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Witty Title Involving the Word 'Beyond'

The Beyond is a horror game made in RPG Maker VX. I’d say ‘survival horror,’ but there’s really not that much ‘surviving’ to worry about. The game’s mercifully easy, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Let me give you the rundown.

The Graphics:

For the game’s maps and setting, the VX RTP is used. The game is set in a mansion, and you’d think that the cheery style of the RTP would detract from the creepiness. Well, I can safely say it doesn’t. The dimmed lights and limited perspective given the player create a new atmosphere for the usually bright graphics. The character sets were all custom made for the game (not necessarily by Dark Gaia), and roughly in the style of RMXP. So, yay, no adorable chibi people to ruin the mood...except, they still kind of do. The graphics for the characters and monsters aren’t nearly grim enough to scare you. The monsters are not particularly monstrous, as most of them are just normal creatures (like dogs and bats) possessed by evil forces. Even the ones that should’ve or were meant to be twisted looked relatively normal. The only one that even remotely alarmed me was the teddy bear (pictured above). Its beady little eyes are just…ugh *shivers*. The game could definitely have done with some freakier enemies. The rest of the game’s graphics came from a variety of places. How many were ripped or custom made, I can’t say. But they blend together quite nicely and the whole game has a good consistent look to it.

The Audio:

The sound and music used come from a bunch of different places. Dark Gaia chose some good horror games to borrow from. The sounds can be found in Resident Evil, Silent Hill, and Fatal Frame. The music comes from a bunch of places. You might recognize some Resident Evil tracks, but they don’t just come from commercial sources. At least two of them are from Max Magee’s Backstage II (taken with permission, I hope!). Anyway, the music works together with the dark setting to make the game feel the way a horror game should: tense. The game keeps the tension running pretty well throughout, although it’s a bit broken up by the battle scenes. The song used for battle isn’t a bad track, but at times it felt too out of context. The action is slow-paced, but the music isn’t, and it could break your suspension of disbelief if you let it. I can’t say the sound effects worked as well as the music did. Some were better than others, but RAWR.wav just didn’t always cut it. I wouldn’t say they were badly chosen, but rather that they lost their impact after a while.

The Story:

The Beyond has a very simple story compared to some of the commercial horror games. It’s well-suited for the length of the game, but lacks some of the substance you might have expected. The story itself is explained through the various articles and books you find as you explore the mansion. It’s not complicated and it gets the job done, but it’s not too exceptional and might leave you wanting something more. The game has virtually no introduction beyond the character select screen (which briefs you with each person’s basic motive). The only time the game really employs any exposition is in the very end of it when you find out exactly what’s going on, stop it, and view whatever ending you happened upon. The extra endings aren’t anything to scream about (lol), but they do give you a better idea of why the characters you’re playing as are even in the mansion to begin with. For a short game like this one, the simplistic story is forgivable and doesn’t detract from the game much. I was only unhappy that the difference between a good ending and a bad one had more to do with end-game statistics than my actions over the course of the game. What does the number of times I healed myself have to do with the final result?

The Characters:

To be honest, the characters might as well be blank slates. There wasn’t much room in the game for a lot of characterization, but it doesn’t matter anyway because your choice of character doesn’t affect any of their dialogue or actions in the game itself. Everything plays out exactly the same way for both scenarios, with the only difference being whose good/bad ending you receive. Not nearly enough can be told from any of their endings to get a feel for who they are, so they’re little better than vessels to carry the game forward. All the other characters are either dead, re-killed by you, or totally unimportant. The characters, and the story itself, are not this game’s big selling point. I don’t think it had to be this way, though. I would’ve liked to see the story play out differently for each person, using a different approach depending on who you chose. Perhaps have it be that both of them are exploring the mansion at the same time and use their occasional meet-ups to develop their personalities. This would certainly complicate things, but it would add a new layer to the storyline and give the game more depth, if only artificially.

