Referred to in past times as diabolus in musica—the devil in music—the tritone is a musical interval characterised by the sense of harmonic dissonance it causes. Particularly common in horror and thriller soundtracks, the peculiar combination of notes generates a sense of unease in the listener, putting them on edge and providing the feeling that something is not quite right. A sense of discord in narrative can be as effective in setting a mood as the tritone, but improper use can ruin a text, and The Piano—the debut effort of Mistaken Visions—suffers too much from a lack of cohesion in the storytelling. The sometimes indecipherable story couples with increasingly troublesome technical issues resulting in a game that seems to want to force the player away.
Perhaps the gravest fault of The Piano is that it is riddled with engaging ideas, beginning with the desaturated, noir-styled visual design. Bathed in hues of deep blue, the game’s fantastical approximation of Paris evokes a palpable sense of melancholy. The streets are mostly empty and grimy, and the buildings feel domineering in their immense monotony, weighing heavily upon the frame of protagonist John Barnerway. Later levels leave the promenades and byways behind in favour of more personal and contained locales, but the design principles that make John seem small and insignificant are unwavering; the environments suffocate both the character and player, and this trait sets the tone of the entire adventure.
Also helping to create a downbeat mood is the soundtrack. Dominated by piano chords, the score is sparse, yet entrancing, and the greatest disappointment is that the title does not foreground its music more in the moment-to-moment gameplay. Beyond the music, and as the title suggests, the piano is a recurring motif also playing an intriguing role in the narrative, appearing as a save point throughout the game (in an apparent allusion to Resident Evil’s classic typewriter save system). Unfortunately, other aspects of the audio presentation fail to inspire. The voice acting, though competent, is hampered by awkward dialogue timings, particularly in the earliest cutscene, while the world lacks ambient sounds that might otherwise bolster the sense of loneliness. Even without that reinforcement, The Piano effectively avoids any stray happiness—in emotion adhering closely to the narrative’s themes of confusion, depression, and self-incrimination.
Although the story is ripe with intrigue, the telling leaves much to be desired. John is the underachieving runt of the Barnerway family, while his brothers—all of whom have recently and mysteriously been killed at the outset of the game—form a famed piano trio. The player’s goal is to uncover the culprit behind the deaths. Mistaken Visions’s decision to avoid a straightforward Sherlockian murder mystery is commendable, but the developer goes too far in its attempts at novelty. An abusive childhood and ill-explained supernatural elements appear throughout the story, resulting in a confused jumble of ideas. Further obscuring clarity is the non-linear structure of the tale. The game jumps at random between locations and timeframes, and the lack of context in each segments means that piecing together an accurate timeline of John’s investigation is almost impossible. Handled well, as in the likes of Memento and Westworld, this storytelling device can draw the audience deep into the experience and impart shocking revelations, but its use in The Piano merely alienates the player. Far from offering the thought-provoking narrative the developer hopes for, the game is frustrating, and the potential to explore themes of fraternal jealousy, the quest for truth, or the media’s creation of folk devils is squandered.
The subpar story would not be so damning to the project’s quality were it accompanied by scintillating gameplay, but the mechanics and technical presentation often struggle to classify as even competent. At its core, The Piano is a third-person narrative adventure incorporating typical survival horror elements, such as puzzles and could-be terrifying enemies. Disappointingly, most of the puzzles are rudimentary and often lacking narrative—or even logical—justification for their existence; they are obstacles for the sake of being obstacles. The same faults holds true of the foes. Multiple monster types populate the world, but their movements are so slow and their AI so simple that they never pose a threat. The sole exception is the shadowy pseudo-bosses dotted throughout the environments, the appearance of which forces players into a clicking frenzy to maintain John’s sanity. These battles (if such a basic system deserves that title) could make for enjoyable deviations from exploration, but the void of strategy—combined with a tendency to force a fail state seemingly without cause—leaves them tiresome. The inclusion of these gameplay tropes feels unnecessary, but the most ineffectual addition is the investigation element.
Several levels require John to scour the environments in the search for clues, following which players must piece together ideas to draw conclusions. In theory, the mechanic is sound, but its execution does not make for satisfying investigation sequences. The first fault is that all of the clues must be acquired before progression is possible, which can extend the levels to obscene lengths if the player struggles to locate them. Furthermore, drawing the wrong conclusions is impossible. The experience is entirely on-rails, and this fact robs this aspect of The Piano of any sense of reward. Additionally, the way these segments tear the user away from the core gameplay with minimal warning contributes to the sense of disharmony in the production.
Alongside all the poorly implemented gameplay elements and patchwork mess of a story, the flaws that seal the game’s fate are the glaring technical issues. The noir aesthetic softens the blow of the extremely dated graphics, but the unresponsive default camera setting and aforementioned dialogue problems seem to signify a production where detail has been overlooked. The faults grow as the game wears on, with some levels suffering from intense frame stuttering, even on machines far superior to the specifications listed on the title’s Steam page. Further niggling, yet intensely problematic issues are the ability to fall outside the geometry of certain levels and the chance to get boxed into areas that should be inaccessible. Some production bugs are forgivable, especially when dealing with small, inexperienced developers, but those present in The Piano are untenable, transforming the project from mediocre to well below par.
That the game is such a disappointment is a true shame; its ideas are as intriguing and novel as any to be found across the vast plains of the indie sector. The Piano’s strengths prime the title to embed itself in the hearts and minds of gamers willing to give it a chance. Unfortunately, the weaknesses are too many and the sense of discord across the production too high. Put simply, The Piano falls flat.