Content of the article: "My Thoughs on The Painscreek Killings"
This is a long post, feel free to skip through my ranting
I’d had the game in my wishlist for a while, so I finally decided to pick it up during the Steam Summer Sale. I’m a big fan of detective-style games and walking simulators, so it seemed right up my alley.
First of all, this is NOT a spoiler free overview– because of the nature of this game I cannot fully give my thoughts without getting into spoilers. Only read this if you’re not interested in playing the game or have already played it. I will give a summary at the end with my overall thoughts for those interested in playing the game.
Me and my wife completed this game in two sittings- I played and she kept notes.
The developer, EQ Studios is based out of Las Vegas, Nevada. https://www.eqstudios.com
This game was released September 27th, 2017.
The Painscreek Killings
You start the game with a simple objective. You are a reporter and you must find out who killed Vivian Roberts, determine the murder weapon, and take a picture for the story. The world is fairly open-ended but the majority of doors are locked, so you are pretty quickly funneled to one of the two larger buildings in the game where you can learn more information.
It’s always important to suspend your disbelief in games like this. Even in games by huge studios, getting information to the player is very hard. For small teams, even though it makes no logical sense, it’s entirely understandable to rely on random journals and diaries to convey the majority of information. Each character in this game basically keeps their own autobiographies scattered to the wind in multiple volumes. Rather than feeling abandoned, the town feels more like it’s a snapshot of right before it was abandoned. Packed boxes and furniture have been left behind, cars left parked. Medical documents just laying around in the hospital. A couple of spots even have what looks like fairly fresh blood. I feel like this game could’ve gotten away with something a little bit weirder than just being a simple journalist- adding just a touch of a surreal element would add to the immersion and atmosphere. I’m not saying it should go full Supernatural, just that it would be nice to have a bit of an explanation for the strange state of the world.
Graphically, I think the team did a great job. The town has a great atmosphere. It feels empty, quiet, and mysterious. While it is clear this game was made by a small group of people, the amount of work given to the visual presentation is evident. My favorite areas are the two large buildings you can visit- the mansion and the hospital. In both of these areas, you can walk around the buildings and see into the various rooms, which to me is very satisfying. There were a few spots that felt a bit barren or lower res than others- particularly, I noticed that some journal lines would be really jagged and blurry and others were crystal clear. There’s some detailed texture work here and there for environmental objects added just for visual flair- a cereal called “Adios!”, a possible reference to Full Metal Alchemist in the form of a ritual symbol. For a small team they managed to fit a lot of variety into the assets.
The gameplay involves mainly garnering information from the environment, documents, and lots and lots of journals. I’m an extremely nosy journalist, so I opened probably every single drawer in the game. You will then use the information they give you to unlock the next lock (using a key, code combination, or puzzle), get more information, and continue so on. Many of the solutions are written plainly on sticky notes or in journals, others require a little bit more digging. I never felt particularly challenged with a puzzle solution. At the times where I did feel like a puzzle was challenging me, it would later turn out that I simply did not have the information with the solution yet (I’ll talk more on this in a bit). The first few hours of the game consisted mostly of writing down names, jobs, and addresses in order to get bearings on the town. You will end up with a lot of information very quickly- but it all comes to make sense. I applaud the game’s first few hours for this, it’s immaculately paced. It gives you just the right amount of information to form a cohesive picture of the town and its residence without being too overbearing.
As for the story and the writing, I think there’s a few pretty heavy flaws. The characters lack… character. All of the journal entries and notes share the same style of writing. Even the ones that are supposed to be written by children feel far too similar to those written by adults. Because of this, you never really get a sense of character for the individuals. You only ever will get glimpses of personality through anecdotal stories. There’s a pointed lack of passion in the majority of the writing- even when a character is making a shocking revelation or confession. characters never come off as cold, chilling, or even as unhappy. It mostly just feels like they’re spilling information onto the page.
As for the story itself, I think that it’s solid. It’s nothing particularly fascinating or new, but it’s delivered in an interesting enough environment to make it worthwhile. There are a few twists here and there with characters that initially appear to be unrelated. There are a few side characters that turn out to be pretty irrelevant that could have been wrapped in a little more, but overall I think it works. I would have appreciated maybe one tangential side plot that turned out to be for laughs just to cut the tension of the rest of the story. How great would it be to have totally unrelated characters who sound like they’re plotting murder, only to discover they’re just secretly playing Bingo or something?
There were two moments in the game that gave me a scare. In the first, a breaker basically trips on its own within the hospital. The second only occurs if you walk around the hospital exterior- when you return you will see a statue-like figure of a girl on top of the roof. Creepy.
When it comes to how the puzzles and narrative actually relate and play out, there’s a ton of unexplored potential. One of my favorite TV shows is Twin Peaks- it shares a lot of similarities with Painscreek. They both take place in a small town and the stories both revolve around solving a murder, and diaries are also very important in both. They both also have a limited ‘pool’ of characters with whom you begin to become acquainted with, and therefor begin forming theories and speculating about the perpetrator. In the very first episode of Twin Peaks, Agent Cooper discovers a mysterious entry in the diary of the victim that reads “Nervous about meeting J tonight”. The question becomes who is J and why were they meeting? A list is formed with people with ‘J’ names- it’s a decent lead. Painscreek has glimpses into this sort of potential deduction- a character named Vincent whom no one seems to know much about and doesn’t seem to be a resident. An unmarked grave in the cemetery. Who are these people? Rather than let you discover that through context clues and deduction, you will be told it directly through a journal entry once you’ve read enough.
