Decay: The Mare on Steam
Platform: Windows, Mac, Linux (also available episodically on Android, XBox)
Though the late 90s were probably the heyday of point-and-click horror adventure games – these were the days of Phantasmagoria, The 7th Guest, and the Gabriel Knight series – the past few years has seen indie developers trying to bring back the genre. With all the technological improvements over the last 20 years, there’s no reason that horror adventure games can’t be just as terrifying as a survival horror title – possibly even more so because the pace is slower and allows for more intricate storytelling.
Sadly, Decay: The Mare does so much wrong in the first 10 minutes of play, that it’s hard to find a compelling reason to stick around to see if the story gets really good. You play as Sam, a drug addict who, in an attempt to get his life straightened out, checks himself into a spooky asylum. It wouldn’t be my first choice if I needed rehab, but hey, we don’t all make good choices. Obviously a very standard trope, and you know things are going to go bad very quickly.
My first major irritation comes in the first scene. If you choose to use the tutorial, you’re told to search around your room. However, other than the UI interactables, you only have three choices. One, click on the door and you’re told that it is locked. Two, click on the wardrobe, it opens, and the game tells you that there’s nothing inside. Finally, you can click on the plate on the desk, and you zoom into see the pills inside. You’re given the choice to take your medicine or not.
Trying to get into the mindset of a recovering addict, I elect not to take the random pills someone just left lying on the desk. I try to open the door again – still locked. I click the hint icon only to be told that I must search the room further, but there’s nothing left to click on. After several minutes of pretty tedious pixel-hunting, I conclude that in order to further the game, I have to take the pills. I tabbed out to look up a walkthrough to make sure I wasn’t missing anything obvious, but no, taking your meds is mandatory here, it seems.
Decay: The Mare gets a big old strike on this one – offering a choice that’s not a choice is a pet peeve of mine. If something must happen, make it happen. Make it a cut scene. When I first find the pills, make me take them automatically. I don’t care how it happens, but presenting something as a player decision when there is only actually one option is going to alienate any player who doesn’t want to do that thing for whatever reason.
Strike two comes from the decision to add tons of little things for atmosphere. Sounds like a great idea, right? It is, until you fail to make at least some of those objects that are just there to make things feel more authentic interactable. Let me look more closely at the picture, even if it does nothing. Let me zoom in on the printed pages, even if it turns out that they’re only ripped from the phonebook, or newspaper advertisements for bleach. If a developer is going to add character, they should go all the way. Not only do extra interactables make the player feel more connected to the setting, it actually potentially adds play time to the game.
The nail in the coffin, so to speak, at least for me, was the sheer quantity of load screens I experienced in such a short time. In a game with very little to do, having to continually be pulled out of the game due to load times is pretty much inexcusable. With a single exception, we’re talking about all static images – I just didn’t feel like what I was getting warranted load screens in the slightest.
I feel like Decay: The Mare might have had an interesting story to tell. Reviews estimate a play through time of anywhere from 90 minutes to about three hours, and a quick glance at the achievements seem to indicate that there are multiple endings. Maybe for some folks, that’s enough to justify a $10 purchase price.
However, since only a little more than half the folks playing this on Steam managed play long enough to leave their room, I’m guessing I’m far from the only one who didn’t find Decay: The Mare compelling enough from the outset to push through. Horror games really need to grab you right from the start, whether it be with amazing audio, a good story hook, or intriguing graphics. This game failed, at least for me, on all three counts.