Available on Playstation 4, XBOX One, and Windows/Steam
Amusement parks. Generally seen as a place teeming with fun and happiness. A place percolating with childlike wonderment and excitement around every corner. Well, for most people. For some, they aren’t that kind of place at all. Some may avoid them due to the (justifiable) belief that they are nothing more than Meccas of merchandising. Some people (like myself) are terrified of most of the rides, thus making it more of a “fear spot” than a “fun spot”. In developer Funcom’s The Park, originally released to Steam in Oct 2015 and now available for download on Playstation 4 and Xbox One, the amusement park becomes a home for psychological horror.
The Park is a spinoff of the MMORPG, The Secret World. As I have never played that game and know next to nothing about it, the previous sentence will be the extent into which we will discuss it. Despite its relation to that game, it is of utmost importance to state from the beginning of this review that it is not appropriate to call The Park a “game”. In fact, it is actually closer to a marginally interactive movie.
I say “interactive movie” due to the relative lack of freedom allowed. (Oh, and it’s only 2 or 3 hours long.) The Park forces the player/viewer to follow a fairly linear course of actions, with player interactions limited primarily to walking around, reading letters and notes, and occasionally trying to open doors, most of which don’t actually open. If you are looking for a legitimate “game”, you can probably stop reading now. (Don’t do that.) Those interested in a compelling horror experience may want to keep reading.
The player takes the role of Lorraine. As the “game” starts, you are preparing to leave from a day at Atlantic Island amusement park with your son, Callum. Callum has already been belted into the backseat when he notices that he’s left his teddy bear in the park. You then make a long, slow walk to back to the ticket booth in the hopes of getting help.
The man at the ticket booth knows you by name. He even mentions your tendency to forget things. He suddenly shouts for someone to “stop”, although you don’t see anyone. He informs you that it was Callum that ran in and then opens the gates for you to go in after him. You enter the park in search of your son.
Just out of curiosity, I made the trip back to the car before entering the park. Callum was no longer in the back seat.
The entrance to Atlantic Island features a long, steep escalator ascending the side of a large cliff. Callum is near the top before you even step onto it. Much like the walk to the ticket booth, the escalator carrying you into Atlantic Island is also quite slow. This allows Lorraine enough time to compare the entrances of theme parks with gateways to other worlds, dividing lines between worlds of fantasy and the monotonous ins-and-outs of our everyday lives.
Near the top of the escalator, Lorraine has a brief dizzy spell. As it clears, she finds that it is now much later in the evening and the park is seemingly long since closed. At just before sunset, the closing park was marginally unsettling with its vacant parking lot and quiet exterior. Now, with the skies awash in various shades of grey and black, Atlantic Island’s facade of merriment has taken on a much more sinister appearance.
Gameplay, as stated earlier, consists of walking around the deserted park in search of your son. The player is given the ability to run, but trust me, you’ll never need to run. The player can also take the few limited action mentioned earlier. The only other action that the player can take is to call for Callum. This will give you auditory or visual clues as to which direction in which to search.
As you make your way around the park, you will come upon various rides or showcases. As a parent, your natural instinct might be to search for your child first and THEN come back for the rides….. even though the park is long closed, and that might be kinda unsafe. However, in order to progress the story, you are obligated to activate these rides or attractions. While you don’t necessarily have to activate the first few in any particular order, certain requirements must be met before progressing to later ones. Attractions include a roller coaster, a Ferris wheel, a House of Horrors, and a few more.
While a lot of horror games focus on gore, jump scares, or sadistically depriving you of ammunition while in a house full of zombies, The Park is more concerned with getting under your skin and making you uncomfortable. And much to its credit, it waste no time doing so. Your vision may blur. Your heart may pound (which causes the controller to vibrate). The sound of wind blowing through the trees above gets subtly louder as it passes. Was there a whisper in that breeze?
As you progress, you start to uncover clues about the sordid past of the park’s development, as well as the history of the land that it was built on. You also start piecing together the story of the park’s beloved mascot, Chad the Chipmunk, and the day that he went batshit crazy. More unsettling to Lorraine, she also starts to unravel her own connections to this place.
Horror fans may also enjoy finding little genre references scattered throughout The Park. These include a few Lovecraft references, as well as a couple nods to The Shining. What some may not appreciate is the narrative’s strong focus on the dynamic between parent and child, or the directions that are taken with it.
What The Park does exceptionally well is keep you unsettled. There are even a few “slight of hand” moments when your attention is drawn to a large item nearby. You cautiously approach expecting some large scare only to have a small item next to you randomly fall over. This makes you jump more than the “big scare” because it’s not the scare you were expecting. However, subtlety be damned, there is at least one “shit your pants” moment that you won’t see coming. No, literally. You won’t see it coming. It’s just there.
As may be expected, there are a few flaws to be found. The biggest flaw, in my opinion, is that you are presented with quite a few notes and letters to read. The print on these is quite small and, unfortunately, there does not appear to be a zoom feature. For those with poor vision, like myself, this was a frequent headache. I had to stand right in front of the TV a few times in order to read them.
There may also be some complaint that the final “level” drags on too long. While it can get a little tedious, I do believe that this was the intention as it plays into the events unfolding. I fully expect some people to hate the ending. While I can’t say that I “loved” it, I did feel that it fit perfectly with the directions previously taken.
The Park is not for everyone. Those looking for the next Resident Evil or Silent Hill won’t find it here. Those looking for a thought-provoking story with a few uncomfortable turns may want to give this one a try. I enjoyed my trip to Atlantic Island, but I still hate amusement parks.
XBox One version used for review.