Amsterdam, Jan 2020
If you’re going to build a horror game, doing so in an ancient crypt beneath a church is a pretty good start. Catacombs invites you to its location with an in-character email, where (after arriving on the dot, not before or after your designated time) you’re led down into the unsettling underground.
Few games have such an exquisite selection of fascinating antiquities. A genuine underground crypt is already atmospheric way beyond what most venues can hope to achieve, but they’ve taken that extraordinary location and dressed it up to the utmost, with a treasure trove of creepy junk that I could have happily spent an hour exploring, and with lighting and special effects so skilfully used I barely noticed the artifice.
Our grim and sternly creepy host took pains to emphasise that Catacombs was not an escape room but a horror experience. That was disingenuous – it is emphatically both. However, they clearly want players to approach it as a theatrical immersive story not simply as a series of puzzles to solve, and that’s the mindset in which you’ll get the most out of it.
At the same time, it’s a substantial puzzle game. The 90 mins game time includes plenty of time spent on story rather than puzzles, but there’s around as much to solve as in a typical non-scary 60 minute game. And that’s despite the way that everything takes longer to solve in a scary game, when you might suspect that you need to go investigate such-and-such a dark corner or suspicious door but an odd reluctance encourages you to spend a bit longer looking at the better-lit parts of the room first.
The outcome is not simple win/lose – there is a form of variable scoring, where teams can fall short of a perfect completion and still get a victory. (That was fortunate, since our team of two still had one task left when the time ran out.) In keeping with the strong emphasis on story, your progress and choices determine how the finale plays out, but either way the story comes to a spectacular conclusion.
Those who seek out horror games and prefer their scares as intense as possible may find Catacombs disappointing on that front. My impression is that it’s designed to be a frightening story but with the emphasis firmly on the story not the fright – they’re certainly setting out to scare you but not to dial it up to 11. I found the most nerve-inducing elements to be the earlier dread of the unknown; the further into the game we got the more comfortable I was with it, and for me the big finish was entertaining drama rather than high terror.
At the same time it’s going to be beyond the comfort zone of many players. We played as a two because the other half of our group decided it wasn’t for them, and even though it’s a superb game, I’m not certain they made the wrong decision. Equally, I’m confident that the vast majority of nervous players who successfully muster the courage to give it a go will emerge happy they did so.