprint, crouch, and carry a flashlight, just like in many first person games before it. There is no jump, so the terrain is somewhat limiting, but this is by design. Sprinting is limited by your stamina, of which there is no visible representation, so you have to manage that on your own. All of these are very simple ways the game can generate fear without taking anything from the player. One of the best ways Damned scares you is with a sense of urgency in the form of a real time door opening mechanic. If you want to open a door or some other similar device like a drawer or the front of a stove, you use your mouse to click on the portal in question and swing it open. It seems simple in theory, but does take a little bit of practice to master. Try it when Bloody Mary screams and begins her nightmarish dash towards you. Shut the door in her face and live a few precious minutes more. Fail to operate a door knob though, and you’re deadsville.
So you’ve found some keys and unlocked some doors. Golly, you’ve even mastered the ancient art of hiding behind the bar as the Phantom drifts through the silent quivering hell you’re currently filling your pants in. Don’t forget that he isn’t your only threat. Completely independent of the monster, certain haunting effects slowly creep over you, getting worse and worse the longer the game progresses. If you used your flashlight frequently, the narrow beam of light has kept you sane longer than your companions. However, if you turn out the light to hide, the hauntings progress to harsher and more frequent measures more quickly.
The curses are entirely random and do not rely on other players. What you see is entirely instanced; it is not seen by other players. When you see a field of forearms reach from the hardwood floors, grasping at your legs, slowing you down or even stopping you completely, only you will see that; your friends may not notice, and could keep running on without you. In less severe cases, the curse turns your lights off or makes them flicker, or plays spooky noises that make you tense up every muscle you own. At it’s worst, the curse will turn off one of your movement keys. True fear is sprinting backwards through a door because your forward key is temporarily disabled.
Then there are the faces. These notorious bastards are the father of all popcorn scares. Once the game has progressed far enough (and usually when you’ve done too well at surviving), the curse will flash one of these ugly mugs in your face for just a split second. Each face appears as one of the playable characters, except… different. They appear for less than a moment, but when they hit, they hit like a truck. They cause most player to suddenly choke on their own breath, and destroys their focus instantly.
If your friends aren’t entirely hateful, you’ll eventually get a chance to play as the monster. This is just a break from the terror in order to keep your heart from climbing into your throat as you rock back and forth, sobbing breathlessly. As the monster, you get to choose from three diverse and varied creatures of the night.
Mary is one of the crowd favorites and is a bit of a play on Bloody Mary. She could best be described at a glance as the little girl from The Ring. She walks slowly through the level, long, tangled hair covering most of her face as she takes short staggered steps while crying and whimpering constantly. Whenever she is near, objects in the environment may trigger, causing grandfather clocks to chime loudly or metal bed frames to creak noisily. This serves as a warning to both Mary and the poor bastard she may be hunting. As she nears you, she has an energy meter that fills. If she can see you, that energy fills rapidly, and should it ever top off, she can choose to activate a rage mode. Similar to the witch in Left 4 Dead, she screams and takes off running, and should she tag you with those jagged claws of hers, you are dead. That energy meter is also used to trigger a teleport which transports you to a random location in the map. This will happen randomly on it’s own as well, but there is a bit of strategy in gambling on appearing right next to your target. When this occurs, the end can happen quite quickly, enough so as to leave you a bit breathless before respawning.
The most technical class is the Phantom. He is strange because he is blind to the world of the living, and experiences the level through sound. You can ‘see’ the map as the Phantom, but in order to hunt your prey, you have to rely on the environment heavily. Should a trap trigger, you can see and identify it. Better still, if a player takes to sprinting around like mad, you can pick up on of their footsteps and see them in that fashion. If you happen to get close enough to a human, however, a loud tense music starts to play, scaring both the player and the monster and beginning your pursuit.
The Lurker is the other crowd favorite and possibly the poster child of the game. He is the brute of the group and is in a way somewhat complicated. He does, however, make for the most active hunt you could take part in. The Lurker is essentially a seven foot tall humanoid who makes up for what he lacks in skin by having claws for days. The Lurker exists in an alternate dimension of sorts. From here he cannot see the human players or doors and effectively has night vision. He also moves very quickly and can traverse the map in only a few seconds if one is aware of their surroundings.
If the Lurker can’t see you, how does he catch you? Herein lies the real fun of the Lurker. Remember all those environmental objects that randomly ‘go off’ when Mary is near? While in his spectral form, the Lurker can see and interact with the objects, and set them as if they were traps. When the haunted cutting board begins to chop up food that isn’t there, or when the old, long broken fluorescent lights begin to hum to life, he knows where you are. As a human, while sneaking through the halls of the old hotel, did you hear your heart thump with one hard lub-dub? That’s the Lurker in his other world passing right through you. He doesn’t feel or sense you, but his ghastly presence is felt from your side of the void.
Beware, as he may lead you into a trap. Do the objects in the hall all spring to life even as you cloister yourself into a relatively safe (if not decrepit) old hospital room? He may have planned that. As you shut the door, barring him from walking in, he could materialize behind you. The Lurker also has an unreadable energy that allows him to take corporeal form and walk the halls. He can only exist in our world for short bursts of time, thus he sets his traps and lures you around. When he takes form, a single swipe of his enormous claws will kill you, but he can not outrun you. He can only follow you as the determined beast he is.
The greatest obstacle Damned has is that it sadly has not been built terribly well. It uses an aged coding architecture called Python, and may cause players to experience anomalous issues while trying to start a game, organize their players, or even enter a game lobby. You learn to recognize when these problems happen and what to do to solve them, but they are somewhat persistent and terribly annoying. However, once you can get the actual gameplay started, it’s quite often smooth sailing from there. The game also does appear to be getting updates (albeit infrequently), whittling away at it’s glitches and problems.
Damned, by far, has been a masochistically fun experience with a group of friends. If you have people to play with, you will enjoy being scared so much more than if you are playing with a band of strangers from the internet. Being able to communicate is the best way to win, and to enjoy each other’s discomfort is the very definition of schadenfreude. When it is your turn to be the monster, you will revel in their cries and cackle madly as you corner your wailing prey. Without a doubt this game will stress you out a bit because Damned knows it belongs in the horror genre. Even as you play it and eventually desensitize to some of it’s features, you know that this monster has a thinking, calculating brain, and that malevolent intelligence is really what drives the fear.