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Rivals Aria's Story for the best rpg horror narrative of 2018.

  • Frogge
  • 12/24/2018 01:55 PM

EMPTY HEAD by Cutiesbae
Length: ~1.5 hours

Were you expecting the wall to open?

With the ever growing gallery of rpg maker horror games to play, a lot of cliches have started to appear over the years. And when you play so many of these games, some of these are guaranteed to become huge pet peeves of yours. For one, a lot of these games have ridiculously unrealistic dialogue, the absolute same story concepts, silly weird locations just for the sake of it and completely predictable stories. Empty Head is no exception. It falls victim to a lot of the pitfalls of the modern day rpg horror, but there's aspects of it I have been wanting to see explored in rpg horror since forever as well.

Empty Head starts off in court in a rather unusual intro. After our main character is thrown out of court for being drunk and all in all a mess, he walks back home to his family to have dinner (in broad daylight, I should mention, lmao). I absolutely love everything about this intro, for starters. It's arguably one of the best parts of the game. I seriously appreciate the unique basis for the story cutie gave us with tons of potential. It doesn't start off with you entering a haunted building for shits and giggles or waking up in a dream with amnesia, it actually puts you in a real situation. Even the dialogue by the old woman creates a great sense of mystery before you are even 10 minutes into the game.

The narrative is Empty Head's strongest aspect, granted with some of its issues, but more on those later. But as the narrative will take us the longest to discuss, I would first prefer to talk about a few other aspects of the game.

Empty Head, visually, is a mixed bag. The game never looks downright atrocious, but there's a lot here that just doesn't exactly click either. The mapping alternates between being relatively good to dropping down to beginner level quality across a few different areas. All in all, maps tend to have much more empty space than needed and could benefit from being cut down in size. The art itself is pretty good, but I wish if cutie was going for a full pixel art style, they kept it consistent. For the most part, they do, but there's a few parts in the game where the art is actually digitally drawn and not pixellated, such as the photo of Arold's family. There's also a few photorealistic pictures you encounter early on and once more near the end that look extremely out of place to say the least. One of these did make me giggle a bit because the pixel art tile of the portrait on the map is so clearly a picture of Mona Lisa but when you actually view it in full it has absolutely nothing to do with Leonardo da Vinci's piece. The tiles themselves can be rather inconsistent as most of the time they seem to be either from pixel art world or pixel myth germania, and yet you will occasionally get rtp style painterly tiles thrown in there which creates an odd clash. The light effects don't often feel top notch but they're not particularly bad to look at either, so I can give it a pass. I will say the game had a few rather nice looking tidbits here and there. I like the pose Chris makes when covering his eyes, it actually looks pretty damn great. Characters holding things such as knives or wine bottles looks surprisingly accurate too. Going back to the art, I actually love the pixel CGs across the game, they feel very well drawn.

While inconsistency is an issue, Empty Head is not a very ugly game by any means, especially considering it is cutie's first game. Keep this in mind for the future because I will bring it up again. As for the audio, while not much stood out to me from the soundtrack, I did find a lot of the music to be very fitting and often set the mood well. My absolute favorite part of the game is when you first enter the inn, and the audio helps enhance that entire scene greatly, but I will get to more of that when we're talking about the narrative. And speaking of which, I believe I beat around the bush long enough and can start talking about it now.

Legends say Chris actually went on to draw the early drafts of Yume Nikki creatures.

As I already mentioned while talking about the intro, Empty Head tries a lot of new things for an rpg horror game and I can really appreciate that. I will say that my favorite parts of the narrative are the parts that actually feel real rather than the random surrealism thrown in like every other rpg horror game of late (much to my annoyance). If I were to make a comparison, I would say Empty Head's narrative feels a lot like that of Silent Hill, but I think it lacks just a few things to be as good as the Silent Hill stories were.

The similarity here is that both stories are rather basic and predictible very early on into the game, but their main stand out point is the sense of mystery, excellent hints dropped out that make you go ''ooooh'' and being largely character base. Without a doubt, Empty Head perfectly captures the mystery and I've got absolutely no complaints there. I constantly found myself wondering what was next and where the story was going up until the very end. The ''ooh'' moments are also absolutely there.

