Detention follows a unique arc in horror that not many other titles manage to trace. It starts in a perfectly grounded place, with familiar characters and real-world concerns. From there it spirals off into a fantastic journey of bizarre horrors and vivid, dreamlike imagery. At the tail end of this, it comes right back to a grounded conclusion somehow enhanced by the weirdness endured on the way there. It’s a deeply-affecting game because of this, one that wields its symbolism and purpose with a confident hand.
The game opens in the shoes of Wei, a high school student in 1960s Taiwan. After falling asleep in class he awakens to find himself trapped in the school during a typhoon, his only companion being an upper-classman named Ray. Mysterious events are set in motion that put them in peril, including the road into town washing away and a strange presence stalking the halls. As the story turns darker their relevance to the lives of these two students is laid bare, along with the reason for their isolation and the effect it has on their lives.
There are some VERY heavy overtones here, ones that resonate powerfully in the real world. Citizens of Taiwan in the 1960s lived under martial law, a brutal regime that allowed only limted speech and political ideology. Anyone who resisted was not long for this world, a threat that extended even to students. A cornerstone of Detention’s horror is set in this terrifying reality, where instructors and authorities are constantly watching for dissident thought to excise. Simply reading the wrong book could mean vanishing into the night with a bag over your head, and to me there are few ideas in horror more horrifying than that.
Detention brings this world to the player as a stark reality, where students and teachers alike are fearful and suspicious of each other with threat of death hanging over them all. It takes a terrible toll on them, and the psychological damage is a major focus of this title. It’s expressed through a great deal of striking imagery, much of it steeped in Chinese folklore. You’ll encounter religion in the shrines and talismans set about, mythology in the strange creatures you encounter and how you escape them, and culture in solving puzzles containing unique concepts like spirit money. For those of us unfamiliar with the culture it provides a unique sort of immersion, since we can’t be sure how some of the more esoteric elements fit with reality.
I wish I could explain the story more directly but it would be a crime to spoil any part of it, considering how gripping it is. The tale is told through a lot of shifting environments akin to Silent Hill, where familiar locations like classrooms and auditoriums become bastions of symbolic horrors. The further into the game you get the less grounded in reality these places become, yet this happens because they symbolize events in the real world more closely. You’ll learn plenty about one character’s broken home from a network of nightmare rooms filled with ghosts and needles and connected by a cursed radio. The intensity of the experience builds as you creep closer to the truth, and the closing revelations hit hard enough on a purely human level to make a major payoff.
The gameplay that gets you there is some basic pointing and clicking from a purely side-scrolling perspective. Items and points of interest are highlighted with a question mark when you draw near, so wandering the full extent of a room is sure to reveal everything of note. Puzzles here are plenty unique owing to the cultural influence, but are never confusing and have logical solutions. There’s not much challenge to the game aside from learning how the enemies work, since there’s a very different way of dealing with them than what you’re used to. There’s a curve to it but dying helpfully sends you to a special place with a strange NPC who advises you on what you did wrong.
Topping this package off with vivid, finely-animated graphics and some wonderfully horrifying sound design makes it a near-perfect entry in the genre. The only complaint I can level against it is a common one for quality titles, that being a lack of content to enjoy. Detention shouldn’t take you much more than two hours to complete, with no branching paths and only two endings which depend on answers given in the final area. There’s also an issue of consistency, as the game is split into four parts but the content of each varies pretty wildly in terms of threats and tone. This isn’t really a complaint but more of a warning that if you like something about an early part, it may not return later.
Detention did almost everything I could ask of a psychological horror game. It gave me interesting characters, it gave them depth, it threatened them with a horrifying concept, and it explored all aspects of that horror. If it were longer it might be my new pinnacle of the genre, but for what it is it’s still an impressive piece with the power to rattle anyone. The strange and intense symbolism gives way to fears that anyone, anywhere could have, reflected through events that really took place in the past. It’s a brilliant, terrifying, heartbreaking game that succeeds at everything it sets out to do, and deserves major recognition for it.