I desperately wish that I could say I like this game more than I do. As much as it pains me to open this review like that, it’s the crux of all of my issues with Seul. It’s an ambitious and valiant effort by the duo over at Paranormal Games, but for all their moxie this game continuously falls just short of greatness.
On the surface, Seul is a creepy, atmospheric visual novel in the vein of choose-your-own-adventure books that were prevalent in the 90s. Core game play consists of little more than deciding between various dialogue and scenario branches; it’s definitely intended for players who are more invested in narrative than action.
Title: Seul. (Alone.) The Entree
Developer: Paranormal Games
Platform: PC (Windows)
Game Version: Beta
Review Copy: Provided by Developer
Interface: Keyboard and Mouse
Available on: Windows, iOS, Android
Looking deeper at Seul.(Alone) it is a philosophical thriller, meaning it is a thriller based on thrilling philosophical ideas and contains horror elements. From nihilism, existentialism, surrealism, solipsism and absurdism. A narrative told with these ideas kept in mind. I wanted to play on these thoughts but also present some Lynchian kind of world where nothing makes much sense at first glance but as one adapts to it, when it manages to invade itself into you. You begin to see that mostly everything is staged within the game for a reason, a motivation sits behind every image and sentence.
There is a lot going on in Seul. Players interested in human philosophy, thought experiments and puzzles, as well as horror tropes will find plenty to mull over during the course of their play through. However, I found it to be a case of being overwhelmed by too many nebulous concepts crammed into a 20 minute session (depending on how fast you read). I couldn’t help but feel that the men at Paranormal Games were trying to emulate games like The Talos Principle and The Stanley Parable as well as other works like the Matrix films. Each of these works has a few kernels of really interesting concepts and ideas that aren’t explored nearly enough to my liking. Where these works ask great questions that challenge societal power structures, religious institutions and dogmas, and the idea of human free-will versus predetermined fates…Seul merely wonders, “What if you had no self-preservation instincts? And what if nothing you know is real?” These questions framed in a horror game are tired, moot points.
Horror games force players into situations that make them totally ignore the need to run and hide in order to survive, and constantly assault a player’s concepts of reality and fiction. It’s kind of what makes the horror genre so, well, horrifying. Seul, however, merely presents players with two paths, hints that both are terrible options and then kind of makes fun of you for dying. And you will die often.
Seul is a game that relies heavily on player trial and error to choose a correct path to reach the end of the story. It’s a tedious slog back through huge blocks of text as players try to reach the last branching path and choose differently. The design begs to have some sort of checkpoint system in place to help alleviate things; like dogearing the page of your last choice in a CYOA book in case you messed up and wanted to try the other option.
Aside from the vague philosophy that “nothing matters, man”, my other complaint about this game is that it’s a mess, visually. Players are given the option of playing with a light or dark background. Whether this is meant to convey atmosphere or let players choose a style that is more comfortable for them is unclear. I played with both, and didn’t really feel like there was much of a difference, comfort wise.
Seul further fetters itself with branch choices that spawn text blocks so colossal, I found myself scrolling back up for quite some time before I found the start of the section. On top of this, Seul has an aesthetic akin to a silent film. Text and pictures jitter about the screen like moths around a light, making it almost unbearable to try and read. The sound design is a mess as well. There are strains of old tunes and atmospheric sounds that have nothing to do with what you’re reading, and the text gives no indication on what triggers the soundtrack.
On the other hand, though, I really did enjoy the fact that Paranormal Games used tin-type, Victorian style photographs as their art in this game. It’s a clever way to instill a sense of otherworldliness and unease on the cheap. Most pictures are a benign sort of creepy: double amputees, prototypical prosthetic limbs, and old toys. But some, especially in late-game paths are utterly disturbing. Normally, I’m ok with body horror, but when I came across some photos of experimental surgical techniques and flayed limbs, it caught me so off guard I had to walk away for a moment. After this, I had contacted Paranormal Games via Twitter about it, and they added a content warning to the game’s itch.io page detailing the medical/surgical horror so folks can be adequately prepared.
Something else I couldn’t shake during my play through of Seul is that it felt very much like an unfinished piece of a larger work. Then I found out that it is, indeed, just that. Upon finishing the game, players are directed to a new section of the start menu to read more about the studio and their plans for the game. In this section Paranormal Games details their plan to expand Seul into a three-part visual novel that will coincide with the story of another game they have in development. It’s ambitious, and admirable, to want to do something grand with this story and its ideas. But I really wish they had spent more time refining and polishing this version before jumping to the next project.
In the end, Seul is very much a niche game with a specific audience in mind. For what it is, it’s difficult to feel too upset about the game as a whole. I’m just very disappointed that the studio’s focus on a grander scheme sacrificed what could have been a really solid and interesting visual novel.