Arold is a dick to people with unique jobs. Cinemasins ding! (Though there is a lot of excellence to this one line, and I will get to that in a second.)

The image you see right above is an excellent example of one of those ''ooh'' moments. I love the parallel here in that Arold puts pressure on his son to be a lawyer and that he does not consider Chris being an artist as an actual job. Amazing consistency in character there, and also a really smart way of dropping hints of the connection Chris has to Thomas.

Now, it would not be Silent Hill without the characters, and yes, the dynamic of having the characters relate to the protagonist in some way is actually something I absolutely love and want to see more of. However, I do think it could have been handled a bit better, which I will talk about when I get to spoilery talk. But first, let's take a look at them individually. We have Arold, our main character. He's definetly not a nice guy, and that's pretty much clear from the start of the game. But he is very well written. He has moments of being a good person shine through in between some parts of the game. He grows as a character, which I feel is essential for a great protagonist, and becomes a better person by the end. We have his wife and children, whose names I probably remember incorrectly (other than Thomas) so I will not bother bringing those up. They are pretty elusive for most of the game, but they do act as a motivation for Arold's actions as the plot really starts moving after he goes searching for them. Which, by the way, is another Silent Hill similarity if that wasn't already obvious, with how a flawed main character goes searching for someone else and confronts their demons on the way.

The most interesting characters here are White Fox, Chris and the maid whose name I forgot so we shall just refer to her as maid for the rest of this review. All three characters face their own demons alongside the main character as they journey through the game and all three of them have their own interesting sub plots. This is what's been my favorite part of the Silent Hill games, having each side character essentially be facing similar demons as the main character but each of them having different personalities and backstories.

Think of Silent Hill 2 (spoilers maybe?);

A major theme of the game is sex and murder, with how the main character is implied to have been unfaitful and is punished for his sexual sins, hence his companion is an extremely sexual woman who for the most part has to deal with a sort of sex addiction, alongside another character who has had horrible experiences with sex and is hence against it. I love how all of these characters are basically connected by the theme of sex. They do not know each other, but they all have something in common, and that's about as much I can say without giving any more spoilers.

This is largely the same in Empty Head. Every character is essentially dealing with the same thing - insecurities and abuse. Which I think is a good point for us to begin delving into spoilers.

Arold is a character who is abusive, but he is also insecure about how he is a horrible father and that his family hates him. White Fox is insecure about her body and actually has a phobia of light due to a past experience. Chris, on the other hand, is insecure about his art and also being stared at. The maid is a bit different, but she's still connected to Arold with the theme of abuse, as she was a victim of abuse while Arold was an inflicter of abuse, creating an interesting dynamic between the two.

But sadly, this is where the disappointments start for me. Part of what I mentioned loving about Silent Hill is that the characters all suffer from a common theme that they have to overcome, but are essentially unrealted to one another. In Empty Head, on the other hand, the characters are revealed to actually be Arold's family members portrayed as different people by his mind. Even if the game was going to take this route, I wish it never outright told you. I'm sure some players will appreciate having things explained to them, but I consider myself more in the demographic of people who would have preferred subtle story telling. It's already easy enough to see the connection each of the three characters has to the family members, and I don't think this ever had to be spelled out to you exclusively and would have been much better just implied. I felt really clever for being able to see those connections early on (and felt like rushing to youtube to make a video essay about the hidden brilliance of the narrative) and then the reveal just made me feel like I predicted something obvious rather than being able to read between the lines. I felt babied, in a way.

Again, I'm sure some people who do not like having to make interpretations and wants to understand the story when they play it will appreciate it, but I wasn't a fan.

I was also not very fond of the entire reveal that this all took place in Arold's mind. Another reason why Silent Hill is so great is that it's a surreal, ever shifting place, but it's not just a fantasy or illusion - it's a personal hell created for each of its visitors. Empty Head seems like it is doing this, but that ends up not being the case, and I felt disappointed to see another cliche ''it was all in your head'' twist to say the least. Imagine how much better it would have been if the game actually took place in a real basement that was shifting itself to torture Arold like Silent Hill, and that the other characters were real people who also just had the unfortunate luck of finding themselves in this hell, by one way or another. I do like how Empty Head does occasionally follow along with the idea of having it be each person's personal hell with how Chris tends to encounter a lot of eyes staring at him and White tends to encounter lots of mirrors. By the way, unrelated nitpick, but the cast totally should have just called her White instead of saying White Fox every single time. It would feel a lot smoother.

