Russian developers Ice-Pick Lodge have a reputation of making some imaginative and phantasmagoric titles which offer a unique experience not found in many other games. Pathologic released in 2005 was a psychological horror game based in an unusual town where you would investigate a disease that has infected the populace. As you proceed further, the environment becomes more hostile as you come closer to the truth.
In 2009 Ice-Pick Lodge released The Void. A surreal adventure game where you play a spirit who has passed into the Void where you must use colours, which is the lifeforce of the Void, to fight your way through the dangerous environment in order to be reincarnated on the surface. In 2011 Cargo! The Quest for Gravity was released where you had to return gravity to earth by entertaining creatures known as buddies. Ice-Pick Lodge have certainly made a name for themselves by making imaginative and bizarre games which are actually a lot of fun to play. Now they hope to add to their usual library with their new 2D puzzle horror game “Knock-Knock”.
You play as a mad scientist whose suffering from insomnia and he's discovered that something is not quite right in his house. Creepy, supernatural guests have entered his house and now you must guide him as he attempts to fix each room while avoiding the ghosts to restore balance to his home and survive the night before the dawn breaks.
The gameplay is very simple. You move from room to room looking for special clocks which advance time while avoiding ghosts as they stalk your house trying to find and attack you. You also have to fix light bulbs in the rooms to keep ghosts out of the room and restore balance. Balance is restored when objects in the room such as furniture and ornaments appear in place of emptiness. As you progress and continue to survive, more clocks appear allowing you to decrease the time it takes for the dawn to come, advancing you to the next level where you need to take the same action as you have before if you wish to continue surviving the night.
The visuals are a mix of the whimsical and the sinister. It's presented with a varied and bright colour palette while designed in a dark and ominous manner. Ghosts do look rather menacing and even the house itself appears eerie and strange. The protagonist looks almost like the ghosts he's trying to avoid. With his pasty-white skin, his wide, red eyes and stern, annoyed facial expression, looking like he's more fed up with these guests rather than frightened of them. Knock-Knock shows that not every game needs a ground-breaking 3D engine to present itself with stylised and unique visuals.
Sound design is a strong point in this game. The lack of music adds to the lonely and tense atmosphere. The protagonists unintelligible mumbling sounds as disturbing as the whispering voices taunting you as you play. Sudden, shrill bursts of screams and moans are sharp enough to send chills down your spine and make you jump out of your seat.
All of this sounds like the recipe for a fantastic and frightening horror experience as you carefully patrol your tainted house warding off hostile ghosts. Your once safe sanctuary where you would normally feel safe has now been contaminated with evil, leaving you to face it all by yourself. There are some great ideas which could have worked so well to create a harrowing, atmospheric game. Unfortunately how these ideas are implemented are what lets it all down and as you play this game, you'll see for yourself where it all goes wrong.
Brightening up rooms and decreasing the time it takes for dawn to appear doesn't actually help in making the house safer since you have no apparent affect on where ghosts spawn and your only hope is to wait it out hoping that a ghost doesn't spawn right next to you. There aren't enough places to hide from the ghosts and there aren't enough alternate passages to pass through without encountering anything.
The biggest problem this game faces is repetition. There's nothing that really keeps the game fresh as you progress and you'll find yourself repeating the same mechanics that you've used again and again. The game is very simple to play, but therein lies the problem. True enough the layout of the rooms are randomly generated as you advance to another level, but other than that the game isn't varied enough to stay interesting as the game-play is a case of “lather, rinse, repeat.” It's a harrowing experience as you slowly tread through your once safe house, but after doing the same thing repeatedly as you advance levels with no changes and surprises to keep thing interesting, that experience gets stale. Encounters with ghosts become more annoying than terrifying since there are points where you can't actually tell what's attacking you and your character doesn't actually die when his sanity drops, instead the night starts again which keeps things moving and adds to the tedium of the gameplay.
The sections where you walk outside the house aren't very fun and are completely pointless. You're aimlessly running back and forth and from foreground to background, now and then finding the odd ghost outside. Unfortunately, they don't really add anything to the gameplay and if you don't keep track of where you're going outside you become lost. The end result is that you are left without aim to tread from foreground to background hoping that you may stumble upon your house again.
It's a real shame because there were some great ideas in Knock-Knock and it could have all worked had these ideas been implemented better. If the game mechanics had been flushed out and refined, this would have been a fantastic and fun horror experience. Yet what we're presented with is monotony, pointlessness, frustration and even boredom. It's hard to recommend Knock-Knock as there are other titles out there which nails down horror and gameplay so much better.
This review was based on a digital review copy of Knock-Knock for the PC provided by Ice-Pick Lodge.