People flock to theaters to be startled by grisly slasher flicks or fire up a survival horror game on a home console and turn the lights down low for maximum impact. But generating that same level of terror on a comparatively tiny touch screen device has yet to be as effective an experience.
No doubt, the smaller display size limits the effect, and a touch interface may not offer the same kind of opportunity for immediate reaction that a controller button resting beneath a thumb might. Games like Year Walk, The Room, and The Walking Dead have all done an expert job of creating ominous atmosphere on the iPhone and iPad, but the options for true scares are few and largely obscure.
Perhaps Hellraid: The Escape will help turn that tide. Launching on the App Store this week, it comes from a publisher that knows a thing or two about bigger-budget thrills--Techland, the makers of Dead Island and the upcoming Dying Light for PC and consoles--and serves as an iPad and iPhone prequel of sorts to next year's Hellraid, a cooperative multiplayer action game for Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC.
In this incarnation, however, Hellraid: The Escape is all about single-player puzzle solving and survival. It starts off in a grisly fashion, with your human lead restrained in a candle-laden cell as a menacing, armored foe approaches with a massive sword. The encounter doesn't end well for you, sadly.
But newly deceased, you somehow emerge from a tomb--cleverly, by swiping away the weighty cover--and set about finding your way out of this mystical dungeon. Initially, this means little more than roaming each environment and spotting the obvious glowing indicators atop clues (rocks to throw at switches, an item to place upon a door-opening statue, and so on) before proceeding to the next area. It's a very linear start to the game--peppered with predictable solutions--and if the two early missions I played are indicative of a large chunk of the experience, then The Escape may devolve into tedium quickly.
Luckily, there's reason to be optimistic. The preview version then flashed forward to a later mission after I breezed through those simpler stages, and it showed a richer, more alluring side of the game. Actually, scratch that: It showed very little, as the environment was almost pitch black aside from the occasional flickering lantern. Far-off screams of agony piped into my earbuds as I slumped into my pillow and slowly guided my character into the unknown, watching each labored step as spiked traps and swinging axes appeared.
The use of a magic spell that lets you separate your soul from the body and float freely through the environment adds to the experience. You'll first use this spell to spot hidden numbers in the world and crack a code, but later in the stage, it allows you to inhabit the body of a garish beast to help you push deeper towards the exit.
Amidst the building atmosphere, I found myself tensing up, unnerved by the darkness. And then it happened--through the unknown, I suddenly stumbled upon a terrifying, chain-covered foe, who quickly slayed me. (I actually gasped audibly, to which my wife laughed--deservedly so, I suppose.) It was a real surprise, and if Hellraid: The Escape has more of those in store, then fans of moody and occasionally intense iOS games may want to take note.
Unfortunately, I accidentally hit a bug in that mission that allowed me to access a section earlier than intended, but then blocked me from exiting the stage--forcing me to play it over from the start. Hopefully that's something that Techland and developer Shortbreak have already stomped out for the proper release on Thursday, May 15.
Otherwise, Hellraid: The Escape's spooky puzzle solving and impressive atmosphere make it an intriguing upcoming option, even if you don't care about the attached console game.