Sense: A Cyberpunk Ghost Story
Platforms: PC, PS4, PSV, XBO, Switch
Reviewed on: PC
Reviewer: Trever Bierschbach
Review Play-Time: 9h
Developer: Top Hat Studios, Suzaku
Publisher: Top Hat Studios, EastAsiaSoft
Review Published: 2021-02-22
+ Unique delivery of a fairly basic story
+ Puzzles that are challenging, but not too difficult
+ Environmental factors keep the tension high throughout
- Clunky controls can make interaction a bit troublesome
- Controller issues when other gameplay
peripherals are present
- Some interaction prompts didn't seem timed well
or placed correctly.
Sense: A Cyberpunk Ghost Story is a 2D indie horror survival game which blends Chinese folklore and cyberpunk themes in a side-scrolling point and click puzzle adventure. You take on the role of Mei-Lin Mak, who finds herself lost in the Chong Sing apartments after going to the restroom while waiting for her date. Unable to get back, you must explore the building for a way out. You discover the building is haunted, and a mystery unfolds as you search for ways to put the spirits of the building to rest and make your way steadily toward the top floor which was the site of a horrific murder. Each spirit is different, and requires a different set of offerings or tasks to put them to rest. Some spirits' peace is reliant on putting another to rest first. As you work your way through the building you uncover the story of a happy time for some people, and despair for others. You find clues to peoples' past, romance among the tenants, and stories about people trying to protect them all from the evil going on within the building. You find that you are locked in time, somewhere between the past and your present, in a world you cannot escape until you overcome the greater spirit who is keep it all locked in some kind of limbo.
Simple and Wonky Gameplay
The gameplay and mechanics are a bit shaky on PC. The paper doll-like main character looks a little odd when running, and movement is a bit clunky at times. Much of your interaction with the spirits and challenges will be quick time events, which work most times but if you aren't standing in just the right spot the prompts won't show up. A few battles were lost because the prompt flashed up too fast for me to read. There were also some environmental prompts to collect items, or inspect things, that didn't pop up reliably. Gameplay controls have some issues if you use anything other than a standard controller, and I had to eventually unplug my X52 HOTAS to use my controller. That said, the mechanics didn't detract from the game too much. Sure, I lost a couple of fights, but for the most part the environment, sound design, and story more than made up for the drawbacks of the gameplay.
Another part of the gameplay that was on the verge of being obnoxious was the backtracking. There are many items in the game you can't pick up or interact with until you need them. You'll find something you need brass for, for example, and you'll recall a brass statue a floor or two below and you have to go back and get it. You couldn't have picked it up ahead of time. I hate repeating things, absolutely despise doing the same thing over and over in games, but this element didn't bother me too much. Others may not like it, and I can see it being a huge issue if you take long breaks away from the game. If you play it through, it's not too difficult to remember the things you saw and go back when you realize you need a pot to steam water in, or a coin you saw on a shelf.
Each spirit had something different to do, some puzzle or mystery to uncover, to find out what they needed to be put to rest. Some spirits are hostile so they had to be exorcised, and even fought. This made each challenge unique, and fun to uncover. It kept the challenges from becoming mundane, which happens a lot in games like this. It was just challenging enough to require some serious thought into what will solve a puzzle, whether it's clues in a journal, or numbers written at the bottom of a letter. I even had a couple of the puzzles that stumped me and I had to look them up, but the vast majority of them were not impossible. Even the ones that stumped me were obvious when I looked them up, so those were just my fault missing or misinterpreting a clue.
It's all in the environment
The environment in this game is top notch. The graphics are relatively simple for a modern game, due to the 2D nature of it, but the devs used everything to its best advantage. The use of dark and light, shadows, corners you can't quite see in, and rooms behind you that you couldn't clear all add a sense of anxiety and danger throughout. The spirits are often scary, sometimes just unnerving, and subtle enough to be perfectly effective. The game doesn't use a constant barrage of gore and horrific images to scare you, just a flash of a shadowy figure here, an otherworldly moan there, to make you wonder when the next apparition will reveal itself. It made the hairs stand off the back of my neck and sent chills up my spine with a constant undertone of fear.
The sound design is great as well. Hearing things walk around in the main apartment when you enter a bedroom, or a tin can fall behind you keeps that fear level just on the verge of being too much. Music that shouldn't be there, voices you can't quite identify, and the sounds the spirits make will touch your fight or flight nerve without fail. Every time I played the game, I felt like there was someone behind me. I felt tense, anxious, and jumpy. They nailed it with the environment in this game, right down to a disembodied little girl singing somewhere behind you for part of it.
Art design is fantastic. The game blends 2D painted backdrops with anime characters, and manga-like cut scenes which gives you a lot to look at while you play. Some of the sets had so much to look at you want to just stop and take it all in. The use of color and tone, as well as just enough disturbing imagery makes the art morbidly beautiful, from hallways tangled with hair to pulsating piles of entrails littering a beautifully decorated apartment.
A story wrapped in mythology
The game's story is more than I expected. The developers delve into Chinese spirituality and mythology to deliver a ghost story unlike anything I've experienced in gaming. The story of the Chong Sing apartments unfolds as you explore the rooms. Journals, letters, and audio recordings give you insight into the lives, and deaths, of the former residents. The story of what happened builds as you go, and adds to what is happening to Mei-Lin as a result. I actually felt engaged in the stories of the tenants, and I wanted to uncover more about them.
I enjoyed this game, despite not being much of a fan of this genre, and a lot of that had to do with the story. Each tenant is given their own motivation and struggle, and there's several that intertwine with each other to make the story even more complex. It's a basic premise, honestly. Woman gets trapped in an alternate timeline/dimension haunted house and has to discover a way out. It's in how the spirits are presented that makes it good. I ending was also a bit of a surprise, which doesn't happen much for me. I knew what I would find behind those last doors, in a sense, but when it dawned on me what really happened in the building it was a fantastic macabre reveal.
The end of the game, not the epilogue, but the conclusion to Mei-Lin's story still has me guessing. Not in a bad way, like the end left me unsatisfied, or wanting to know more. It just felt like there was a couple of different ways to interpret it and I'm not sure which is right. It's like a story you hear that might be an urban legend, or it might be true, but no one knows and you aren't sure it will ever be proven or disproven.