What is it with horror games and asylums?
This is a question I’ve been asking myself a lot this week as I played through Lost Within, the first game from Amazon Game Studios to appear outside of their own ecosystem (though in addition to iOS, you’ll find it on Amazon Fire devices too). I suppose the notion of crazy experiments, evil doctors, and inescapable horror never really gets old.
Or maybe game developers just really enjoyed the 90’s remake of House on Haunted Hill.
Whatever the reason, asylums have been scaring the bejeezus out of us in video games for more than a decade now. Lost Within is Amazon’s bold attempt to bring that eerie atmosphere and desperate scramble for survival to mobile devices.
And for the most part, it works really well.
Players fill the patent leather shoes of a police officer sent to investigate a disturbance at the long-abandoned Weatherby Asylum. The place even has it’s own myth, “The Madhouse Madman.” It would almost be quaint if the truth behind Weatherby’s madness wasn’t so damned scary.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Writing a review of a game so tightly built around it’s narrative is sometimes tough, because we don’t want to spoil the very surprises that make a game like this worth playing. With that in mind, know this: anything I’ve written in regards to story doesn’t dabble in anything beyond the game’s prelude chapters.
So, minor spoilers ahead.
Years prior to your patrolman’s visit, the Asylum was home to some shady experiments by the seemingly sadistic Dr. Primrose. Those experiments, dubbed “The Inhabitants” by the game, are still roaming the halls at Weatherby. As the game progresses, you’ll be able to hide from them in lockers, distract them with radios, zap them with a stun gun and more — but ultimately, you just want to stay the hell out of their way. Those outstretched arms aren’t looking for a hug.
As tense as avoiding Inhabitants can be, Lost Within is really a game about piecing together its story. You’ll collect scraps of old memos from the asylum’s “better” days that fill you in on the madness and cruelty that occurred. You’ll trigger hypnotic “flashbacks” when entering certain rooms, as if you’re seeing directly into the past. You’ll continually hear from other characters off-camera, pushing the story that’s taking place in the present along.
It’s all very spooky and, along with the game’s audio design (put on headphones and crank this up for maximum eeriness), Lost Within absolutely nails the sort of “old asylums are the scariest place on earth” vibe that Amazon and developer Human Head were going for.
Visually, the game can’t help but blow you away. There have been a few games in recent months that prove mobile devices are ready to go toe-to-toe with consoles and PCs, and I’ve no problem with adding Lost Within to that list. The lighting alone is spectacular. Just watch an Inhabitant walk past a window as you’re quietly paused in a hallway, and you’ll see exactly what I mean.
Despite all of the praise I seem to be heaping on Lost Within, it isn’t without a few hangups. The experience feels much more linear than what I’d expected, so if you’re hoping for a game that has you endlessly wandering the halls of a spooky asylum wondering what to do next, Lost Within probably isn’t it. Even scraps of story, keys, and other items are all highlighted, ensuring that you’ll proceed through the game’s story with minimal frustration.
And while the game’s mechanics ran flawlessly for the most part, every now and then when trying to get through a doorway Lost Within would insist on putting me on the wrong side of the door, so I’d be butting against the wall instead of strolling through the passageway. This doesn’t sound like a huge deal, but when you’re running for safety with an Inhabitant in hot pursuit… it’s not great.
In a lot of ways, Lost Within felt like a very “by the numbers” horror game. This isn’t a criticism mind you — merely an observation that I got pretty much exactly what I was expecting from it. If you’re looking for a tense game that’s heavy on storytelling (and an absolute treat for you eyes), Lost Within is an easy recommendation — especially for gamers who like a good fright.