Any time Xalavier Nelson Jr’s name is attached to a project it automatically has my attention. Hypnospace Outlaw was a masterpiece, particularly for its writing, and that’s the role he played here. Unsurprisingly the writing is the strongest part of Mr. Bucket Told Me To, invoking a peculiar kind of dread unique from every other game in this pack.
The game is essentially a retelling of Castaway in which the main character, Michael, has personified far more than a single volleyball. There are many Misters on this island, and not all of them are pleased with Michael’s treatment of them over years of being stranded. To dig any deeper into the plot would be spoilers, but there’s more going on here than just talking to your stuff. Suffice it to say the writing here is equal parts sharp, unsettling, and genuinely funny.
Gameplay-wise you’re looking at a dead simple survival game. Use tools to fill (and sometimes empty) your survival meters accordingly. Watching tasks get harder as you lose access to specific tools day by day brings the message of sacrifice across, and when you finally wrap things up it resolves in a satisfying manner. Despite its P.T. label MBTMT doesn’t need more time to feel complete. Its story is satisfying as-is, delivering a comedy-horror hybrid with a surprisingly poignant finish.
My first experience with ROTGUT went as follows: I walked through an empty city. Then, following the game’s instructions, I walked into the woods. I followed the weirdly-shifting trees until I fell off the map. This triggered the ending and unlocked an achievement.
I really, REALLY wanted to make that the entire review but it wouldn’t be fair. Upon replaying ROTGUT “correctly” I can tell you that Will Brierly’s fingerprints are all over it. The game is 100% walking accompanied with bizarre visuals. Moreso than any of the other games here it felt like I was playing somebody’s dream. Despite its linearity it was confusing, a bit disturbing, and absolutely steadfast in its commitment to answering none of my questions.
I’m not convinced that ROTGUT is really a P.T. It’s essentially a virtual art gallery with carefully curated pieces. Adding more content wouldn’t improve it in any way; it’s meant to be taken in as-is and leave the player confused and unsettled, and it succeeds at everything it tries to do. Who could ask for more?
Playing The Pony Factory left me with a variety of comparisons. Condemned, Doom, maybe a little bit of Painkiller? What it doesn’t have is anything in common with Pony Island beyond its name and horror tag. What is it with horror and ponies? Anyway, TPF asks players to explore a seemingly abandoned factory in which people have been converted into equine-shaped monsters via a device that came straight from Hell itself. The title screen alone should tell you how peacefully that goes.
Shooters and horror tend not to mix as well as one might hope. Being able to defend yourself tends to lessen the impact of the scares. TPF circumvents this with buckets and buckets of tension. Everything in this place wants you dead, they have no issue chasing you down, and you’re armed with a flashlight and a pistol. Not a single moment passed that I wasn’t on edge, peering around corners, scrounging for resources anywhere they could be found lest I be jumped by another man-horse unprepared. Hitting the bottom-most point of the factory was intense to the point where I tried to find any other option than the one presented. I could very easily see this expanded to a fully fleshed out title – more guns, more areas, more spoopy horsebeasts.
Plenty of games have a good art style. Fewer have a completely cohesive aesthetic. Fewer still manage to integrate that aesthetic with their world-building, creating an immersive environment that sucks you in from the moment you start exploring it. Shatter does it all seemingly effortlessly, along with a beautifully melancholy soundtrack and excellent dialog, to create a world that I was in love with for the entirety of its runtime.
Waking up in a ruined British alley and slowly coming to grips with the ongoing apocalypse, which was both caused and halted by alien bugs that couldn’t care less about you, was an experience I wasn’t prepared for. The tone Shatter achieves is simultaneously one of dire misery and undying hope; that somehow, despite everything being as bad as it is, things might just get better if you put everything you’ve got into it. The NPCs may not always believe it but the undercurrent is there and progress is made, no matter how small. You’re too late to save everything and never could anyway, but in your own little world, your town, your community, you can matter.
Shatter is my favorite game of collection and the one that I most desperately wish to see made whole. This alone fully justified the purchase of the collection for me. I can’t say if it will necessarily resonate with you as strongly, but I can say that it’s worth a shot on the off chance it does. It’s a beautiful work that I intend to revisit, and I’ll be playing the rest of James Wragg’s titles in the near future.
Finally, we have Carthanc. Take the first-person platforming parts of Half Life, set it in space-Egypt, chuck it into a blender with a splash of horror, then record it with a VHS camcorder. It’s nuts. Carthanc is rad.
This ratchets up tension at a similar rate to The Pony Factory but in a different way. While TPF constantly threatens to kill you, Carthanc will just do it and force you to respawn until you figure out how to not get rocked. There are essentially 4 distinct challenges to complete here, ranging from basic platforming to La Mulana-esque deathtraps, all while your oxygen levels drop and wireframe skeletons chase you with full-throated screams. And boy are those screams unsettling. Due to a combination of effects on their voices and just screeching their heads off to the point where your audio will peak like mad, these guys will freak you right the fuck out.
Carthanc makes for a damn good P.T. First person platforming is hard to get right, but with just a few tweaks I could see this being one of the few good examples in the genre. It remains to be seen if it could keep its vice-grip on your nerves over a longer runtime, but that’s for the devs to figure out. All I know is I had a great time here and would be very interested to see more of it.
As I said up top, The Dread X Collection is an easy recommendation for anyone that enjoys horror. The experiences here aren’t the most polished but they more than make up for that in variety, intensity, and heart. Throw in the low price point along with a charitable contribution and I honestly can’t think of any reasons not to give this a go. It’s hard to beat a deca-feature for $7.