Angry Ghosts and a Lovely House Meet in the Suburban Horror of Visage

It doesn’t take a lot to turn a house into a home. Some comfy furnishings make a nice start and then inhabiting the place for a while so the general clutter of daily life adds a slightly messy personal touch to the rooms should finish the job. All that effort is useless, though, when a crazed parent kills his entire family and then himself, adding the family’s angry souls to the terrible history that’s transformed an incredible piece of architecture into a terrifying prison for both the living and the dead. Visage is haunted house horror set in an intricate, beautiful building that’s turned into a metaphysical wound desperately in need of cauterization. First, though, you’ll need to survive a rainy night inside with the spirits getting more and more aggravated at your intrusion into their secrets.

At the very start Visage warns you that it’s going to get ugly, and the opening scene pulls no punches. A first-person view cutscene has you loading a pistol slowly, bullet by bullet, with the viewpoint eventually revealing there’s a family tied to chairs with duct tape over their mouths. What’s presumably the father puts a bullet through the heads of the mother and two children, one by one, before turning the gun on himself. And then you wake up in a room in the house, blood splattered everywhere.  A message on the phone lets you know the neighbors are concerned, but there are other things to worry about. The dark and rain has transformed a cozy home into a creepy den of shadows and getting out both physically and mentally intact is getting less likely by the second.

Thankfully the house is fairly mellow at the start, not really concerned with the interloper exploring its innards. It’s gloomy, sure, but the electricity mostly works even if lights suddenly turn off more frequently than faulty wiring can explain. Visage is a slow burn, and the first hour or two is mostly rattles and sudden darkness with the occasional music cue to enhance the atmosphere. The thing about a slow burn, though, is that it keeps on building, so while it’s easy to decide to not be scared of the dark that’s only effective when you’re comfortably sure nothing’s there. “Ooh, big scary ghost, you turned a light off! Please don’t mildly inconvenience me by making me walk three feet back to the switch.” But it’s all just sarcastic whistling past the graveyard, because worse things are on the way.

You explore the house in first-person, wandering its halls and popping open every drawer and cabinet along the way, searching for answers more than anything else.  While there’s unspeakable evil dwelling in the walls there are some surprisingly helpful rooms too, such as a storage closet holding any key items you may drop.  There are two inventories to access, one for immediately usable items and another for long-term tools, although in its current Early Access state they can be kind of fiddly.  Pills, for example, can help you deal with the creeping insanity the house inflicts, but they come in a number of types and until you know what the color-coded cap actually means you’ll need to read the label to find out.  You don’t want to pop a “slow insanity effects” pill when what you really wanted was “quick relief” instead.  It’s also worth noting that in a classic case of video game logic each bottle contains three pills and you can’t combine like with like.

As you explore the house you’ll eventually notice that Visage is helpful in explaining its mechanics up to a point, but it’s not going to hold your hand.  I walked through one room three times before noticing a key on a table, not glowing, twinkling, or with a green arrow bobbing over it to say “look at me,” but rather just sitting there like any other background object. Much of the scenery can be picked up and inspected, although very little of it does anything, but that doesn’t mean you can just mentally gloss over it.  While the investment in paying attention does a nice job of also immersing you in the environment, opening you up to the scares, there are other sections that could use a bit more explanation.  It took me forever to realize the candles are meant to be lit and set down, rather than carried around as a mobile light source, because so much of Visage feels real-ish that it didn’t occur to me not to try to use them as I would in reality.  -Update-  The candle’s description was adjusted with the first-day patch to make this clear.

The Early Access launch of Visage features the first chapter of a planned four, with roughly five hours of gameplay available.  Certain areas are blocked off behind doors with an “unavailable in Early Access” message when you try to open them, but there’s still a good amount to explore and prod at even in its current state.  The plan is to add chapters and new environments (not all the time is spent in a creepy house) over the course of at least four months, with the usual Early Access intention of adding planned content while taking player feedback into account.  The chapter that currently exists, even with its occasional reminder that the game is a work in progress, manages to deliver honest scares, dread and horror.  Visage takes its time to build up to its terrors, grounding them in a human-scale tragedy and the broken remains of what had been a comfortable suburban life, making the fear hit all the harder when the ghosts stop hiding and begin to take their vengeance.