Platforms: PC/Steam | Developer/Publisher: Hellbent Games | ESRB: Not Rated | Controls: Mouse/Keyboard, Controller
The first person survival horror genre is big right now, especially on the PC. Powered by widely-available 3D engines and requiring less game assets and additional mechanics, these titles have a low barrier for entry for developers. Yet as great as that is, Sturgeon’s Law applies: in a flooded market with a glut of products available, most are going to be mediocre. And unfortunately, Wick is just that: a very mediocre entry in this overpopulated genre.
The premise is basic enough. Some kids lead one of their friends out into the scary woods to play a game, surviving until morning with just some candles for light, hence the name, as in a candle’s wick, a technology we once used in the days before LED flashlights on smartphones. The area itself is famous for murders or disappearances or something of that sort, all within basic horror trope territory.
On top of this, there’s a narrative framing device of a police investigation after the fact, with set clues from each level and any items the player finds added to an evidence catalog that can be accessed from the main menu. So while the game takes the standard approach of looking for clues to reveal some mystery, the player-character is as much a subject of the investigation as investigator themselves.
Gameplay is also pretty simple. Stranded in the woods at midnight, the player has to survive until 6 am, with each hour serving as a level of sorts, although in real time you only have to survive for about five to ten minutes to pass the hour. Walking around with your lit candle, you look for glints of light in the distance that represent other candles, finding them and transferring the flame before each burns out. If a candle does burn out, you’re left with a measly six matches, which burn for a shorter period of time by themselves but can be used to relight a subsequent candle if you can find one. Of course without light, everything is scarier and harder to navigate, and the game’s enemies are more likely to attack.
Which brings us around to the main point: the stuff that kills you. This is a “runner” horror game in that you have no way to fight or defend yourself from the things going bump in the night. Each hour-level introduces new varieties of these, which behave in different ways but ultimately all chase you around and try to murder you. And murder you they will.
This is where the game starts to fall apart because there’s neither much effort at building tension nor anything interesting about escaping the monsters themselves. In more successful games of this type, it’s often a while before you even see the monster because just knowing that it’s out there is often enough to create fear. The slow build is key, making the player look nervously around every corner, building a false sense of security when they never see anything…and then hitting them with full on terror when they finally do and are sent running for their life.
In Wick, outside of a few fake-outs in the first level, the monsters are on you pretty fast and relentlessly as you get into the later hours. And with the terrain being mostly unremarkable woods, the strategy is usually just to turn and run a different direction, making the whole thing more like a game of tag in the dark than an actual horror title.
There are less subtle and more technical problems as well. The game is played on a single map, with only the item locations changing each hour. And it’s not very big. Nor are the locations all that interesting: there’s a camp sign but no camp, a cabin with little in it, a bridge that doesn’t get you anywhere you couldn’t get otherwise, a water tower you can’t climb, etc. Because of this, the clue hunt portion of the game can become a checklist of sweeping through the key locations rather than feeling like actual exploration. Worse, enemy spawns can occur very close to the player, leading to near-instant deaths, and they also seem to get buggy around some of the locations (notably the bus for me), potentially trapping the player but not actually killing them. At least you can always restart on your current hour.
All of this said, the bottom line when it comes to horror is pretty simple: is it scary? Wick can be when you start playing, but because the map is so small and the bag of tricks so limited, it doesn’t last long. The game forces some jump scares by quickly flashing images of one baddie at the edge of the screen or by playing sound effects, but these only work a couple times before you can distinguish them from an actual monster spawn. Those spawns can also be startling when they happen right in front of you, but this quickly starts to feel more cheap and frustrating than scary. The use of light does succeed in making the forest look pretty ominous despite its lack of graphical fidelity, but the small map limits the impact that would otherwise have. Fans of the genre might enjoy a quick playthrough for what it is, or they might be underwhelmed by the lack of deeper scares.
This review copy of Wick was played on PC via Steam and was provided by the developer.