A brilliant and unnerving THUMP in the night
In the world of Papa Sangre II, there are no such things as video games, or mobile devices, or even games called Papa Sangre, because the sad truth of the matter is that you are dead. Yup, you bit the big one. Everything you’re seeing around you right now (including this review) is actually just the last waning memory of your long-lost life that you’ve still managed to hold onto. The good news is that there’s still a way for you to be brought back into existence, and it just so happens to involve playing through one of the most captivating, brilliant, and downright horrifying mobile games ever made by the living world you’ve left behind. Lucky you.
I’ll be talking primarily about sound in this review, because as a completely auditory horror adventure, Papa Sangre II comes devoid of any real visuals. But the biggest highlight of the experience is in listening to the eerie and gravelly narration of Sean Bean, the A-list actor who’s appeared in such modern classics as The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones. Bean serves as the perfect companion for your unsettling adventure, and he provides an immaculate balance between helping you proceed with pertinent instructions and information on how to play, and being just grim and cynical enough to keep you on your toes and never completely trusting of this dark and mysterious voice in your head. I think this probably goes without saying by now, but Bean’s vocal performance is simply astounding here.
To play the game is simple, although there are a few minor prerequisites that you’ll need to be aware of before entering the haunting Museum of Memories for the first time. For one thing, wearing headphones is an absolute must, as a large part of the gameplay involves determining which direction something is to your relevant location, and how the sounds ultimately travel around you from your left ear to your right. Second, the game is also based around your mobile device’s gyroscopic features, so you’ll need to be standing the entire time you play in order to give yourself the proper mobility for turning. When you turn around in a complete 360-degree circle, you’ll actually be able to hear the many environmental sounds morphing and moving places around you, just as they would in real life. And lastly, as Bean will instruct you early on in the game, you have to keep your eyes closed, and you can’t open them for any reason.
Admittedly, I did feel a bit silly at first standing there in the middle of my room with my eyes closed and spinning around like a madman with headphones on, but once I stopped fighting the setup and let the sounds of Papa Sangre II wash over and engulf me, it was like I was transported to a completely different world, and earthly things like iPads or headphones didn’t seem to exist to me anymore. Moving around the actual game world is as simple as alternating taps between two foot icons on the bottom of the screen, while two hand icons at the top will let you perform such actions as clapping or striking things in front of you. The basic goal of the game is to listen to gramophone music playing off in the distance, which signifies a dead soul’s forgotten memories, and to simply make your way towards it. Of course, coming back from the dead won’t nearly be as easy as it seems.
That’s right: there are going to be a lot of things that go BUMP in the night to always stand in your way of progress. The snarling, scratchy sounds of the enemy mindlice are absolutely unnerving in the pitch blackness of your own mind, and even though you can’t see them, it doesn’t take much to imagine what these ghastly things might look like. And that’s what’s so great about Papa Sangre II: the game doesn’t even need any visuals to make the game world so engrossing, as you’ll be able to perfectly envision everything around you within minutes of playing for yourself (don’t let these screenshots here fool you, I just didn’t have the technology to snap a screenshot from my own imagination to show you right now). From running streams, to swarming flies, to your own shaky footsteps creaking along the museum’s wooden floorboards, everything is brought to life completely through sound, and the sounds themselves are some of the most realistic and dynamic things I’ve ever heard in a video game of any kind.
In true horror game fashion, the game will regularly pit you in dire situations against these patrolling mindlice and other equally spooky creepy crawlies in your quest to bring yourself back to life. Sometimes a mindlice will be guarding the exit door, and you’ll need to clap your hands to draw it away before stealthily sneaking around it to make your escape. Other times a memory will contain different kinds of volatile elements and activate an unexpected game event that looms in your way: such as spewing fiery memory fragments on the floor of the immediate area, forcing you to run through them without stopping; or littering ice marbles in your path, which will immediately alert the mindlice to your current location as soon as you step on them. But hands down, the absolute scariest moments occur when a memory gramophone is protected by a display case, which requires you to smash the glass and run like hell as the monsters chase you through the dark.
But what’s even more amazing than the game’s impeccable sound design is the way that Papa Sangre II manages to throw so many different and challenging gameplay mechanics your way at every turn, especially for a game that doesn’t even have any visuals. For instance, in one level towards the middle of the game, you’ll be given a breather from the horrifying mindlice that are always sadistically lurking about the dark recesses of the museum, and instead be tasked with maneuvering around dangerous vats of bubbling acid that has the power to instantly destroy your precious preserved memories. Bean’s narration will instruct you to turn until the bubbling acid can only be heard in your left ear, and then to move forward until the sounds slowly fade so you know when it’s safe to turn back around in the gramophone’s direction. And just like that, you’ll have walked around the acid completely using your ears, and your ears alone.
Papa Sangre II is actually segmented into different levels within the museum, and it is surprisingly very accessible to replay your favorite sections of the game or to try and earn some of the optional achievements, such as “Clap your hands 10 times in front of the mindlice and live to tell the tale” (like hell I’m doing that one!). But all in all, this game is a true one of a kind, a real work of art, and something that you wholeheartedly need to experience for yourself. It’s hard to really express through words or through visuals what Papa Sangre II does with the manipulation of sound, but believe me when I say that it is unbelievably unique, and just all sorts of incredible. When you’ve got games like this to keep you busy, I guess being dead isn’t such a bad thing after all.