The Gameplay:

The gameplay in The Beyond is pretty typical of horror games. You spend most of your time exploring the mansion to find widgets, which help you solve puzzles and find more widgets. The game follows the trope of commercial horrors where items or interactive objects are highlighted by a little glowing light. While this certainly helps you locate the things you need much faster, it also totally defeats any sense of search and exploration. Every room you come into needs only to be scanned for these shiny points of interest and left when there are no more of them. There’s no benefit in looking at other objects, and that leaves something to be desired. The puzzles in the game are somewhat difficult, although a large number of them are pretty much math problems. The solutions to them are not entirely obvious, even when playing as the character with a knack for puzzle-solving. It’s a good thing Dark Gaia included a puzzle walkthrough in the Readme file, because I doubt I’d have gotten through them all without it. That’s not because the puzzles are too hard, though. The clues to solving them can be found if you put in enough thought (or passed high school algebra). But the problem here was that one of the puzzles actually has an incorrect answer, and it’s one of the math ones, too. Any math adept is going to be hopelessly stuck without the hints in the Readme. It’s not that big of a deal since the solution is included there, but it shouldn’t need to be for the player to move on. Now, about the game’s battles...I’m somewhat torn on this subject. The battle system has strengths for the kind of battle system it is, but it doesn’t suit the game very well. It has a big extended acronym name I can’t be arsed to remember, but it’s essentially an active battle system. When you collide with an enemy (or they with you), you become locked in combat and must decide what to do. Your three options are to attack, defend, or attack harder and deplete your strength stat a little. Whether or not you’re facing your opponent affects the damage you do and take. The approach is elegantly simple, and does a lot to relieve the tedium many ABS’s suffer from. However, being that this is a horror game, it also detracts from any fear you might have had of your already-unfrightening opposition. You don’t have to worry about the monsters ‘getting you’ because the only consequence of that is the battle message pops up and you pick ‘Brace Yourself’ to minimize the damage taken. Furthermore, all the battles are event based, and there’s no chance something will sneak up on you while generally exploring. So, that’s the nature of the problem: the system works (and quite well at that!), but it essentially nulls any fears you might’ve had about monsters catching you off guard. There’s a chance they could surprise you when you’ve used up a lot of your strength, but that’s about the only time they ever will.

The Design:

The mapping in The Beyond is a strong point for the game. The mansion feels coherent as one, and none of the rooms are too empty or look boring. There are no graphical errors to be found, although there was one instance where I couldn’t walk on a very flat-looking patch of rough grass in the mansion’s backyard. It didn’t matter anyway, as there weren’t any shiny objects to find around it. Exploring the mansion is no trouble at all. The important passages are kept relatively clutter-free, and you can even open up shortcuts as the game moves on. Save rooms are paced well and you’re rarely too far from one. The game is well laid-out and designed, but I do have one complaint in regard to breaking down doors. See, the game’s strength stat is used for two things: bashing monsters and smashing your way through various stubborn obstacles (such as old doors and jammed drawers). I felt that the need to break down doors to progress was somewhat tacked on and didn’t add much to the game. There’s no other way to open these doors, so you can’t NOT bash them down eventually. And if you’ve been breaking down a lot of them lately, a short hike to any save room will let you refill your lost strength for free. If you don’t have enough strength left for these doors, then the end result is backtracking to the save room anyway. It seems like either way, the player is merely punished for doing what they have to do. If they don’t go back to restore themselves, then they’ll use up their stock of strength-restoring items and be less prepared to fight off enemies. If there were another way to avoid having to break down doors, such as finding a key for them, then that might be a bit better. Giving the player the option of smashing the door open or seeking an alternate method of opening it would add a little more depth than the current “Brute Force or Bust” situation. One other design issue I feel I should mention is the nature and number of the “BOO!” moments. These are events where something spooky or unexpected happens on-screen to make you jump. There are quite a few of them, and I’ll admit they got me the first few times. But there were just a few too many of them, and they eventually started losing their impact. I think they would’ve maintained it better, though, if they didn’t all have one thing in common: the player is forced to stop moving every time something is about to happen. Whenever you’re walking along in the mansion and your character stops for seemingly no reason, you can count on something to jump out at you in the next half-second. Because of this, you can steel yourself for anything that’s about to happen, and the event fails to deliver as a result. There’s an easy way to fix this problem, too. All that needs to be done is not take control away from the player. If they can keep moving around even when something is about to jump out at them, they’ll feel the need to react/run/protect themselves more so than if they were simply at the game’s mercy.

It might not seem like it from the number of issues I raised here, but I don’t think The Beyond is a bad game. It has an effective atmosphere for the genre of game it is. The tension it creates is somewhat undermined by the normality of the monsters and the reassuringly safe battle system, but maintains itself well in-between battles regardless. The story is simple, but suits the game’s shortness just fine. All these things considered, I give this game a: