In this day and age, where something with a glitzy action-packed trailer might merely be a cover for a slow and complex deck building RPG, it pays to know what you’re getting into. This is especially the case for SENSEs: Midnight. It’s a survival horror adventure inspired by the 32-bit era, complete with tank controls, fixed cameras, and (extremely) limited inventory space. All these elements have their foibles and are largely considered dated, but they’re also essential here to maintain the sense of nostalgia the developers strived for.
This may set alarm bells ringing already. If something is being purposely made to feel archaic – embracing ideas long superseded – it’s likely problems are going to emerge sooner rather than later. Fellow horror adventure Deadly Premonition 2 was guilty of this, implementing purposely wooden animation and dated mechanics to try and recreate the wonderfully shabby feel of the original.
While it takes its cues from the 32-bit era, the premise and presentation are far more contemporary. We’re thrust into the knee-high boots of Uesugi Kaho, a popular live streamer who’s spurred on to explore a haunted Japanese park at midnight – which is, reportedly, when things become twisted. The things streamers do for views, eh? There’s a futuristic theme present, with Kaho accompanied by a small flying robot, and holograms signposts dotted around the park. The colour scheme amplifies the sci-fi vibe, comprises of clashing purples and greens – with streetlights seemingly made from glow-in-the-dark materials. The visual style is more evocative of the PS3 than anything else. Not so much low poly, but certainly fewer polygons and less detail than we’ve come to expect.
As Kaho sets around exploring the neon-lit park, viewers often chime in via a chat box that takes up a proportion of the screen. They share memes, reaction emojis, make jokes, and do their best to give advice. Even though the text box can sometimes obscure the action, it’s still a fun idea. Kaho can pull out a camera and take photos in first person too, adding a hint of Fatal Frame to the proceedings.
As you start exploring the park, picking up the occasional item along the way, you’ll quickly notice dozens of figurative hurdles to overcome. Locked doors with missing keys, padlocks requiring codes, overgrown vines, various machinery requiring gears, faulty water pipes, and plenty more. Then around fifteen minutes in, Kaho experiences her first ghostly encounter, revealing the only way to survive is to either run and evade a foe’s grasp by zigzagging or hiding in bushes – which commences a short gauge balancing mini-game. If a ghoul grabs hold of Kaho, you’re cast back to the last save point, with the main safe zone being a shrine at the centre of the park.
It’s around this point that the penny drops. SENSEs: Midnight lays out everything before you. That’s to say, the game’s entire 2-3 hour duration is spent entirely within the park. Progression essentially amounts to making mental notes of which locations require items, solving light puzzles, and searching everywhere. Just four items can be carried at once, with currency (Kaho can buy items from vending machines) taking up a valuable slot. So not only do you need to look out for essential items, and work what’s needed where, but juggle the inventory too. Items can thankfully be dropped – and in the absence of a real-time map, you’ll need to remember where you discarded them.
This focus on inventory management ends up being a bit of a dealbreaker. The four-item limit feels considerably stingy and appears to be the result of a need to extend the runtime, instead of a means to induce tension or add an extra layer of depth. It doesn’t help here either that items lack descriptions. When walking over a flashing, nondescript, object the phrase ‘Item Get’ flashes on screen with no indication of what has just been added to the inventory. Even when viewing the inventory screen, there are no text-based descriptions; ergo no subtle clues where this item may prove useful. At one point I had a triangular rock in my inventory, and I had no idea whether its shape was of importance or not.
Inventory juggling isn’t much of a pleasure, then. The tank controls aren’t too problematic. In fact, they are more intuitive and less cumbersome than the optional modern controls. The combination of fixed cameras, 3D environments, and a single outdoor location does cause a myriad of issues, though. Running through several locations swiftly will see the camera rapidly change from all manner of disorientating angles. The park’s locations suffer from looking quite samey; lots of paths surrounded by trees, and clearings with a bench or two. The fact that these are 3D environments also means that sometimes you’ll be fooled into thinking there’s a path ahead or a way to get behind a structure or object.
SENSEs: Midnight’s problems aren’t linked to the fact that it’s trying to emulate 32-bit era game design. I’d happily sit down and revisit any early Resident Evil or Silent Hill entry. The problem is that it’s emulating their ideas and concepts cack handily. I’ve never known a survival horror game to only feature four (well, technically three) inventory slots just to bloat out its runtime. Resident Evil may have had static cameras, but they never changed angle so frequently that I lost my bearings. The focus on a single location is peculiar too. It’s understandable that this is a small budget affair, but ultimately it damages the sense of adventure. Imagine if RE took place solely in the mansion, or RE2 was restricted to the police station. Neither would have been anywhere near as memorable.
And that’s where we’re at here. Had SENSEs: Midnight existed in the era it cribs from, it would just be another Carrier, Deep Fear, or Galerians – something you may be able to claw dubious delights from but would soon forget. Throw in ghost encounters that only ever require evasive manoeuvres to overcome, and you’re left with something that’s less of a walk in the park, and more of a bumpy ride.
Developed by SUZAKU Games and published by eastasiasoft, SENSEs: Midnight is out June 7th on consoles. It first launched on PC in 2022.