21 April 2020
It’s not often a game leaves me speechless, but come the end of Act 1 of The Shattering, I struggled for words. I even had to stop playing for a while. I’m not going to sugar-coat it, The Shattering is a game that tackles serious psychological issues and it doesn’t hold back, either. Its first-person perspective makes it all the more potent.
You’ll take on the role of John Evans, or rather his mind, as he struggles to come to terms with his past. With help from the disembodied voice of his doctor, John travels through his memories in order to discover the elusive breakthrough that will help him regain control and help him work out who he is.
This begins with an intelligently-designed tutorial, sitting in a white room with only a chair opposite, a tape recorder its only occupant. The edges of your vision are blurry, but the voice on the tape asks you to focus and eventually things begin to clear up. Cracks appear in the walls, with closer inspection causing objects to appear, remnants of a memory the doctor wants to analyse. Through interacting with these objects, usually without complication, a doorway is gradually revealed and you’re free to enter the first memory.
The almost completely monochrome visual style remains as you enter a hotel. There’s a noticeable tonal shift here, as the story begins to take shape and hints of horror start to creep in. There’s an almost PT-like vibe as you make your way to your hotel room; the corridors begin to repeat themselves and subtle, increasingly disturbing changes occur. This disconcerting tone continues once you reach the room, John’s psyche retreating into the bottle and with that, his anger and frustration increasing. He just wants to be left alone to write, but the memories of interruptions begin crashing through and threaten to tear him apart. While investigating the room, things began to fall into place in my mind as I worked out what was happening. It reminded me of the feelings I had playing Gone Home, only much, much darker. So dark, as I mentioned right at the top of this review, that I needed to take a break.
The second act goes one step further too, dealing with bullying and child abuse. The Shattering thankfully stops short of showing the acts, instead leaving it to your imagination, which could be worse, depending on the individual player. You’re taken through past events, doors leading off into different chapters of John’s apparently horrendous life, in a bid to discover the root of his problems.
Every event in The Shattering is told via its stark, greyscale visual style. You don’t see people, only mannequins or, in the case of the doctor, you simply hear his voice. This somehow gives scenes extra weight, as the game continues to use your imagination against you. Important objects are lit in a certain way, or pop out due to being red or blue or even gold, to help you focus on progressing the story. Sometimes they’re a little obtuse, or hidden by some design flaw, but usually you’ll find yourself being pointed in the right direction.
There isn’t an awful lot of actual game here, however. The Shattering is more of an interactive story book, as you wander through each of John’s memories, special items offering a vaguely animated scene or the voice of someone important. It’s very minimalist in that respect, from its visual style and the way it tells its story, to the gameplay itself, but it lets loose when it needs to. When a memory turns sour, walls crumble and fall, crashing down around you. Now and again, this causes the framerate to slow, which can be quite jarring compared to the 60fps throughout the rest of the game.
The Shattering won’t be for everyone, in much the same way most “walking simulators” only appeal to a specific audience, and it tackles some pretty dark subjects. While the word “fun” would never work here, I was impressed by how the game told its story without explicit detail. It’s a tough story and one that you won’t necessarily enjoy, at least in the literal sense of the word, but The Shattering is an experience that will stay with you.
Excellent, subtle use of psychological horror
Impressive art style
Some performance issues
The Shattering is a tough story to follow and has some uncomfortable moments, but it’s an impressive spectacle at times and has a few tricks up its sleeve.