Silent Hills never came out, but the one taste we got through PT was enough for the game industry. After that creepy demo hit, horror developers fell in love with trying to replicate what made that ill-fated project work so well. Cue a few years of exploring spooky houses with tragic pasts in first-person. Most of these attempts failed miserably, with the most notable misfire being last year’s Layers of Fear. But in the midst of this first-person haunted house arms race, one developer decided to think outside the box and pose an interesting question – what if the player character themselves were the main source of the terror? Cue Perception, an ambitious horror title from people who’ve worked on bonafied spook-fests like Bioshock and Dead Space.
Perception differs from the rest of the heap in its central conceit. Instead of playing a bland self-insert, players take the role of the sardonic and immensely likeable Cassie, who’s been blind her whole life. Cassie’s had a whole series of nightmares involving an old house, and against the behest of her boyfriend and her own better judgment, she decides to take a flight to the dilapidated building and check it out. Cue the ghosts, murderous dolls, and a lurking malevolent force known only as The Presence.
To visually represent Cassie’s disability, players cannot see anything in the house outside of vague colours and shapes. Other than that, the game is blanketed in complete darkness, and it’s up to players to use Cassie’s cane to better see her environments. Tapping the cane allows players to use echolocation to better figure out where to go, and other sounds in the house, like wind blowing in through a window, or spooky old radios, also help to give players an idea of where they are. However, tapping the cane too much can give away Cassie’s location, which attracts The Presence and is generally a good way to get yourself killed. What’s most impressive about this mechanic is that it’s something I found myself growing acclimated to through the game. Unlike other games of this variety, there was actually a mechanic present that I had to master, and finding myself slipping into a familiar rhythm with it felt really satisfying.
Exploring the house with these mechanics and gradually piecing together the narrative is, in general, a pretty gratifying affair. Each chapter deals with a previous tenant of the house, who players learn more about through collecting items and triggering certain events. This being a horror game and all, none of these tenants had a particularly pleasant go of things. About half of these tragic tales compelled me, with the other half relying a bit too much on trope-ish material to really hook me. But the ones that hooked me really hooked me, such as an ambitious woman attempting to get approved for frontline combat in the Second World War, and an eccentric inventor creating an army of terrifying doll children known as Poppets. Cassie pieces together the common thread between these different generations of inhabitants through learning their stories, and in turn, starts to uncover exactly what’s brought her to this old house.
Unfortunately, by the time things were wrapping up, the methods used to uncover more narrative bits had grown a little stale. Walking down some stairs, triggering a cut scene, then walking back up said stairs to trigger another cut scene started to wear my patience thin. Most of the gameplay can be boiled down to that, and from a mechanical standpoint, walking back and forth repeatedly is just not very compelling. The introduction of the Poppets livened things up, as they zip around the house on preset rails and attempt to shoot Cassie, but the basic mechanics boiled down to the same thing. What also bummed me out was how little I had to hide from The Presence. The house is littered with hiding places, but I only encountered this ethereal monstrosity through fixed set pieces and not by making too much noise, rendering those little hiding cubbies practically useless. Granted, said set pieces were sufficiently tense and frightening, with a frantic dash through a graveyard being a particular highlight. But by and large, Perception falls victim to the biggest trapping of this first-person haunted house sub-genre – walking from Point A to Point B repeatedly with barely anything else to do. This was the crux of what made Layers of Fear such a miserable experience, and it occasionally threatens to undo the fresh originality on display here.
That said, Perception is short enough that it’s hot take on haunted houses didn’t ever truly wear out its welcome. In a post-PT world, Perception is probably the best of bunch when it comes to wandering haunted houses, decoding obfuscated narratives, and triggering jump scares. Its protagonist is one of the better female leads out there, its unique art direction complements the core concept, and its sound design almost always manages to keep players on the edge of their seats.
While I would’ve liked some of the lesser plot threads to resonate with me more, and perhaps a few more mechanics to mess around, Perception is ultimately a pretty winning title. This is clearly a passion project by some of the best names in the genre, and that passion manifests itself in a game that manages to be likeably frightening in spite of its occasional missteps. If you’re looking for a fresh take on haunted houses and don’t mind some dives into repetition, Perception is worth picking up for a few hours of solid scares.