Early in the 2010s, survival games exploded in popularity. Minecraft captured the imagination of gamers young and old, combining the appeal of Lego and keeping a character alive in a cute blocky package. The Arma 2 mod turned Early Access project Day Z added realistic zombies and stealthy gameplay to the survival mix. Hundreds of copycats followed, varying in quality and completeness as developers strove to strike while the iron was hot. Audiences quickly became oversaturated with mediocre options, and most players moved on to other things. Now nearing the end of the decade, Black Forest Games aims to bring the survival genre back into the zeitgeist with Fade to Silence, a tough-as-nails survival game set in an icy post-apocalypse. While a great deal of ambition is evident in the game’s exploration, combat, base building, permadeath, and story elements, a lack of cohesion between these ideas leaves Fade to Silence a disappointingly disjointed experience.
The game opens with menacing smoke monster hovering tauntingly over protagonist Ash’s corpse. “I’m not finished with you yet,” the monster breathes, black tendrils sinking into cold flesh. The man gasps, alive once more with an eldritch presence inhabiting his mind. The cycle has begun once again. Ash is caught in a loop of rebirth, trying with each life to clear the world of the red-tentacled blight that smothers it. Along the way, he will need to recruit followers, gather resources, rebuild his base, and, most importantly, keep warm.
Goals start out simple in Fade to Silence. Once the camp has been reclaimed from demonic creatures, Ash needs to find basic supplies. An Inner Vision ability highlights collectables with an outline, colour-coded for foraging, gathering spot, or monster nest. Chopping down a tree in a thicket or shooting a deer in the hunting area will claim that region for your camp, allowing followers to forage there once Ash has made some friends.
The greatest enemy in Fade to Silence is the cold. Health will slowly drain when not holding a torch, and freezing for long enough will reduce Ash’s maximum health. The fantastically cruel dynamic weather system will create blizzards at the most inopportune times, requiring Ash to immediately find shelter to avoid becoming a popsicle. Keeping warm can be slowly improved by crafting better clothing, and a fire can be lit in most of the ramshackle buildings dotted around the map. The weather systems are harsh but fair, keeping the pressure to survive high even when the player is otherwise well-equipped. Incoming blizzards are brutal, but clearly signposted, and the foolish player who leaves camp without a torch is asking for death.
Once Ash has obtained enough basic supplies to last for a while, finding followers to join him at his camp becomes imperative. Ash, for some reason, lacks the wherewithal to build structures himself, and followers are also a great help in gathering resources. Followers consume resources, and recruiting too many too fast can result in in-fighting at the camp. Such fights will reduce morale, with a depressed camp shirking most of their duties. A total of eight companions can be recruited, most of whom will need Ash to complete a quest for them before joining the cause. These quests vary greatly in difficulty—Gani’s object puzzle is pretty straightforward, but the bonfire Jin builds attracts many monsters for a tough battle.
Combat feels slow and clumsy in Fade to Silence. Ash can swing at enemies with a quick or strong attack and dodge with a roll or block. While the attacks are fairly standard fare, Ash has an extremely restrictive stamina meter, requiring him to back away after two or so hits. Thankfully, the enemies are often equally clumsy, giving Ash more of a fighting chance. If they do hit, however, they hit hard, and the wiser option is often to run from the eldritch horrors than to risk losing a life.
Ash’s deaths come quickly and from many sources; freezing, starvation, monster attacks, blizzards, meteor storms. Fade to Silence features a modified permadeath mode: when Ash expires, so does a Flame of Hope. Lose all three and the character returns right back to square one: map unexplored, base reduced to rubble, no followers. The only boost the next run is given is an option chosen at death at the Circle of Torment perk tree, such as starting out with a large amount of firewood, an extra Flame of Hope, or a structure like the dog-sled hut already being built.
This permadeath mode contradicts the enjoyable gameplay loop created by building up the base, recruiting followers, and little by little becoming stronger. Ash dies far too easily for so much to be lost with his death. Two difficulty options are built into the game, with the easier one excluding the permadeath, but changing difficulty wipes the current save game, increasing the challenge of trying out different game types to determine what the player prefers. The ‘Exploration’ difficulty also makes survival, combat, and collecting items much easier. Fade to Silence would be much better served if it had modular difficulty options. Let the player turn off permanent death but keep the harsh winter conditions on, or keep the harsh death mode on but make other aspects easier.
After watching the game’s spectacular release trailer, Fade to Silence‘s dated graphics come as a surprise. Much of the dynamic lighting and detail from the trailer is not present in the Playstation 4 version, and the human characters appear to have used too much botox before the apocalypse occurred. Slow down is common, particularly when in a large building or more than three enemies are on screen. The game does feature some nice details; the monster design is interesting, all smokey apparitions with burning cores; and the snowy landscape is appropriately foreboding, but by and large Fade to Silence looks like it could run on a PlayStation 3.
Sound design fares much better, with the crunching snow, Ash’s chattering teeth, and the snarl of a beast all evoking a cold and merciless atmosphere. The voice acting is rather cheesy, but in a pleasing way. The monster residing inside Ash’s head makes delightful snide remarks as Ash adventures, admonishing him for being generally terrible at surviving while inadvertently giving him gameplay advice. This creature would make an excellent cartoon villain.
Fade to Silence is often unintentionally funny. With the strange button binding on console of R1 to both crouch and jump, Ash will often bounce around when trying to hunt a deer. Ash’s daughter Allie skips non-stop, even when complaining about how tired and starving she is. Followers will continue a conversation with Ash’s corpse. Some of the most enjoyable moments of the game are these weird occurrences, and perhaps embracing this silly tone would make for a better product.
Fade to Silence contains many interesting elements, but they simply do not combine well. The mix of a meditative base builder with clunky combat and the stress of permanent death results in a gameplay experience that is certainly unique, but unfortunately not enjoyable.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4.