I read about Conscript a couple of months back, but little would I know that this indie title was going to be so good. Seriously, this is an impressive game from the demo alone, with subtle nods to a host of classic titles.
It wasn’t until after playing the demo that I looked at the particulars to see that this is a survival horror. It has all the elements you can expect from the genre and crafted so well, but it was the setting that was the curveball.
From Catchweight Studio, a team of… one – JD Mochi, we’re taken back to WWI to the Battle of Verdun. It’s a top-down viewpoint for this action title, clearly influenced by games from the 90s and 16-bit era.
As the Steam Game Festival draws to a close, I find myself frantically playing and writing up the demos that I intended to cover among the most recent reviews. While typing this up, I had the headphones on, with my character just leaving the very first location in the game.
Hearing footsteps made me pause for a second, but nothing was on-screen, so ignored the warning indicators. Taking another screenshot, the footsteps were getting closer, and to my left, I realised I was in trouble. This isn’t an RPG where some cute, doe-eyed fairy was going to welcome me to the realm. Instead, it was an enemy soldier who bludgeoned me to death as I had no way of defending myself.
Being on the receiving end of a blunt instrument isn’t desirable, but the animation of the attacker and my lifeless body were pretty cool. However, this did add to the fear that was brewing, considering the harrowing location.
I’ve always thought developers could experiment more with the era of trench warfare without it being overly fantasy-like or glorifying headshots. Death Stranding touched upon it, and it’s a period worth tapping in. The sheer horror of being in the dirt with no food, poisoned water and fearful of an enemy attack is unsettling.
Conscript begins with an introduction to the setting. It’s the 1st of June 1916 in Verdun, and the French are holding up against the Germans, but the latter are making a push. With supplies minimal and an influx of the wounded, it’s a losing battle.
You’re sent to retrieve ammo supplies, but a raid by the enemy has you knocked out, waking in your quarters to fend for yourself. From the intro, it becomes clear that you are stationed in the trenches with your brother Pierre, but he’s been wounded. A letter to mum says you will bring him home, but this could be a false promise.
For starters, you’re unarmed so have to find weapons to survive as from the outset you will be attacked, as per my opener. Initially, you can’t carry much, but there are larger bags hidden that allows for a bigger inventory.
As a survival horror title, expect to drop items as you can’t carry them – mostly the ammo as there will be things like fabric to combine to make bandages or add a bit of alcohol for added value. You can store excess items in a chest too, which is accessible throughout the demo.
When it comes to combat, you the left trigger to ‘unholster’ your weapon (it applies to melee weapons) and the right trigger takes action. Starting with a raid club, enemy troops take a few hits to die, but when switching to the pistol, it seemed to have the same effect, so to conserve ammo and keep my noise down, I went melee all the way. Later weapons include a rifle and shotgun.
One technique used with the enemy is the use of an exaggerated monster-like sound. It seems like it wouldn’t work and belittling the situation, but it works perfectly. Each time the enemy takes a swing at you, they let out a hellish roar that instils terror.
A Hellish Experience
The ambience is superb. Subtle instrumentals creep in when you enter claustrophobic spaces – which is essentially the trenches, and the imminent threat of an enemy arriving is scary stuff. As can’t always see the enemies and a circular shadow will float about you’re more reliant on the sounds, and that adds to the tension.
There are save points from lighting a lantern, but you have limited matches to use, hence savegames. In some ways, Conscript reminds me of Silent Hill: a fantastic soundtrack, brilliant atmosphere, and such a hellish environment that you question if it’s actually a nightmare?
The visuals are pretty nice, under the pixelated exterior. A lot of games that go for that retro aesthetic often apply that pixel-art look but have sharp text for our HD and above screens. The text in Conscript isn’t easy to read, however.
I’d almost say that this was like playing some abandonware – a game that 20+ years ago would have blown people away, like how Flashback did, or even further back, Doom or Wolfenstein. Still, this isn’t a history class, just to point out that the aesthetics are a throwback and a half and the presentation coupled with gameplay did blow me away.
Perhaps I’m reading too much into it and bigging up JD Mochi’s work, but to be honest, I don’t think so. It’s evident that a lot of attention and dare I say, love, has gone into this game and when it’s released in 2021, it should be an indie title near the top of your list.