Fobia: St. Dinfna Hotel

Fobia is a first-person survival horror game about being trapped inside a haunted hotel with a bunch of monsters. The game is a love letter to at least two different survival horror franchises, those being Silent Hill and Resident Evil, and there’s mechanics with a camera that lets you interact with some kind of parallel universe or something which might be inspired by Fatal Frame, but I haven’t played any of those games so I don’t know. I know enough about Fatal Frame to know that Fobia isn’t lifting anything wholesale, but I’d miss the subtle similarities to Resident Evil and Silent Hill if I weren’t more familiar with those franchises.

My fears that the name was Welsh proved unfounded – the game actually takes place somewhere in Brazil. You are a journalist staying at the titular hotel while investigating the mysterious happenings about town. Your contact in the town never meets you, and a strange black hole looking thing knocks you out. When you awaken, the hotel is in ruins, overrun with strange monsters, and there’s some kind of cult involved because of course there is.

The similarities to Silent Hill are partly in that they have their very own Pyramid Head knock-off boogeyman and partly in that you can use the camera parallel universe thing to walk through a hole that was here but now it’s gone. The game particularly takes inspiration from the playable trailer for Silent Hills, and while a lot of those inspirations could also be taken from Resident Evil VII, the game is full of Hideo Kojima references. The main ghost early on is the “gasmask girl,” and while not every spooky person in a mask is necessarily a Psycho Mantis reference, the game goes on to have a gear puzzles that requires you to gather up three metal gears. “Metal gear” is their actual name in the inventory, even though you’d think the metal nature of the gear would go without saying.

Fobia evidently wants to make sure anyone who’s paying attention knows that it’s here to put a moratorium on the whole Why Did Silent Hills Have To Die?! genre by not just aping the trailer itself, but trying to make the game it was a trailer for – a survival horror game. There are ghost train bits in Fobia, especially early on, but there’s also puzzles and combat. The puzzles are fun to figure out, though not very difficult and often bizarre and inexplicable (good to see Trevor & Chamberlain is still getting work), and the combat is exactly the kind of slow, resource-hungry thing that it should be. The standard enemy of the game is the zombie, whose exposed heart forms a weakspot. You can kill a zombie with just three or four pistol bullets if you aim carefully, but of course, it’s hard to do that while they’re lurching towards you to claw your face off, and it can take 10-15 bullets if you’re spammy with them.

About 80% of the game takes place in the hotel, and that part is really good. You slowly explore the hotel and unlock new routes to new places and shortcuts to old ones, revisiting old locations with new tools to find new secrets. It’s another affirmation that almost every genre is improved by also being a Metroidvania, and survival horror in particular has an obvious benny to give out to players who discover secrets, since limiting ammo and healing to the point where you might actually run out is a key part of the genre.

Fobia’s not without its flaws. It uses the survival horror style save system, where you can only save at certain points, and there’s just no reason to do that in the modern world. The tension of being far from a save point is a real thing that games like Dark Souls use to their advantage (although even then, there’s more to it than just having limited checkpoints), but it grates badly against the kind of immersive horror that the survival horror genre aims for. Thinking of save files and how long it’ll take to redo all the progress you’re liable to lose if you die in a boss fight isn’t scary at all.

The game over screen is so perfunctory that it looks like a placeholder, which is a pretty forgivable offense for a genre where actually killing the player is usually ill-advised, but then those boss fights are liable to do just that. They’re not extremely hard, but the bosses are absolute bullet sponges, and if there’s enough ammo in the boss arenas to kill the bosses, it has to be exactly enough, because I found that going into a fight without a decent bit of ammo to start meant I would lose not by running out of health, but by running out of bullets. There’s no melee attacks to use as a backup, so if you’re out of bullets, you are done fighting. In normal combats, you can run away and rearm, or tank a bit of damage while squeezing past an enemy to reach your destination. In a boss fight, you’re locked in the arena, so if you’re out of ammo, you may as well load a save.

The worst problem is probably the inventory system. You have limited inventory slots, but ammo and healing items all stack while puzzle items, being unique, do not. So rather than asking you how much health versus ammo you want to pack, already not much of a choice due to the lack of a melee attack which means that if you run out of ammo you may as well headbutt a railroad spike anyway, all the inventory slot system really does is force you to go back and forth between a storage chest any time you need to swap out puzzle items.