Delving deeper into my overly complicated analysis that makes me sound like an intellectual asshole, there was also a bit of a conflicted message near the end. This is a minor thing, but it feels weird that Arold is supposed to grow near the end yet refuses to embrace his past. The cast agrees not to tell him about his past as he already suffered enough, but this feels strange to me. I feel like a much better message here would have been to embrace your mistakes rather than forget about them. Arold definetly should have faced his past, and I think that would have made him grow even more as a character. I also wish you had him confronting his (actual) family by the end, telling Thomas that he's allowed to do whatever he wants and that he will stop putting pressure on her, apologizing to his daughter for the pain he unwillingly caused her, and thanking his wife in particular for being able to see the best in him and not giving up. I guess he sort of does this with Chris, White and the maid, but I wish we also got to see him actually do it in real life.

Speaking of the ending, though, one of my biggest pet peeves in rpg horror games is that no matter how lengthy the game is, they usually tend to have rather short endings. Imagine going through a 3 hour long game and the ending is only 20 seconds long. It's impossible to resolve everything in such a short time span, so I appreciate that Empty Head took its time and had a good ending length in comparison to the gameplay time.

Despite everything I've complained about, I still really applaud cutie for trying out such a bold unique story and actually pulling it off pretty well. They clearly have a lot of talent when it comes to writing and I wish to see them improve even further, learning from their mistakes, but for a first game this is easily one of the best possible narratives you could have.

Oh, and I almost forgot, the dialogue in this game is actually like, really, REALLY good. I already mentioned that I have a pet peeve for unrealistic anime dialogue, but every conversation in this game feels very real and well written. It deals with heavy subjects that are extremely relevant in our day and handles them with absolute care.

Aha, you can't Tom Marvolvo Riddle or Andrew Laeddis me this time! That's an anagram of Aro- wait, shit, it was so close.

As for why the inn scene is my favorite, I seriously love the weird gimmicky feel of that part. Not only is it a visually intriguing section, your introduction to the maid feels very strange and there's an eeriee sense that something is off the entire time. I love the mini-twist at the end of it that the first room was not the one you thought it was, and coming across the body is a very odd moment. The entire inn section is probably gonna stick with me for a while as my favorite scene from an rpg horror game in 2018.

Now besides its minor problems with the narrative, there's sadly a few other things Empty Head fails to do properly. For one, there's little to no creativity with the puzzles. Oh look, another ''guess which one is lying'' puzzle. Where have I seen THAT before? Furthermore, the game could definetly be more well polished. Not only did I find myself coming across multiple bugs, I also found that some transitions or cutscenes lacked the cinematic feel they were going for. A lot of slow walking during them distracted, and often at times, bored me. One nitpicky example (you could basically title this nitpick: the review) is in the intro (yes I know I loved everything about it but this one bit is a bit weird shut it) where you're walking around, and then get transported and you see yourself standing still for a few frames before you start moving downwards. I feel that an improvement you could make to this would be to have the screen slowly fade out while walking, then have it fade back in while the character is still moving so that it looks like the character never stopped walking, we just didn't get to see all of it. Slight improvements like this can really help enhance the cinematography of the cutscenes.


All in all, Empty Head is well worth playing for the narrative, even if it falls into a few pitfalls. I am so impressed that this was cutie's first game. I do hope that this might get a possible HD renovation or remake of sorts some day in the future because it absolutely has the potential to be the rpg maker Silent Hill without the combat. And yes, I made way too many fucking Silent Hill comparisons in this review, and yes I know most people do not like having their work compared to those of others but want to be looked at individually, but shush shush shush i do not care i am a bad boy™

Anyway I neglected my maths homework long enough to write this review so time to get back to that shit. Congrats on winning my misao nomination for best first game of the year and I give this 4 wine bottles out of 5!