Title: Kraven Manor
Price: USD 9.99
Kraven Manor started out life as a graduate project assigned to 13 students at Southern Methodist University in the US. It was of sufficient quality it built up momentum, winning two Intel University awards, is in the top 100 games over at Indie DB (out of almost 20,000), and finally, following much polishing, was released on Steam by newly-formed Demon Wagon Studios. Having played through twice, I can say this attention and kudos is well-deserved, as this is a well-executed and highly atmospheric title, if perhaps inevitably a little brief.
I was sufficiently impressed that I promised myself the game deserves a proper review of its own, but it’s hard to discuss what it does well without finding myself thinking of where other titles have stumbled, and in particular, Amnesia MFP, the product not of gaming students but a supposed teacher in the field. Where Amnesia MFP started with an overblown and pompous musical score, Kraven Manor has a simple title screen with classical music that is slightly discordant without being overdone. This highlights the difference – you cannot demand the gamer be frightened. You have to work for it.
The setting for Kraven Manor is not original – a nameless protagonist takes shelter from the rain inside an ominous gothic manor for reasons never quite made clear. However, again I note this started as a university project so I would guess the objective was to demonstrate the breadth of technical skills learned and as the team was only given 6 months, starting with an established trope makes sense. But that said, I must commend them for what they did with this familiar setting. Notes, books and photographs around the manor give further hints as to backstory, and in particular the arcane antics of William Kraven. The further in you get, the more disturbing the discoveries are, and Kraven has a nasty contempt for human life.
Apologies again for flogging the expired equine, but comparisons to Amnesia MFP in execution also spring to mind. Amnesia MFP’s narrative tried to draw together the philosophies of Nietzsche and Trotsky while making a point about human value in industrialised society through an absent antagonist who created the tedious and decidedly unscary pigmen creatures. The game was simply boring. In contrast, the Demon Wagon team have gone back to the fundamentals of what makes a game, or indeed traditional gothic fiction, actually frightening. They have devised two distinct elements which underpin the game. The first is the scale model of the manor in the main entranceway. Finding additional room pieces, adding them and even rearranging them on the model changes the manor itself. I liked the notes relating to this discovered in the game, with Kraven issuing directions for exact dimensions and dire warnings to workmen for failure to comply.
The second distinct element is the enemies in the game: the bronze statues which stalk you with increasing malice. They serve both as chilling result of the exposed narrative, and genuinely scary encounter. On first entry to the main hall, there is a humanoid but creepily featureless bronze statue at the top of the main stairs. Return later, and it is gone. With headphones on, you hear the creak of moving metal – this is very effective. On exploring the first of the additional rooms, the lights suddenly go out, and you glimpse the bronze statue in the distance, followed by a shriek that could be grating metal or a scream from the creature. This it is very unsettling.
And ‘unsettling’ is what this game does well. Exploring the manor, heading into the wine cellar and seeing blood on the floor, and suspecting the mannequin is circling you, there is the definite sense of being in over your head. You then find it motionless at the end of a blood-stained corridor…only for the lights to flicker, and it is gone, leaving only the message “Get Out” scrawled in blood on the wall. Turning around, you find the path you followed to get to that point is gone. The way the house reconfigures itself around you also contributes to a sense of being out of control of events. You find yourself thinking “but I don’t want to go over there.”
The way the creature moves is also very well done. It only moves when you’re not looking at it. You’ll dread looking away to look for your next path, and dread the lights going out. You can have the thing in your sights, and glance left or right for a passage, and you hear the dull grate of metal on metal and you know it’s moved. You can be blundering down a dark corridor and you’ll hear its scream, the screen tingeing red as you get hurt, and it makes you jump. These are jump-scare moments yes, but built on tension that has been very well crafted. The intensity of the creature’s attacks on you builds throughout the game, and by the end it is a fraught dash for survival.
The only real issue here is price. I always find this difficult for indie titles. On the one hand, 10 bucks is an awful lot less than the 60 dollar retail price of The Evil Within. But then The Evil Within is a heck of a lot longer. However, it’s also not very good, and Kraven Manor is a better crafted experience. See, now I’ve got three hands. I hate this conversation. I think if you played the earlier free demo, it’s probably not worth the 10 bucks for the additional polishing and secret ending. If you’re new to Kraven Manor, you’ll likely play this twice at an hour apiece, and if you like horror, it’s a really great experience.
|A compact and distinct take on the ‘sheltering in a gothic manor’ setup, believable in giving the background of the enemy in the game.|
|Easy to control, and excellent audio really heightens the tension.|
|The enemy doesn’t move if you’re looking at it. But you can’t just stand there forever…it’s a nice balance that’s always fair.|
|It is perhaps a little short, but for a first title born of a graduate project, this beats a number of more professionally developed games. A creepily original take on a familiar setting. Recommended for Genre Fans
This review was originally published on Fextralife.com. Used with permission