I am not a number, I am a free man

Survival horror is dead. Bludgeoned into non-existence by next-gen consoles capable of delivering more eye-ball scorchingly true to life explosions and in your face carnage than ever before, developers forsaking creepy camera angles and unseen terrors in favour of infinite ammo and photo-realistic monsters, and action cinema’s increasing influence on video games in general.

No small wonder then that these days the Resident Evil franchise has more in common with a mega-bucks Michael Bay flick than it does George A. Romero’s made on a shoestring budget zombie classics, Silent Hill honchos felt the need to replace the twitchy everyman (or woman) against hellish odds with a tooled up war veteran for the series’ last installment, and contemporary would-be frighteners (Dead Space et al), that while technically stunning, lack the ability to truly terrify, and ultimately pale in comparison to their PSone era counterparts.

It’s a regrettable trend that, alas, has spilled over onto iPhone. Chillingo’s Vampire Origins was undeniably slick and stylish, Gameloft’s Zombie Infection action-packed and brutally violent in parts. But were either of these titles, frequently held up as the format’s finest examples of horror gaming, genuinely scary? No. In fact I’ve racked my brain, and can honestly say I’ve never felt so much as a twinge of panic, let alone a jump-out-of-my-seat, what-the-bloody-hell-was-that?! moment when playing an iPhone game.

Until now that is…

Unnerving from the outset, Prisoner 84 takes a back to basics approach to scaring the player witless. Set on a storm battered prison island that’s a dead-ringer for Metal Gear Solid 2‘s “Big Shell”, the game puts you in the boots of the titular 84, a psychotic inmate, as he attempts to make good his escape from the creepy facility. Emerging bleary eyed from his latest spell in solitary confinement, punishment for a violent attack on a fellow prisoner, 84 quickly twigs onto the fact all is not right on Tryton; there’s blood everywhere, wardens and inmates alike have been ritualistically murdered, their corpses slumped in pools of gore or swaying in nooses, and the groans, howls, and maniacal cackling of crazies echoes through the shadowy halls. Time to find a gun.

It’s, let’s face it, a familiar and fairly bog standard set-up for this type of game, and one that in lesser hands could either have felt painfully derivative, or worse, quickly descended into a mindless blaster. However, rather than going in all guns blazing or milking the pulpy material for cheap shocks, App Store newcomers Hidden Games instead settle for a disconcerting tone, utilising traditional tactics like lighting and sound effects to get under the player’s skin.

The game’s stripped-down control system and HUD also serve to minimise those usual constant reminders that you are playing a game. The combination of an on-screen d-pad and fire button is intuitive and feels so well suited here, that after a few moments play, you won’t give it a second thought. While the absence of an aiming reticle and health bar adds to the gritty realism – when 84 takes damage it’s shown in real-time, with cuts and bruises appearing on his body.

Honestly, not having to fiddle about with overly complex controls or be forced along a well sign-posted route is wonderfully liberating, making for a much less linear and immersive adventure than we’re used to on iPhone. As you explore your surroundings, blasting the undead and searching ransacked offices and grotty cells for extra ammo and key-cards, you’re encouraged to think about the character you’re playing as and question his motives. Are you in fact – as a document found early on in the game implies – a deranged nut-job gone on a killing spree? Is there an unseen puppet master pulling 84’s strings? Or does a Shutter Island-esque denouncement wait around the next corner? The beauty is we’re unsure – left in the dark with a untrustworthy protagonist, and drip fed plot details via cryptic clues written in blood on the prison’s walls or rifled from filing cabinets and the pockets of dead men.

Intriguing a character as 84 is, make no mistake, Tryton is the star of the show here. A nightmarish labyrinth, all flickering strip-lighting, blood splattered corridors, grimy rest rooms, and mist shrouded connecting bridges, it’s every bit as bewildering and eery as Silent Hill or Raccoon City ever were.

It’s a real shame that the game falls apart every time one of the undead lurches out of the shadows and onscreen. The well-built sense of dread and foreboding instantly evaporating during encounters with these brain-dead default enemies (zombies in more ways than one), their utter lack of anything even approaching A.I. meaning 84 can saunter over to a baddie, pull a gun, and pop off a couple of shots at point blank range, before these dunderheads even register his presence. To a lesser extent, the developers’ decision to break the fourth wall (MGS style) every so often has a jarring effect and feels out of place. These are minor complaints though, and given the game’s emphasis on exploration and puzzle solving over grisly combat, don’t matter that much in the scheme of things.

All in all, Prisoner 84 is a thoroughly enjoyable and truly terrifying adventure; and one that, refreshingly, asks the player to engage their brain as well as their trigger finger. This well-made throwback to the days when out and out psychological terror was prized over flashy pyrotechnics, marks Hidden Games out as one of the most talented and interesting indie developers to hit the App Store in a long while.

Survival horror is dead, long live survival horror (on iPhone).


iFanzine Verdict: A bloodstained love letter to the good old days of survival horror, Prisoner 84 nails the blend of gritty violence, nightmarish tone, and relentless sense of dread that made for some of the finest third-person adventures of the Nineties. The downright scariest game on iPhone and the most impressive indie debut since Crescent Moon’s Ravensword: The Fallen King. You’ve been warned…

[xrr rating=4/5]

Enjoy the review? Get the game on iTunes.