Review: Simulacra

Kaigan Games’ decision to experiment with horror outside of the AAA market reiterates the importance of independent studios to shake up the status quo. Similar to how movies like The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity changed the horror landscape with the effective use of found footage, the Malaysian-based studio’s latest title, Simulacra, is no different for its approach with ‘found phone’ horror. Described as the spiritual sequel to Kaigan’s previous horror title, Sara Is Missing, Simulacra ushers in a surreal experience with a real eye-opening impact. Compared with the Paranormal Activity sequels, where the found footage aspect became lost within the high-end production values, Simulacra revels in the simplicity of its core concept. Simulacra won’t single-handedly reinvent horror in gaming, but Kaigan offers a refreshing idea with copious amounts of potential. Coupled with its psychological thriller elements, Simulacra will have players questioning every choice made and facing the consequences that come from them.

Simulacra’s story has players coming into possession of a mobile phone that belonged to a young woman, Anna. In the phone’s contents, players find a distressing video of Anna, who has since mysteriously disappeared without any explanation. Furthermore, it leaves players with the mission to find out what actually happened to Anna. It’s a straightforward premise, but one that doesn’t take any shortcuts to achieve an authentic story around a character’s disappearance. Players interact with a wide range of characters close to Anna, from ex-boyfriend Greg Summers to close friend Ashley, in order to learn more about her and to complete different objectives. With the story spanning over five hours and multiple endings to unlock, Simulacra has longevity on its side for how the narrative branches out depending on the choices made. Like many horror titles, though, Simulacra’s scare factor diminishes after the initial playthrough. There is also one fundamental question left unanswered in Simulacra: how (and why) does the player specifically find Anna’s phone? It’s a question many of the characters ask, but by the end of Simulacra’s story, it’s one that players will feel cheated out of a reasonable explanation.

Kaigan deserves full credit for its incorporation of live-action cutscenes, effectively making Simulacra’s story more than a text-heavy reading session. Whether it’s through text messages, emails, phone calls or vlogs, players are presented with a variety of ways in which the narrative unfolds. The fact that an actual actor portrays Anna makes her feel more of an authentic, relatable character. Additionally, her videos and audio clips allow for the story to seamlessly transition from one phase to the next. While live-action scenes are fully utilized in Simulacra, it does suffer from moments where awkward dialogue and questionable voice acting undermines it. Yes, Anna’s performance is one that’s worth its praise as she’s presented as more than a walking, talking cliché in a horror title. The same can’t be said in other cases, though. Greg, for example, does nothing more to make players raise their eyebrows at the acting and, above anything else, be part of Simulacra’s most cringe-worthy moments.

Considering that the emphasis is placed on the idea of found phone horror, it wouldn’t have been achievable if Simulacra didn’t feel right at home on a handheld device. As soon as Simulacra is booted up, its easy navigation allows players to explore the content on Anna’s phone at free will. In a day and age where the average user spends hours on a handheld device, players of any skill level will work their way around the interface of Anna’s phone in no time. There’s a variety of puzzles to complete throughout the story. It’s an aspect that doesn’t become repetitive either, especially for how new challenges for players to complete are introduced. From decrypting messages and picture reconstructions to solving different riddles, Simulacra boasts a wide range of trials that will test players over the course of the psychological horror title.

As players can end up getting sidetracked from their current objectives — and it’s not hard to — Kaigan has implemented a feature called Iris Memos, providing a timeline tracker of events completed, failed and other open-ended objectives active. However, Simulacra is one of those titles that desperately requires a hint button, especially as some objectives are not as clearly set out as others. Rather than hinting players in the right direction, they can often receive a text message from a specific character that doesn’t help them and, more importantly, can end up frustrating them instead. Gameplay is truly tested in how invested a player becomes in the choices they make. Characters will even ask players to do things that cross the lines of invasion of privacy or lie. It’s fantastic to see this weaved this into Simulacra and not for the player to self-consciously ask these ethical questions. Kaigan is not shy to utilize features that have been effective in other choice-driven titles. Similar to Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead or Dontnod Entertainment’s Life Is Strange, Simulacra ultimately presents players with a statistical breakdown of their choices and how it compared with other people’s playthroughs.

Simulacra is a rare example of a horror title that oozes social commentary to worthwhile effect. Whether it’s the Tinder-themed app Spark or the Twitter rebrand that is Jabbr, Simulacra excels for the significance it places on social media in the modern day. For example, it’s shown at different points that while two characters might not have an answer to a certain question, there can be a solution found on social media, considering how accessible information is on different platforms. Even when it comes to Spark, Kaigan doesn’t simply expect people to know how Tinder works. It makes the app as authentic as it can be. Players can flick through different conversations that are already on Anna’s profile, ranging from bad pickup lines to actual references to other gaming titles. Outside of its social media focus, it’s admirable that topical themes are explored. That includes issues such as sexual harassment in the workplace, with Kaigan’s choice-based options allowing players to ultimately decide whether it’s reported or not. In most cases, developers can head into murky waters by simply approaching a theme like sexual harassment. But following the likes of 2017 horror movies such as the critically acclaimed Get Out, Kaigan doesn’t treat its social commentary or themes lightly in Simulacra.

Kaigan previously said that Simulacra is a title best experienced on mobile devices. Even before Simulacra loads its menu, it recommends that players use headphones. It’s a truly spine-chilling experience to play Simulacra on mobile devices, adding a heightened sense of horror atmosphere throughout the title. From the eerily composed music to the random noises that occur, it keeps players on edge at all times. It’s not a completely perfect experience, however. The game falls back on jump scares on more than one occasion, which was more forced than actually required. The ambience and scare factor for Simulacra are set by how distributing and nerve-racking the title could become at any point. That’s not to mention when it’s coupled with incoming phone calls that would start blaring out a ringtone and catch players off guard, making the scare a little more worthwhile.

Closing Comments:

Simulacra might not be perfect, but it highlights that the found phone horror concept is one that has a significant amount of potential. For anyone looking to venture into uncharted territory with horror, Simulacra is a choice that brings a fresh, exciting new experience compared with many other titles on the market. It has a well-constructed story and demonstrates that branching narratives are built for horror titles. Kaigan Games has only scraped the surface of found phone horror, though. Should they choose to return with another installment and be able to improve on some of the notable flaws, it could end up making the real impact that it’s looking for with found phone horror on the mobile market. For now, however, Simulacra is a must-own title for any horror enthusiast. Even if it’s only for a single playthrough, it’s enough to make any player want to talk to their friend about this found phone horror title they’ve discovered.