Boreal Tenebrae has been a game on my radar since hearing the Switch announcement, and I was thrilled to get an invite to play it. I make no excuses in saying this is my thing and admit that the short film won me over – if not for the content alone.
The premise is this: you play Bree. Fascinated by TV static, her younger sister Sarah somehow unleashes a curse that dooms their home, Dusky Rivers. Not long after static-infused monoliths appear, Sarah disappears, and now Bree must find her. You don’t exclusively play just Bree, but there’s a large ensemble cast, all exclusively sharing the same inventory.
Now, all of this feels very Lynchian, and as you may have seen from my Who’s Lila? review, I adore this sort of thing. In fear of being one-sided, I’m going to mention the things I don’t like about the game to get it out in the open, then give it praise where due.
There are far too many invisible walls and loading screens in this game. The walls are the worst part of Boreal Tenebrae, and while they aren’t game-breaking, they’re incredibly restrictive. You’ll see a clear path, yet unable to walk towards it, let alone get near it. Also, loading times in the game aren’t long, but they’re frequent.
You’ll get a Game Boy that triggers a mini-game early in the game. My character got stuck during my brief playthrough, and I couldn’t move. None of the buttons worked. As the screen went white, I could exit via the home menu, go straight back in and then load an autosave. This temporarily resolved the issue, but you’re putting a lot of faith in the autosave. The solution? Save often.
The good bits? Boreal Tenebrae is wonderful in terms of storytelling, world-building, character development, and all those juicy, sticky bits keeping it together. This feels like an interactive film with the high angled shots, avant-garde methods, and narrative tricks to make this immersive.
Giving off that 90s vibe, some elements make this feel like a top tier PlayStation one game – bells and all, and while it’s authentic with a 4:3 option, you can also play in widescreen. Despite being an oldie, I preferred it wide, though the cutscenes are constructed as if straight off of an old TV.
This is important as the VHS elements aren’t just there for presentation but part of the tale. The gritty analogue signals constantly signifying some meaning with multiple overlays were superb. Dialogue in Boreal Tenebrae is text-based, but there are voiceovers here and there, and the actors are well cast.
Piggybacking off the sound aspects, the score is fantastic, and in some of the scenes, I found myself pausing and just listening to them alone. Boreal Tenebrae oozes some of the best vibes from the 90s that I wouldn’t be surprised if some ‘scandal’ emerged that Snot Bubbles’ title is a remaster of a game from the era’s spot-on, in my opinion.
While the presentation is everything I had hoped for, the key element here is the atmosphere. Considering my beef with the walls and the awkwardness of the odd camera angle (a fixed perspective), the overall experience is excellent, which boils down to Boreal Tenebrae’s absurdity. That’s not to say it’s a mish-mash of weird stuff for the sake of it – this is a well thought out narrative; it’s just conveyed in a non-conventional way which I embrace with open arms and a cheeky slap on the bum. Don’t sue.
You might wonder what Boreal Tenebrae gameplay is like, what with this being a game. It’s good. Undoubtedly there will be times when you get stuck, so a hotspot button assists. Other times you have to be in the right place at the right time. A few areas wouldn’t trigger unless I went ‘the right way’ first (there’s an object in your inventory that offers fast travel, which sometimes conflicts with the story).
For me, Boreal Tenebrae didn’t disappoint. The gameplay was like munching through a family bag of Revels: it’s all peachy, but now and again, you’d eat a coffee one that would spoil the mood, but only briefly. In the end, it’s an indulgent experience that is a positive one; only you feel some guilt at having finished in one sitting. If you don’t know what Revels are, this analogy might have been wasted. Bottom line? I really liked it, but some of the 90s game mechanics (invisible walls) may cause frustration.