Review: Simulacra: Console Edition (Nintendo Switch)

Reviewed by Stephen Peddigrew, posted Dec 3, 2019 at 9:39 AM, last updated Dec 3, 2019 at 5:09 AM
Dec 3, 2019 at 9:39 AM
  • Release Date (NA): December 3, 2019
  • Release Date (EU): December 3, 2019
  • Publisher: Wales Interactive
  • Developer: Kaigan Games OÜ
  • Genres: Horror, Simulation
  • ESRB Rating: Mature
  • Also For: PlayStation 4, Xbox One
  • Single player
    Local Multiplayer
    Online Multiplayer
    Co-operative
You find a stranger’s smartphone on your doorstep, and quickly realize it belongs to a missing woman. With access to her full digital life, can you trace back her steps and find her?
Stephen Peddigrew

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Given the ubiquity of smartphones, it’s surprising the “found phone” genre isn’t more popular. It’s so suited to video games in particular as actually being able to dig through somebody’s personal information yourself, sometimes in intense detail, allows a level of immersion that can be hard to achieve otherwise. People are so familiar with the ins and outs of operating a smartphone that it offers a shortcut past some of the trickier parts of engaging an audience; there’s little need for a tutorial and it’s easier to get lost in the world when you’re essentially doing something you do constantly in your regular life. That familiarity also lends itself well to horror, using comfortable expectations of your phone and twisting them to unsettle the player. Simulacra runs with this, restricting the entire game to the phone of a missing woman as you try to retrace her steps, but it struggles enough with the fundamentals of setting up a good horror-mystery that it softens the effect of its strong premise.

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Simulacra is actually an expanded version of a previous game by the same developer, Sara is Missing. That game is about an hour long, whereas Simulacra runs for five hours, and some of its better aspects are hurt by being stretched out that long. For example, the excellent music and sound design. The game opens with a message asking you to play with headphones, and it certainly enhances the experience. Strange noises will surround you, such as gasps and an eerie knocking, and the first few times it happened it unnerved me. I felt connected to my character, imploring him to look away from the phone and check his surroundings. The fifth or six time it happened, however, I just wished that whatever was making those noises would get to the point. Similarly, the music, used sparingly and mostly deployed when something clearly supernatural is happening, is unsettling. But the sequences it’s used in also require a lot of puzzle solving, and whenever you solve a puzzle the disturbing music is interrupted by a pleasant jingle to congratulate you for completing the puzzle. Used once or twice, this could be an effective juxtaposition to build dread before a disturbing reveal. But the puzzle solving becomes so routine that the interruption of the music just creates tonal whiplash.

Outside of that issue, the puzzles themselves mostly work. The most common ones require you to fix corrupted photos and text messages by unscrambling them or placing the words in the correct order. These puzzles never expand or develop in any way, making them feel a little worn out by the end of the game, but in terms of breaking up the information dumps, they serve nicely. The more interesting ones are the open-ended puzzles where you need to figure something out about Anna’s life by digging through her phone. There’s not enough apps on the phone for you to ever feel overwhelmed when you’re left with no direction, and the puzzles play off of your knowledge of how these apps work in real life, letting you go in without any hints from the game and making you feel as if you’re actually leading the investigation (though if you take too long on something, one of your cohorts might text you a hint).

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Another barrier to immersion are the ridiculous characters. In an interview with Destructoid, designer Jeremy Ooi says that because most of the game is text, “we have to exaggerate the characters a little to give them some sense of character.” It’s a solid approach, but it’s taken a bit too far. The two main characters you interact with are so broad that it’s hard to take them seriously. The side characters fare better for the most part, but any antagonistic character goes so far over the top that it breaks any sense of realism. This problem with characterization extends to the acting as well. It’s mostly stiff and awkward, with one notable exception who intensely chews the scenery, possibly to match his character’s exaggerated texts, but it’s no more effective at getting you to believe these are real people you should care about.

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It’s worth noting that while I played the newer console version of Simulacra, it was originally released for mobile (and PC) back in 2017, and the mobile version may negate some of the smaller immersion issues. For example, since the whole game takes place on a phone screen, if you’re playing on a widescreen monitor the edges of the screen are filled with a blurry background of the player character’s living room. It may seem like a petty complaint, but that background acts as a constant reminder of your detachment from the action. It not only reflects that you, the player, are also just in your living room playing a video game, but it’s hard to shake the image of your player character relaxing in a chair, safe from the horrors the other characters are going through. Ideally, in a game with a featureless protagonist like this, there should be no distinction between the player and the player character, but that background gives the character a home life and puts an extra layer between the player and the game world whereas, say, a simple black bar would let you get more absorbed in the phone.

Similarly, you’ll sometimes be asked to type your answers out on a keyboard, rather than selecting a multiple choice option, and the in-game keyboard can be frustrating. The cursor doesn’t always move the way you expect it to so keeping it under control requires very deliberate presses of the d-pad, moving the cursor off the left side doesn’t bring it to the right, and certain important functions (like backspace or the space bar) aren’t mapped to buttons on the controller like they typically are. Again, it’s not that the keyboard is too tedious to get past, but it’s just laborious enough to break the tension. To maintain immersion in a game, the connection between thought and input needs to be as smooth as possible. Typing on an in-game keyboard is so distinctly unlike using a real smartphone, it just reminds you of what you’re doing, that what you’ve been trying to get invested in are just images on a screen and have no ability to affect you - and thus no ability to scare you.

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Simulacra’s gimmick is both its greatest asset and its undoing. Taking place entirely on a phone puts players in an immediately familiar and comfortable setting, drawing them in and making it easier to subvert their expectations. On the other hand, it makes it harder to connect to the characters, makes you feel separated from the horror, and the payoff is unsatisfying. After all, there's only so many creepy ways for a phone to malfunction, and most of them are run into the ground during the build up. The gimmick also has the unfortunate side effect of making any non-mobile version feel lesser. Playing on a console doesn’t ruin the experience, but it puts enough roadblocks in your way to break the feeling of snooping through somebody else’s lost phone, robbing itself of its biggest selling point.

Verdict
Pros
+ Capitalizes well on its premise
+ Good puzzles
Cons
- Overwritten script
- Stiff acting
- Small annoyances build up to break immersion
6 Presentation
The excellent music and sound design enhance the atmosphere dramatically, but it’s just as often broken by an overwritten script and stiff acting.
7 Gameplay
The phone’s layout is simple and clear, negating any real need for tutorials, which helps establish immersion. There are some interesting puzzles along the way, but a lack of variety can hold them back.
6 Lasting Appeal
The main game lasts about five hours, and has four endings that can all be seen by reloading one checkpoint near the end. Not a wealth of content, but it's all easy enough to access and distinct enough that they feel worth your time.
6.5
out of 10
Overall (not an average)
Simulacra has some interesting ideas, but gets in its own way enough that it wastes the advantage afforded to it by its strong premise.


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