Review: Coma: Mortuary

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Every indie horror walking sim seems to think it has enough spooky atmosphere to carry the experience. They eschew monsters and puzzles and even narrative sometimes for the notion that dark halls and mysterious sounds can make their game worth playing. And every game like that I’ve played has been wrong, providing little more than interesting scenery to get bored in. Coma: Mortuary might be the king of these titles, a game so bereft of substance that it could be mistaken for a screensaver with button prompts.

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The game opens with the quintessential indie horror hook, a fatal car crash. Instead of being a journey into your guilty psyche, though, this one has you thoroughly and completely dead for a change, transported to the land of the dead where souls roam dingy crypts and sewers. There’s an entire cosmology to this place, full of purpose and history and intrigue, which your character will narrate to you as you wander empty halls and pull levers. You’ll get only the loosest connection between what you’re doing and what the story is, and by the time you start to see it the game will be over.

There’s a lot of problems to unpack in all that but I’m going to rend the gameplay asunder before we return to plot and pacing. This is very much a walking sim, moreso than most games you might want to assign the label to. You can walk, you can look, and you can interact but that last one is only going to be used about a dozen times through the entire game, mainly to pull levers to open doors. The rest of the time you’re just passing through, meandering down hallways on your way to the next hallway and bit of narration. It’s a plodding game in the literal sense, as there’s no sprint and your base movement speed is like when you get hit with some kind of goo effect in a better game.

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Dear Esther was pretty clearly the inspiration for Coma, considering the emphasis on wandering and listening to someone tell you a story. There’s no real puzzling to speak of here, just some levers to open doors that require you to wander away from the door for a bit. You won’t be rewarded for exploring, either, not with collectibles (there are none), notes (none of these either), or even just additional dialogue. Going the wrong way is purely a waste of time, made doubly infuriating by the early direction you get to “follow the light”, except half the time the light leads you to dead ends.

The only breaks you’ll get from the endless walking are two chase segments where you get to run instead of walk. I’m not entirely sure the first one counts though, as I got turned around a bit and the creeping darkness supposedly pursuing me never crept up. The second one has an angry lady out to get you which surprised me, and while it wasn’t scary it was a nice change of pace. That’s a big issue with the game, though, that the atmosphere never really works. There are too many samey rooms, too much boring talking, and not enough things happening to sell me on a horror atmosphere. I never felt at all threatened outside the short chases, not even when the game yanks camera control away from you to point you at spooky noises like footsteps or screams.

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Coma really likes taking control away from you too, especially for its badly-compressed in-game cutscenes. They’re the saddest things, very clearly the developers recording themselves playing and pretending to get scared at sounds. Transitions between scenes are rough, with hard fade-ins and outs and obnoxious blur effects on you when you appear in new areas. And even when you have full control over your character, he’ll blather on about the history and customs of the land of the dead, telling you all about the neat stuff that happens in the places you wander through instead of, y’know, showing you the things actually happening.

That’s what makes me angrier than anything about the game, honestly. The people behind Coma: Mortuary apparently came up with this whole plot about absent angels and usurpers and castes of souls and eternal prisons and your character’s disruptive presence in all this, and they share the story by reading off bullet points while you walk empty halls. Supposedly this was meant to be the first part of a trilogy and it shows hard, featuring a huge text dump and glimpses of far more interesting things after you finish your mind-numbing hour romp. I could go on about the failings of this title but I’ve already spent more time writing this review than I did playing the stupid thing, and I don’t want to be any more depressed about it than I already am.

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