Game review: the app that took me to Death’s realm

With Hallowe’en fast upon us, Cybernews bravely delved into the world of text-based adventure gaming apps – and found a suitably morbid scenario to review. Unfortunately, it didn’t really send shivers down this writer’s spine.

Escape From Death, released earlier this month by choose-your-own-adventure platform Choice of Games on Google Play, pretty much says it all: in this solo scenario – part book, part game – I chose to play an art thief who gets catapulted into the Afterlife after a car accident en route home from a successful heist.

Instead of actually dying, I found myself immersed in a world ruled over by Death himself (aka Aaron, as he charmingly goes by), caught between living and dead, with no clue how to get back to the earthly plane. The souls dwelling here are divided into two categories – Penitents, who misbehaved in life – and Elects, who lived (self) righteous lives and are now rewarded with the good, er, death.

No solo RPG game would be complete without its own set of vital statistics, and Escape furnishes these – although I was left wondering whether the numbers really do have a bearing on the game’s outcome or if they were just there as a garnish. Nevertheless, abilities and traits are split across a percentile spectrum – for instance, Honorable/Ruthless, Passionate/Rational, Tough, Elusive, and Perception.

The game allows you to choose your character’s gender (including nonbinary), name, and background, all of which are choices you get to make during the narrative, which requires you to make decisions about your past and present.

I must say, it’s cleverly baked into the text: right at the start I chose to be an art thief, and sure enough, references to my profession are made later on – the game’s algorithms remember your earlier decisions. The same went for choices I made about my character’s upbringing, none of which seem to affect the story but add a nice splash of color.

That said, the storyline wasn’t as creepy as I’d hoped. Sure, Death’s realm is peopled by Red Beetle Guards (hybrid humanoids who act as the ‘police force’ of the Afterlife) and Mawlers (giant worms tasked with eating trash and converting it into spiritual energy), and my character discovered a neat ability to peer into the souls of the dead and learn more about them.

However, at no point during the freeplay chapters did I really feel genuinely unsettled. Granted, it’s much more difficult to be scared by a written horror story as opposed to a TV show or movie – but I didn’t even get creeped out at any point. The denizens of Death’s realm seemed all too cozy for that. The acrobat in the Phantasma Hall who turned out to be a porcelain doll that bleeds was probably the most grotesque encounter that I had.

Probably my favorite scene was the Coconut Cove, a sort of bar for dead spirits, complete with a ghostly jazz band and waiters wearing Scream-style “white masks, with painted eyebrows that twirl at the edges, and a small, puckered mouth with upturned corners, as if locked in a perpetual smirk.” The masks appeared to be permanently attached to the shades wearing them too, a nice touch.

But, overall, meh. The freeplay chapters only require you to sit through one mildly annoying in-app advert each to unlock them (after which it costs £5.99 to access the full game text on a UK mobile). So, if you want to spend your Hallowe’en immersing yourself in a first-person dreamscape where you get to make choices that affect the story, you might like this. But frankly, you’re probably better off going trick or treating, or rewatching The Haunting of Hill House.

Escape From Death, written by Tova Näslund, is available to sample for free on the Choice of Games app, which can be downloaded from the Google Play store.

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