World War 1 is not something that generally lends itself to video games, at least not those that thrust you right into the action. In fact, I can count on one hand the number of WW1 games out there that aren’t flight simulators, strategy games, or games like Battlefield 1, i.e. barely representative of the war. The weapons are slow, and the battles a struggle over feet rather than miles. However, it is fertile ground for a horror game: battlefields turned into twisted hellscapes by tanks and artillery, muddy trenches filled with gas, rats and bodies, skies blotted out by smoke. Imagine the fear of seeing a masked figure coming over the top of your trench as he charges at you with a spiked club, as you try to swing your rifle around to defend yourself against this faceless attacker. War is terrifying, and Conscript brings this horror front and center, eschewing the supernatural for the very real terrors of war.
Developed by the one-man Catchweight Studios, Conscript is a survival-horror game set in 1916 during the First World War. You play as Andre, a French soldier, as he searches for his brother during the Battle of Verdun. I appreciate the more personal approach Conscript takes, instead of just having you be a soldier fighting through the war, and the Battle of Verdun is a perfect backdrop.
Even though it’s played from a top-down perspective and utilizes pixel-art graphics, Conscript nails the oppressive atmosphere and hostile environment of World War I. The hollow cry of the wind, the plop of rain drops, the sound of footsteps not your own slowly growing louder as an unknown enemy closes in on you, the shallow, almost inhuman breathing of German soldiers clad with gas masks and clubs; seeing another French soldier in the middle of PTSD-induced panic attack, slumped against a fall while he rocks back and forth. It hits home just how unforgiving war is. I have to give particular praise to the sound design, because it’s fantastic. The aforementioned wind and rain, the echoes of far off artillery and tanks, and the splashing of puddles and stomping of boots just sound incredible; and the eerie, almost ethereal music has this ghostly, dreamlike quality, like you’re in a waking nightmare.
Combat is no less nail biting, for a few reasons. You can’t just pull out a machine gun and hose down that enemy coming towards you; this is World War I, so you’ve got a pistol, a shotgun, and a bolt action rifle, they’re all slow to fire and reload, and enemies can take a decent number of shots before they go down. Ammo isn’t exactly in abundance either, so you have to make your shots count. You also have a spiked club, but once you can hit them, they can hit you; so you can’t just run in and bludgeon everyone to death. To top it all off, you have a limited inventory, so you can’t load up on every gun, bullet, and first aid kit you see either.
What really makes this work is that your vision has a sort of invisible “range”. Close enemies are clear as daylight, but once they get far enough away, they fade into the shadows. Additionally, hallways and corridors that you don’t have line of sight into are masked in shadow, meaning there could be an enemy there and you can’t see them. The only thing that lets you know there’s danger nearby are the sound of footsteps, but you can’t exactly tell what direction they’re coming from. One small thing I appreciate is the aiming system: whenever you equip your weapon, the reticle is always shaking a little bit, as if to simulate the shuddering and shivering of Andre. It’s a small detail, but it helps connect you to the character.
As for the puzzles, you won’t be finding anything as baroque as the shadow puzzles in Resident Evil 7 or the puzzle pieces in Resident Evil 2. A door closed with barbed wire? Better get some wire cutters. A locked door? Better get a key. You’ll need to explore the level in order to make progress, and I’m betting that the full release will expand upon these greatly.
Now this is a beta, and the full release is scheduled for 2021, so it’s short, maybe 45 minutes to an hour at most, but it’s a great proof of concept. I’m honestly surprised that there haven’t been more horror games set in World War I, because it makes for a perfect setting: muddy, claustrophobic trenches, slow firing, slow reloading weapons, and a landscape that looks like the depths of hell, shrouded in dust and fog. Conscript takes all of this and creates a survival horror game that scared me without jumpscares or the supernatural.
Unfortunately, the most recent release of the demo is no longer available to download but you can check out the Trello page where the developer has labeled everything he’s working on adding to the game, as well as bug fixes and general development progress, as well as the Conscript website, and we recommend you do.
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