Videogame horror is at its best when it restricts the player. Resident Evil‘s biggest scares came in the age of tank controls and awkward camera angles, while Amnesia: The Dark Descent thrived on preventing players from fighting back against enemies they couldn’t even look at for a long period of time without turning the protagonist insane. What an intriguing situation Gear VR finds itself in for virtual reality horror, then.
There are some excellent entries into the genre already available on Samsung and Oculus VR’s head-mounted display (HMD) – the most notable example being White Door Games’ Dreadhalls – but these require a Bluetooth gamepad in order to give players a more traditional experience. What might a horror title look like when developers design a title for the many that don’t have that gamepad, though?
The answer, in this case, is Dim Light, a port of a mobile horror project from SANBAE. This isn’t a first-person experience in which monsters will spring out from around corners and players bury themselves in the safety of lockers. Instead, it’s a curious little project that adopts an isometric view from which you’ll guide a lone protagonist through the shadows of a zombie apocalypse. Rather than attempting to replicate the tense pressure of Resident Evil 4 or chaotic action of Left 4 Dead, however, Dim Light tries things a little differently.
Essentially, this is a stealth videogame. Players walk through a series of pitch black corridors in a hospital, trying to stay out of the reach of the undead that lurk in the dark as you search for an exit. Helping you on your way is a flashlight that will follow your gaze, while tapping and holding the touchpad will get the protagonist to slowly walk towards that same destination. Get too close to a zombie and they’ll pick up on your presence, slowly shuffling towards you.
It’s the sense of unknown and pace at which the player character moves that give Dim Light its engaging tension. You walk at a cautious, measured speed that means you won’t always be able to outrun zombies, but you won’t be accidentally bumping into them either. Crawling towards a corner gives you plenty of time to consider what might be around the other side for both better and worse, making every move something that requires a little bit of courage. That said, there’s still a small margin of imprecision to the controls which can cost you in the more heated moments in which you’re on the run.
An alarming red filter with begin to flash when you get close to a zombie, which serves to ratchet up your sense of panic nicely. While there are no scripted jump scares to speak of – something that’s hugely appreciated – the shriek your character gives off when caught will do the trick. Dim Light isn’t utterly terrifying but it picks its moments in which it will scare you more than you might think possible for a mobile title that doesn’t use a traditional controller.
There are 27 levels that pack close encounters, desperate escapes and lucky breaks. As you progress they’ll become increasingly more labyrinthine, eventually asking you to find keys to doors and take your chances against a pack of enemies. Perhaps unavoidably there’s some trial and error involved with some levels where you’ll walk through open environments, only to discover dead ends that leave you pinned. These can be frustrating, especially when it means starting the area from scratch, though each is mercifully brief.
It’s unusual to reach this point in a VRFocus review without talking about what VR brings to the equation, and that’s simply because Dim Light is one of those experiences that benefits from the mechanics of the technology more than anything else. This is undoubtedly the most immersive way to experience the title as it engulfs you in its empty darkness, but the minimalist visuals don’t instil that much-sought sense of presence that so many titles aim to provide. That’s not necessarily the goal here, though, and Dim Light doesn’t lose anything in its transition to a VR platform, it just doesn’t necessarily gain a huge amount either.
Any VR horror fan should pay attention to Dim Light, then. While you may long for the immersive terrors that await on the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and PlayStation VR, this is a wholly unique approach to the genre that’s surprisingly successful.