Plus, the last 20% of the game takes place in a secret underground bioweapons lab (there’s that Resident Evil influence breaking in) completely disconnected from the hotel map. I think the idea is that this would be a final gauntlet to cap off the game? But I’d spent the entire rest of the game navigating the nine floors of the hotel, and while a cellar level had been implied before (restoring floor buttons to a damaged elevator is a mechanic for unlocking shortcuts, and there’s room on the panel for basement levels – although it turns out you don’t actually use that elevator to go there), it’s much bigger than I expected, totally detached from the rest of the hotel I’d been exploring, and noticeably harder.

Difficulty spikes are always a dangerous thing. I’m much more forgiving of a game’s rough edges if it’s easy, because it means I can roll over the bland parts without much thought and linger on the good bits. If the bland parts are also hard, they demand time and focus, and the last thing a developer should want is players spending time and focus on the parts of the game which are bad.

The ending is pretty lackluster, as well. I didn’t really have any idea what was going on at the end. The backstory of the main villain Christopher was pretty well explained, as is the deal with this game’s boogeyman, but Stephanie’s motivations are opaque. Why is she searching for the main character by his initials (she doesn’t even seem to know he’s male), and since we know she isn’t following any other character’s agenda, what is her actual goal? Where did the camera come from, who left all the “we are connected by a camera” messages on the walls, and was the player character the intended recipient of those messages? Does the camera connect the player to 1960 or to an alternate 2010 (the year the game takes place, for some reason)? The camera’s version of the prison beneath the hotel looks the same as what we see in the 1960 prologue, but the camera also shows lots of smart phones and modern computer monitors, a bunch of hotel damage that presumably only occurred during the outbreak, and sometimes (including the time when the mechanic is introduced) displays gaping holes in the architecture that aren’t there in normal vision, all of which suggests that the hotel is in a similar but distinct warzone state rather than being tied to 1960.

The identity of Gasmask Girl is technically revealed, but Gasmask Girl’s actions don’t make any sense in the context of her true identity. If she has an existing personal relationship with the player character and is locked in a deadly struggle with Christopher to be the only psychic god on Earth, why the fuck does she spend the first fifteen minutes of the game haunting you ghost train style? What is Christopher’s ultimate plan? He clearly wants to prevent Gasmask Girl from becoming a psychic rival, but he’s also got some kind of chip on his shoulder about free will. Presumably something relevant to “if we redefine free will to mean something stupid, then we don’t have free will!” idea that is somehow considered a defensible philosophical position, but what does Christopher think he can do about that (and this question is particularly hard to solve because there’s no getting around how stupid the philosophical “dilemma” is when you start asking what would change if people had “free will” accoridng to the stupid definition – presumably people would start taking actions totally at random, not influenced by their environment or their own personality, and this would be good somehow?)?

A check over the internet suggests no one else has figured any of this out, either, and I’m not convinced that the developers actually have answers. It’s possible that they do have it all worked out, but stuck to the Silent Hill method of lore-that-requires-deciphering so hard that there’s not actually sufficient clues in the game for anyone to figure out what’s going on. But it’s also possible that they had a vague idea of what’s going on (Christopher and Gasmask Girl locked in psychic power struggle, protagonist stuck in time loop) but a lot of the details of the time loop got away from them and they were running out of money or the parts of the game they’d already developed had too many contradictory loose ends to tie together or they just gave up on untangling the knot and shipped a game with a nonsense plot.

What plot elements are nailed down in the game as it is have a lot in common with President Evil’s lore explanation for the original Silent Hill. There is a small child with supernatural powers who is battling a sinister cult (in Silent Hill, Alessa is supposed to birth a dark god but doesn’t wanna, in Fobia, Gasmask Girl has psychic powers related to Christopher’s and he’s trying to contain her so that he will be the only psychic god on Earth), the child has a personal connection to the protagonist through supernatural shenanigans (the protagonist’s daughter is the reincarnation of Alessa, and Gasmask Girl is the protagonist’s daughter from the future with psychic time travel powers), there’s a time loop in Silent Hill according to President Evil’s explanation, which posits that the New Game+ is actually diegetic, and it is explicitly the case in one of Fobia’s two endings that you are kicked back to the start of the game for a diegetic New Game+.

I believe President Evil’s interpreation of the first Silent Hill is not accurate to what the developers originally intended. Rather, I think Team Silent made a vague game about a sinister cult torturing a child to birth an evil god and didn’t bother keeping track of the details much while also littering the game with references to their favorite horror authors, and the sheer density of references allowed President Evil to pull in basically as many new plot elements as he needed to make the story make sense under the guise of the references being obtuse clues. That’s not to say that I think President Evil did this on purpose – I think he naively assumed that Team Silent had an actual plot figured out (rather than a vibe), and Team Silent had left enough references to other horror media lying around that he was able to assemble a theory.

Does anyone still have that guy’s email? We’ve got another job for him.

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