Developed by Robot Invader
Available on PC and PSN
Suitable for ages 14+
It’s very hard for me to consider virtual reality as anything more than a gimmick. Just look at how many of its most popular games are simulators of how to do something shitty. I get the point of comedy games, but when the key mechanic of most of your titles is fumbling around like an idiot, perhaps there’s something to that. It’s not that I don’t like the idea of being able to look around the game world with my eyeballs instead of my mouse. I just think that most developers care more about the gimmick than the game.
Which is why it’s particularly commendable when a company makes a VR game that is actually a game and not a tech demo. So, kudos Robot Invader. Dead Secret puts the game first, using the VR as a simple means to experience the world. Most notably, you actually don’t need VR to play it. Though the point-to-point movement system makes walking around a bit clunky, the game is entirely playable and equally enjoyable without an expensive headset.
You play as a young investigative reporter in the 1960’s whose dissatisfied with the bit pieces she’s constantly assigned. When reclusive professor Harris Bullard dies in his rural Kansas home, you sense the opportunity for a scoop big enough to put you on the map. Though the murder mystery premise is simple enough, the game quickly shifts to a level of eerie and bizarre that’s difficult to describe. You’ll go from simple slider puzzles and code hunting, to putting electric leeches into a moon reader to calibrate a magic dream machine. And that’s not even mentioning the masked demon you can only see while wearing your altered reality goggles.
It isn’t all puzzles and collectible notes. There is a real threat in the house, in the form of a very creepy masked assailant. You only encounter it a few times, but it’s always a tense race to safety. Most commendable, the exploration and chase scenes are entirely separate. I know some people like hunting for collectibles while a monster shambles just feet away, but I don’t. I like having the freedom to explore and take in the complicated and layered narrative. It’s particularly necessary in Dead Secrets, because there is a quiz at the end, so you better pay attention to all that story stuff.
Unfortunately, I can’t really get into the specifics of the Dead Secret story without spoiling it. There’s a real murder mystery at the core outside of all the ghosts and techno-wizardry. You’ll have to solve not only the puzzle in front of you, but the question of who murdered Harris Bullard. Each of the five suspects are equally motivated, and each has their own piece of damning evidence. Still, it isn’t terribly difficult to figure out.
What makes Dead Secret stand out so much to me is how naturally it integrates all of its elements. The very real threat of the person in the house doesn’t conflict with all of the ghosts and dream machines. It’s all presented with a degree of seriousness and scientific realism that grounds it. The game also makes discoveries feel rewarding. There’s a golden point of difficulty between chore and clever challenge. Generally, games will make the mandatory puzzles obvious, while the secrets require real attention. Dead Secret requires ingenuity to the point that the line between secret and main path is blurred. Several times I would unlock a hidden room and feel really clever about it, only to find that it was just another part of the primary objective.
The only real complaint I have with Dead Secret is the visuals. It certainly isn’t ugly, with the character design being genuinely spooky. I mostly just didn’t feel like this was a real place. It was too bare to feel natural. Aside from the well decorated study, this didn’t feel like a lived-in home. This is an important point. If a game feels like a series boxes for puzzles to take place, it loses a lot of its impact. It has a great narrative design, and the elements that made up the main story felt well developed. It just lacked the connective tissue to make this place feel like a real location.
Dead Secret also doesn’t do anything terribly unique. I’m not the guy that’s going to tell every game to reinvent the wheel, but it could have used a bit more innovation. Maybe I’m being too harsh, and the inclusion of VR is enough. I did play this just on my PC without a headset afterall. The scares were effective, and the game wasn’t afraid to let something linger. In an industry inundated with jump scares, it was nice to be forced to overcome my fears to figure out what the spooky thing was trying to show me. Even so, all of it was in service of collecting item A to fit in slot B to get the code for lock C.
This is the part where reviewing this becomes interesting for me, because I have to choose how to judge Dead Secret. As a VR game specifically, it’s great. It uses the medium well without devolving into gimmick. On the other had, as a standard PC title, it’s nothing groundbreaking. It’s certainly good, but doesn’t rise to the level of amazing. That being said, how is it fair for me to criticize the title for being too playable in too many different ways? Discrediting a great VR game for being just a good standard title neglects how hard it is to make a game that is both.
So while my reflex is to judge something negatively for being inconsistent across mediums, I’m going to temper myself and flip that. This is a great VR game and should be a part of any horror fan’s library. It’s also a decent horror mystery, and is worth checking out without a Vive or Oculus. The fact that it can be both is an example of how this industry can function past the novelty. When you get over the fact that you can look anywhere and start using that to make a good game, not just a “unique experience,” that’s when the technology really starts to come into its own. Robot Invader did something commendable with Dead Secret. So, like I said, kudos.
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