Considering the small town you arrive in is named Shivercliff, it’s easy to imagine you’re in a horror game and everything is about to go wrong. You’re right, of course, but horror game Husk does have some surprises up its sleeve beyond typical horror tropes. For one thing, the sheer amount of lens flare you’ll see is staggering.
Let’s get one thing out of the way: I’m a complete coward easily startled by just about any loud noise, so playing Husk with headphones on was very anxiety-inducing. Part of this is due to jump scares, but it’s mostly down to the creepy atmospheric soundscape and the sheer visual darkness of the game. In the end, though, I didn’t come away with a sense of horror; rather, it instilled in me a sense of grinding, inevitable suffering, like undergoing dental work and constantly trying to be ready for that moment when the pain snaps from unpleasant to excruciating.
I am comfortable attributing most of the strong feelings I experienced to the genuinely well-crafted soundscape, because the rest of the experience is unremarkable. Be prepared to visit creepy caves, creepy abandoned suburban homes, creepy factory floors filled with creepy dolls, and of course a creepy abandoned hospital. Moments in the game reminded me of Dear Esther or Gone Home, but while those games had a robust and organic narrative vision, Husk’s narrative is better described as a reflection of its level design: linear, barren, and excruciatingly overwrought, each section only briefly relevant as the protagonist stumbles through crashing into things and spending half his time crouched on the ground.
If I sound cruel here, it’s partly out of frustration. There is some good to be found in Husk, but the game’s quality varies wildly across different areas, feeling very much like something put together by a group of friends who never stopped to evaluated whether they had among them all the necessary skills to make a game. The soundscape is very effective, as I mentioned, and the lighting also deserves special note. An incredible amount of work went into excellent lighting, material reflections, fire effects, and the visual effect commonly referred to as “god rays.” So much work, it appears, that the developers went overboard with actually applying these effects. It had never occurred to me that I might one day be blinded by screen-filling lens flare after pointing my flashlight at a rusty metal door, but it happened in Husk.
Other elements fall utterly flat. The voice acting is bland, but the true blame for that may lie in the wooden, verbose dialog the actors were given to read. Some objects are animated very effectively – trees swaying in stormy winds later in the game look excellent – while others are bizarrely static, like a train in the opening level. You’d think a train would rock and bounce a bit as it travels, but while it certainly sounded like a train, it was completely immobile to the eyes. The lighting is great, but there’s an obnoxious effect that indiscriminately darkens objects in the player’s immediate vicinity, so things that are clearly visible at a distance often become muddied and inscrutable up close. I often found myself backing away from things to see them better, which was an odd thing to have to do.
The level design does a good job at evoking mundane locations in a creepy way at first glance, until you start to notice that a great deal of it makes absolutely no sense. There are laundromats and glowing billboards hidden in back alleys out of sight or reach of any pedestrian; cars are suspiciously crammed up against doors to block entry; and most of the buildings are circuitous and narrow, feeling more like video game levels than actual places. By the end of the game you could conceivably hand-wave this all away as a consequence of the narrative, but retrospective contemplation does little to improve the actual experience as it occurs.
Then there are the monsters, the eponymous husks. They show up and shuffle around. You can shoot some of them, or hit them and run away. I’m not sure why they’re there, narratively. There’s a brief line at the end of the game about alcohol abuse turning people into husks, but it felt far too forced and awkward to work as effective connective tissue. Dolls and deer antlers also appear surprisingly often, though that’s never really incorporated cohesively into the narrative either.
That’s not to say the game is utterly without merit. There’s one narrative sequence near the end that’s remarkably well-done, and actually does a fairly powerful job at getting you to feel the kind of despair and loss the protagonist is feeling almost entirely through clever level design. There are a few visually stunning scenes, and there’s a moment in a lighthouse that convinced me the game was about to do something bold and shocking – it ended up leaning awkwardly on a seemingly random horror trope instead, but points for trying.
I also don’t want to dismiss out of hand the central portrayal of alcoholism, because I myself have been lucky enough to never have to deal with the kind of violent alcoholism depicted here either in myself or my family. The game depicts and hints at some brutal acts and traumatic situations, which are certainly more horrifying and discomforting than the rubbery husk monsters that chase the player around. It’s a fitting central theme for horror, to be sure.
But as a horror game and as a virtual space, Husk is an inconsistent, awkward experience. Great lighting and sounds are crucial to horror experiences, of course, and Husk definitely has those going for it. What few interesting moments it has end up ground down by a long and awkward slog, though, and it all ends up feeling hollow.