There are a few locks that had the potential to be cleverly solved- but the game too often insists on spelling out the solution for you. One solution that comes to mind involves counting the score off of a dart board found in a character’s study. There are yellow and red darts. In a different building you can find a guide to adding up the score from the board. To me, this is all the hints that should have been necessary to solving the combination. There would be a few different possibilities- it could be the yellow score followed by the red score, vise-versa, the total score, or the bigger score subtracted from the smaller score. Instead, a nearby journal just tells you something along the lines of “the code is red minus yellow”. To make it worse, one of the darts has fallen off, so you can’t even use the environmental clue once you’ve discovered the solution. Instead you must wait until later in the game where you will find a picture of the dart board. You might think that it may be cleverly hidden in the background of some photo- but unfortunately it’s just a square-on picture of the board.
I know I just spent a very long paragraph ranting about the solution to one puzzle, but it’s because there are so many others like this. Clever in design but poor in execution. It’s kind of ironic- there is a P. I. character that’s left a bunch of pictures behind related to puzzle solutions. I’m supposed to be the detective, I want to find them the way he did, not cheat off his work! It seems that rather than find clever ways to convey the solutions, they use the P.I. as a sort of Deus Ex Machina for giving you solutions.
One of the more disappointing aspects of the game is the ending. It’s triggered by interacting with an otherwise unmarked tape recorder. it features a chase sequence where you must outrun the murderer who also happens to be wielding the murder weapon. You follow the ghost of one of the victims to the spot where a character committed suicide by jumping off a ledge. The murderer falls and dies.
I can’t tell you how deflating I felt this was. The game tells you that you will need to use your reasoning to determine the killer. The game spoils itself. Not only that, but because it trigger suddenly I had to reload my save to go and locate the handful of letters I missed. I think it would’ve been a far better ending to have the player guess the killer and weapon, then if they are correct, have Mathew send in the tape as a confession that plays which leads to his arrest (or suicide).
Summary: In the end, Painscreek failed to make me feel like a real detective. As I approached the final hours of the game, it was becoming more and more clear what it was leading to. I do want to be clear that the only reason I’m so hard on this game is because I love its ideas and atmosphere so much. It managed to keep my interest all the way through, and even though I never really had to employ much deductive reasoning I still think I enjoyed playing the majority of it. I’d say that if you’re a fan of detective/mystery games, this is a must-play for the atmosphere and overall mystery, but if you’re not a huge fan of the genre I don’t think this will do much for you. I also think that if you’re looking for a chill experience to play with a friend or S.O. this is a pretty decent option.
One of the clues involves finding the birthday of a particular character that had passed away. Earlier, I remember noting that the character was the only one in the cemetery that actually had the specific date of birth marked on the tomb, so I already had that in mind so it wasn’t much of a challenge. It’s a small thing, but why not put the full dates on everyone’s tombstones so it doesn’t stand out so much, and also fills out the world a bit?
The one thing I ended up needing help with: For one of the clues I spent maybe 15 minutes trying to find storm drains. Before that, I had assumed that the information was leading me to look in the sewer drains since there were several that I noticed when I was down there. When I returned to the surface I looks diligently all around several buildings to see if I could find these elusive drains. Eventually I ended up looking up where the hell they were. Turns out they’re exactly the same color as the road and they blend in incredibly well. This could easily be fixed by changing the color of the grates slightly to make them stand out, if even just slightly.
There’s a lot of looping information. Sometimes even in the same area you will find journals that will repeat information far too many times, so it feels like it’s hammering you with it. I think a lot of it is the developers afraid you’ll miss something important if you’re going for the 50% ending- since the game is open ended you may avoid some areas altogether.
There were definitely a few grammatical and spelling errors that caused me to have to read paragraphs several times. Nothing too major, and you can always attribute it as a mistake on the journal writer’s behalf. The wording of things sometimes just seems off, definitely feels like something that needed a look over by an editor. Due to the wording of something I initially thought that they perhaps weren’t native English speakers, but since the studio is based in the US I doubt it’s the case.
I’ve included some other games with similar gameplay if anyone is interested in checking out more games like this!
The Return of the Obra Dinn (This is my most highly recommended game on this list and probably my favorite detective game of all time. You will need to take notes and rely heavily on deduction to move forward. Try it!)
Her Story (Detective game where you piece together a story using segments of police recordings, very short but definitely worth playing)
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney Series (more of a graphic novel with adventure and deduction elements)
Ether One: Redux
Myst/Riven/Obduction (Adventure Games where you will need to closely examine your environment and solve puzzles to move forward. As far as piecing together a story, the world’s in these games are weird and mysterious and you will learn more about them as you go on.)
Walking Sims (best to go in blind on these if you like the genre. They are essentially all linear stories with light puzzles):
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter
What Remains of Edith Finch
The Stanley Parable
Outer Wilds (if you’re into exploration and story games this a must play!)
The Witness (great puzzles and environmental interaction)
Disco Elysium (CRPG with detective elements, there’s a lot to discover and the writing is superb. Not for everyone)
Deadly Premonition (weird, janky, cheesy game where you play a detective in a small town. The games charm is its weirdness, not really any of the detective elements).
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