In horror games, there is a delicate balance between agency and threat which must be maintained in order for the experience to stay scary. If the player becomes too powerful, no amount of bumps in the night will get a jump out of them, because they’ll be confident they can blast anything away. If the player is unswervingly weak, then they are forced to flee from combat, which, if the game is without other elements (puzzles, exploration, point-and-click adventuring, etc.), becomes boring. Interestingly, Motte Island, the breakout title from One Aperture Games, is flavored with both, but succeeds at neither.
Motte Island starts out strong; you get dessert first. Introductions are the game’s strong suit, particularly in the case of its unorthodox protagonist. You play as Maxi, a convicted murderer who’s only just escaped from prison and is struggling to return to the titular island in order to rescue his younger sister, Sarah. Intrigued by what the anti-hero may bring to the horror scene, I set out.
The game's obvious strokes are reminiscent of Van Gogh.
My first task is to stealth my way past a few prison guards, in order to reach a boat that may take me to the island. Brandishing a large plank, I have the choice of killing or avoiding the guards, and eventually sided with the latter. “Multiple approaches to enemies?” I ask excitedly, then ignoring how easy sneaking by the guards had been “Count me in.” Within minutes I was well on my way to Motte Island, after a curiously smooth conversation with an unnamed captain who was all too willing to bring me, a random convict, to the island free of charge. Nevertheless, the scene was set; I had reached the crest of the rollercoaster, eager to see what ride awaited me.
It was then that I ran out of track and came crashing to the ground.
Every last inch of Motte Island reeks of amateur. As I made my way to the island inn, guided by a quest directive in the left-hand corner of the screen, I became acquainted with the island’s inhabitants, all of whom jumped between generic and incredulous dialogue—which is riddled with spelling mistakes—so easily that I’d grown to fear their bipolar tendencies more so than the convict I was playing. The game’s ostensibly well-developed narrative is in fact forced and shallow; it’s car crash writing that can manufacture tension only by shouting it from the rooftops with all the subtlety of a water buffalo.
Between the repetitive inquiries of “Are you sure you haven’t been here before?” and Maxi’s increasingly nervous replies, I barely had time to notice the environment design and its annoying tendency to confuse foreground with background. For every impassable pile of leaves, there’s a fallen tree that, for some unexplained reason, you can walk right over.
I wasn't making the tree thing up.
In combination with the flat art, the 2D viewpoint completely obscures any sense of depth, and simply walking through a village becomes an absolute chore as a result. The issue is only exacerbated by the fact that doors are functionally invisible, almost entirely hidden by the roofs above them and given little indication by features such as lanterns or even paths. Collectively, this makes exploring Motte Island feel less like making your way through a strangely unnerving village and more like ‘pin the tail on the donkey’—or more accurately, ‘walk into things until it works.’
The game’s perspective is not without its charms, though. Seagulls fly overhead, eclipsing all below them as though you’re truly looking down on the scene; a rusted construction crane slides by in the foreground as you make your way through the docks. One Aperture has tucked some lovely scenery in the foremost layer of the game which genuinely adds depth to the world.
Alas, even after reaching the point of the game involving combat, problems run rampant. Your inventory is tucked away within the options menu—awkwardly alongside volume sliders and the like—instead of being accessible independently which makes the point-and-click adventure aspects of the game all the more clunky. Character animations of such poor quality that reacting to enemy attacks becomes a matter of walking in circles as their limbs and weapons flap about as though the game were running at 10 frames per second. Not that you’ll need to worry over the combat given how trivializing stealth is.
Enemy eyesight is limited to the six feet directly in front of them, making critical hits (attacks landed on unwitting enemies from behind) the go-to answer—if, for whatever reason, you don’t feel like ignoring everything in sight, again staying out of that all-powerful six-foot radius. On the rare occasion you are required to fight, you have circling about incoherently whilst spamming the right mouse button to look forward to. Even on Normal difficulty (the second of four levels), enemies deal absurd amounts of damage. This harkens back to the aforementioned concept of keeping the player weak, but given the frequency of required encounters, it’s just counterintuitive.
But for all its faults—its many, many faults—Motte Island does one thing remarkably well. It’s scary. Through an unlikely cocktail of grainy visuals, overtly gross and disfigured enemies and impressive dynamic lighting, the game conveys horror surprisingly well through its 2D venue. You know how ridiculous the enemies appear, but it truly doesn’t matter. You know how abrupt and naked the charitably named plot twists are, but you don’t care. You’re now well aware that most of the game’s horror elements have been shoved in like a fork into a keyhole, but it means nothing. You’re in danger, and you are lost.
You raise your flashlight and reveal a once unseen demon, now inches away. It sees you, taunted by your light, and splits the silence with an inhuman screech. You panic, you dim your flashlight, and you brace yourself for the wounds you’ll soon receive. Your attacks have little impact, but each blow on you rips precious chunks from your painfully small health pool. You struggle, but manage to fend off the abhorrent creature, and are left crippled. Your heart beats, thundering in your ear and echoing your desperate state. You have no way to recover save for cowering in the corner as you regenerate health. But what good will that do? You know that there are more like it lurking nearby.
This is Motte Island at its best, and it is a thrill. Moreover, it’s tragic to see what could have made a brilliant horror game dragged down by technical oversights. Motte Island is a horror game that never was—a brilliant idea without execution to match. It is not exceptional, and it is not terrible, but equal parts both. The potential is there, and even under piles upon piles of flaws, it can be seen. But sadly, not for long enough.