It’s a fact I’ve stated time and time again, but Funcom’s MMORPG The Secret World has some of the best world building of any game I’ve played. Each of the zones is filled with lore that details of the Lovecraft-inspired dangers that roam the lands, and the tragedies caused by them. It’s because of this I’ve always felt that there were more stories to tell and bigger secrets to uncover, and thankfully Funcom felt the same way.
The end result is The Park – a single player experience that tells one such story. Players assume the role of Lorraine, a single mother who loses her son Callum at the Atlantic Island Theme Park. Of course, TSW players who have been to The Savage Coast region will already know the theme park quite well, along with why it’s probably the worst idea ever to take (let along lose) your child there. While the opportunity to learn more of the park’s history and its mysterious owner is there, the main focus aims at delving into Lorraine’s troubled past, and how it affects the relationship with her son.
Funcom have made no secret of the influence from games like Gone Home and The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, and the comparisons come almost instantly as you begin walking around the troubled theme park. Controls are at a minimum with the ability to move and interact with any items, but I have to applaud the inclusion of a run mechanic. It makes sense in this context – you’re in freaky hellscape of a park trying to find your son, after all – but it means that moving between sections doesn’t feel like a chore.
The Park also uses call mechanic with the right mouse / alt fire button that not only helps guide the player to their next objective, but works brilliantly in the context of the game. Hearing Lorraine call out to Callum with increasing worry and panic is expertly done, as are the responses the player gets. It was these responses along with the swirling visual markers that ensured I knew where I was supposed to be going, although it wasn’t fool proof. There were a few moments where I had to wander around before I was able to get back on the right path, but I didn’t find it too frustrating or time-consuming, thankfully.
This is mainly because, in both cases, the audio design saved me. The game opens with the advice of wearing headphones and it’s right to do so considering it is, without a doubt, The Park’s strongest aspect. The audio cues has been engineered with incredible care, ensuring jump scares land with the intended impact. Even while walking around, the rustle of trees or the sound of a branch (seemingly) being broken under a mysterious foot help with the immersion. Then there’s Simon Poole’s soundtrack which successfully builds up the ambiance (and tension), although that shouldn’t be a surprise considering his previous work on The Secret World and, more recently, Dreamfall Chapters.
While the visuals may not come across as photo-realistic, it does match the art design used in The Secret World. From the character models (in all their 80’s fashion glory), to the camera angles and their use of aperture – it all feels a part of the universe Funcom have created. As a TSW player it was great to see a familiar location in such detail, but the use of the Unreal Engine 4 helped to add a layer of atmosphere that usually can’t be achieved in an MMO game engine (although let me make it clear – the Dreamworld engine used in TSW is capable of some fantastic things.) The way the fog looms in the distance, as well as how the moonlight penetrates the trees, builds up the ambiance perfectly. A personal highlight was when I put Lorraine onto the Ferris Wheel and got to look out over the Savage Coast. The vista that appears, allowing the player to look over the sinister landscape with lights shining in the distance, was yet another example of how the single-player route allows for a finely detailed and focused experience overall.
And that’s really what this is – a focused experience where the player is effectively guided down a corridor. Attempts to go and explore are thwarted by barriers, so those expecting a more open experience will be left disappointed, but the tale that is told is an intriguing yet harrowing one. The final section, which clearly takes inspiration from P.T, helps to build up the panic and trauma within Lorraine, ultimately reaching a conclusion that, like many other ‘walking simulators’, is interpretive. That’s all I can really say on that front in the review to avoid spoilers, but I imagine there will be plenty of discussion between fans.
The big question though is if the experience can stand alone from its source material, as not everyone has the time to delve into an MMO (although they really should with The Secret World, which is just as much an old-school adventure game as it is an online game.) The themes of loss, trauma, and mental health create an effective narrative along with the jump scares, with some of Lorraine’s monologues being incredibly powerful. Again, to go into more detail would border of spoiler territory, but I suspect some people out there may find the topics hit a bit close to home. It really is more of a psychological piece, so if you’re after continual jump scares you’ll be left disappointed. The important thing is that you don’t need a working knowledge of TSW to play The Park, but it certainly does help.
Then there’s the topic of whether The Park is worth the price of admission (pun intended.) The £9.99 RRP will be more than worth it for TSW players, as not only does it delve into one of the game’s iconic locations (as well as some of its most notorious characters) but it also includes some in-game items as thanks for supporting both games. As for everyone else? Unless you want to analyse the letters and items again to figure out more of the backstory, the truth is that The Park is a one-time experience that only lasts a few hours. It’s an intense and well-crafted few hours, without a doubt, but there really is no reason to return once you’ve left The Park. However, if you want something a little different to play this Halloween, you’ll be hard pressed to find anything better.
- Tense and chilling storyline.
- Fantastic audio design.
- Explores more of The Secret World’s excellent backstory.
- A few moments where the “call & response” mechanic doesn’t put you in the right direction.
- Those looking for an open experience will be disappointed, as it really is more of a detailed corridor.
- A lack of replayability.
The Short Version:
While it may be short and lack replayability, Funcom have delivered a well-crafted and finely tuned psychological experience with The Park. The exceptional audio design helps to build a chilling and tense ambiance that will delight fans of The Secret World, while even newcomers can enjoy the chilling tale of one mother’s search for her son. A true psychological thriller that you'll want to play with the headphones on and the lights off.
8 – GREAT: Great games typically provide competent production values with a degree of innovation, personality and soul that's sometimes absent in titles that score lower. Or even just exceptional raw value on top of competent execution. There'll usually be a little something to stop games like these from reaching the very top - innovative but slightly flawed, fun but not groundbreaking - however you can buy games that score 8/10 with confidence.
Platform: PC (tested)