In many horror stories, the stupidity of the main characters is the driving force of the narrative. Victims flee upstairs rather than outside, or split up from their friends for no reason, or forget to silence their phone when hiding from a threat. As a refreshing change of pace, the teenage protagonists of The Blackout Club are clever, using all the skills at their disposal to uncover the mysteries of their strangely shifting hometown. The second game by developer Question, which also created the quirky humour title The Magic Circle back in 2015, this stealthy horror-themed heist simulator is solid as a single-player game, but becomes an absolute delight when a few friends join in on the action.
Within the sleepy suburban neighbourhood of Redacre, something is amiss. Every night, the residents of the town go sleepwalking, waking up lost and confused in strange places. The sleepwalkers have built a large underground maze, full of dazed people creating unfathomable music and cult members converting the sleeping adults to their cause. Sick of their inexplicable blackouts, a group of teenagers form The Blackout Club, determined to find proof of the strange deeds occurring in the town. Located in the National Radio Quiet Zone, a real world location with no phone or internet services, the club members must find physical evidence to be smuggled out of the enemy’s labyrinthine lair. With a close friend disappearing without a trace, and the cult members becoming more bold with every passing night, the pressure is on to prove what is happening to the town before it is taken over completely.
A new player to The Blackout Club could initially be overwhelmed by the multitude of systems at play. A fairly standard stealth game at first glance, The Blackout Club differs by offering an extremely varied toolset for when things go wrong. The player character is unusually mobile, with a large jump and a noisy but effective sprint. Items found in randomly placed chests can aid the player in a variety of ways, from the foam grenades that soften falls and block cameras to lockpicks for silent door opening. Along with the in-level items, the player starts with either a taser, grappling hook or crossbow to use, and they possess a special power that can be improved as the player levels up. The mechanics are a lot to take in, and a rather steep jump in difficulty from the prologue. Once one has had some practice, however, the different systems coalesce into a really dynamic gameplay loop in which recovering from a botched mission is just as enjoyable as pulling it off perfectly.
Missions are randomly generated in The Blackout Club, with a wider variety of objectives available as the player levels up. These objectives involve tasks such as saving imprisoned club members, taking pictures of evidence, stealing a music box that draws enemies in, putting up posters within the maze, and retrieving a stolen phone. Most missions will have multiple steps, and all missions require all ‘awake’ players to reach an exit point to succeed.
The randomness of the missions is a mixed blessing—the game will effectively never run out of content, which is great, but the difficulty curve is all over the place. If the player does not like a mission, however, they can return to the club’s hideout to generate a new one that might suit them better. A large factor in the difficulty is also dependent on if one is playing single-player or with friends.
Supporting one to four players, the game is clearly built with cooperative play in mind. Should the player get caught by ‘The Shape’—a large invincible monster only visible to closed eyes—in single-player, the mission is instantly failed. In multiplayer, however, allies can revive players caught by the Shape, or simply complete the mission without the downed player for less experience. Exploring is easier too, since allies can scout ahead. The chests have duplicate items for each member of the party, resulting in a larger number of useful items overall. Some aspects of the game are limited to the multiplayer only, such as the player versus player Stalker mode, which involves someone dropping into another game and trying to ruin the mission. While The Blackout Club is possible, even enjoyable, to play in single-player, multiplayer is a much more balanced experience. Ideally, the excellent prologue level, which introduces the mechanics of the game along with some P.T.-like scares, could be expanded into a longer single-player campaign, incorporating some of the late-game enemies and maintaining a focus on story.
The world of The Blackout Club is an intriguing one, with hints of the creepy cult’s intentions dropped in sleepwalking mumbles and scribbled notes. The game features an ‘Enhanced Horror System’, which, if the player opts in, the game can record their vocalisations for reasons unknown. This system can also be used for rituals, where one can attempt to talk directly to the game’s mysterious enemies. While the enemy’s intentions are vague, when clambering through the maze one can see some kind of large instrument is being built, with its strings making for noisy but convenient platforms. The world itself is well-designed, with a great deal of verticality in exploring the different areas of the maze, and no load screens occur while moving through the game’s large play area. Sound design is similarly well suited to the task, a minimalistic approach with a focus on the sounds of enemy movement. The voice actors sound like actual teenagers, which is surprisingly rare, and the occasional discordant clang of the enemy’s instrument makes for an effective jump scare.
With such an intense atmosphere, the goofy look of the human characters is a little disappointing. The player’s character can be customised a little, but regardless of their outfit they will still remain cartoony and bug-eyed. An in-game shop allows the player to buy new outfits and dance moves for their avatar with candy received from missions, and a premium version of the shop will be available when the game launches. Hopefully, the shop sticks to cosmetic items only, as easily buying items rather than carefully scouting them out would hurt the balance of the game.
With eight months spent in early access, The Blackout Club has utilised its time wisely, boasting a smooth, polished experience. A few small issues are still present in the current build: the game launches into a black screen if Steam is set to offline mode, and some of the level geometry can be a bit awkward—the player can get stuck on trees, and grabbing an item off of an enemy is overly clumsy. The vast majority of playtime, however, was bug-free, and the game is certainly ready to go to full release.
The Blackout Club is a fascinating take on the stealth-horror genre. Balanced between genuine fear and co-op laughter, starring vulnerable yet capable protagonists, and featuring a creepy atmosphere and goofy characters, the game is full of contradictory ideas that somehow work together really well. Best played with friends, but also enjoyable solo, this unique take on a horror game has something for everybody.
Reviewed on PC. Also available on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.