The Russian Revolution was a period of history that was bloody and tumultuous. It was a time of opportunity for some, but terrible suffering for countless others. A time of poverty, starvation, and overall misery. Things that no human being should have had to live through.
So, over a hundred years after the fact, a game that markets itself as a “psychological horror / puzzle / escape room” game set during this period should surely at least have some psychologically gripping horror. Sadly, 1917: The Prologue asks for a lot of money to get into its ultimately unrewarding experience.
The first thing you’ll notice about 1917 upon getting into the game is that it is beautiful, especially considering it’s an indie developer’s first release. The art direction is noticeably strong, with just enough realism to make it feel like a real space, and just enough stylization to remind you it is a metaphorical game space.
True, the game is made up of only one room that changes from time to time to represent certain times during its existence, but every item in the room is modelled beautifully.
From books about witch hunting to African religious artifacts, every item in the room reveals something about the character, and often he has something to say about the object in question too, with a few different lines for each thing, generally.
The paintings and pictures on the wall are especially haunting – one of the puzzles and the “reveal” about the paintings was easily the best scare the game gave me, though it was more of a scare that settled in my gut rather than got in my face.
Sadly, the game never really goes anywhere else in terms of the “psychological horror” tag people have given it on Steam, and the few other scares it tries to toss at you are very cheap jump-scares. To make matters worse, these jump-scares don’t land at all. So the game isn’t really a psychological horror to much of a degree at all – at least the prologue isn’t.
But what the game does do well is a sense of place and the story. As stated earlier, the Russian Revolution was an awful period of history that killed countless people. So to set a psychological horror game in this period is a great move, especially since the developers are Russian and have evidently done all their research.
It is a highly immersive and claustrophobic space, that brings to mind the corridor of “P.T.”, just much, much less scary. Instead, 1917 demands that you search every nook and cranny for fragments of our protagonist’s journal, which provide hints at the state of the outside world, his past, and his own mental state.
The voice acting (which is all in Russian) is really well done, and there were only a few noticeably wrong English translation issues, the biggest one really being calling a clock that sits on the mantelpiece a watch. There are a few grammatical issues here and there too, but it’s absolutely nothing that makes the game unplayable. Apart from maybe the first puzzle, to do with a lock code, which I was wondering about for far too long.
There are also a few seemingly obtuse puzzles that, while they don’t require you to quite pixel hunt in the same way that an old, difficult adventure game would (since you are playing in first person), still require you to search a lot. There’s a hidden slot on the desk where you can find a lock, and then you have to figure out the correct letters to open it.
The puzzles do get easier from here on, but considering there are a finite number of matches and if you turn too quickly they go out (which is great for immersion, but bad considering you can’t refill your matches if you accidentally extinguish them while searching around), and no light source beyond a tiny candle in the first room, it is a poor first impression.
Fortunately things really do get better as you go on, with the story becoming easier to understand as more pieces slot into place, and the light sources making a visible difference when you are hunting through the room for the next puzzle piece.
The characters in the story, while not exactly elaborated on, are intriguing enough to warrant my interest in future entries in the series, which are hopefully longer than this one, which took me an hour and a half to complete, and I imagine it could be done about fifteen to twenty minutes faster, considering I blundered around in the dark for a while in the first room.
Sadly my ultimate opinion of the game has to come down to the pricing. It’s a great first effort from the developers at Payara Games, and they should very rightly be proud of the project they have released. However, the rough edges become harder to justify at the current price point. If the game had been free, or even just a few bucks, this would’ve been a recommended for sure.
As it stands, it’s far too little for far too much, no matter the way the game does improve after a bumpy start. Unless you are particularly interested in the period or supporting indie developers out of principle, there’s practically nothing here for a horror enthusiast, and there’s very little here to interest hardened puzzle gamers either, as the puzzles are generally easy and self-explanatory when the gist of what you have to do clicks.
Yet, after playing it, I must admit I’m looking forward to seeing what the developers do with the concept, and I hope to see the actual psychological horror expand alongside the novel setting. Developers to keep an eye on for sure. I have hope they’ll learn from this short experience and do some great stuff with what should hopefully be a growing IP.