Review: Gray Dawn
Review copy provided by developer via Curator Connect
A strong visual style does a lot of work to get players immersed in a game, and I’d argue that goes double for horror. Whether it be a lo-fi pixel mess that leaves the terrible details to your imagination, or perfectly-sculpted vistas of decay to dampen your spirits, setting the tone for proper dread is key. Gray Dawn makes a strong showing right out the gate with an exquisitely-detailed mansion and breathtaking landscapes to explore, touched with bizarre and suggestive elements that pique curiosity. Unfortunately, your curious delving will only reveal a story loaded with tired twists and ridiculous turns, thoroughly destroying whatever atmosphere the visuals have worked so hard to build.
You are Father Abraham, a devout priest in a remote 1920s English village. The good Father’s name has been tarnished by rumors that he murdered an altar boy in his care by the name of David, and the controversy is ruining his life. Consumed by despair he turns to God to ease his troubled heart, but it is not the voice of God that answers his prayers. You embark upon a journey to uncover secrets that Abraham has buried, revealing the fate of David, the child’s family, and several other key characters in his life. This journey will take you far beyond the confines of England, though, and into realms that may very well surprise you.
Religion is a cornerstone of Gray Dawn, both in the plot and the visuals. Your character’s faith is tested as he faces nebulous demons and uncomfortable truths, and refuge is often found in holy items and iconography. Despite the ostensible setting of England (I didn’t actually know that until I checked the store page) much of the imagery is rooted in Eastern Orthodox designs, with colorful and ornate shrines and clothing. This brightens the game considerably and gives it a very unique look, one that I’m not sure I’ve seen in other games at all.
The visual style is easily the strongest part of this title, and it may seem worth it alone to behold the many spectacles within. Your house, which serves as a sort of hub between visions and revelations, is opulent and full of little details to poke at. The mindscapes you’ll find yourself in are rich with swaying grasses, flapping birds, and streaming rays of sunlight. There’s a scene with flaming skeletal horses, another with a shimmering sunken temple, and more still in luminous churches and sun-touched riverbanks. Your path through these environments is mostly linear but there are a few important secrets to find, and a few puzzles to suss out based on the items laying around.
But the thing is, none of that equals horror. And when the game tries to horrify, it often falls flat on its face. Early on there’s an exorcism scene complete with bloody walls and howling demons. But it’s in a child’s room, and there’s a little satanic choo-choo puffing around during the ritual. Seriously, it’s a little wooden train with a glowing pentagram and flames on it and I could not stop laughing. Later in the game you have to make a phone call, and a spider crawls out of the phone and skitters around the table, only for you to trap it under a teacup and never mention it again. The game is full of these absurd details, things that make no sense, add nothing to the scenes, and actively distract from the atmosphere.
Gray Dawn’s principal problem is tone, in that it cannot establish a consistent one. It’s particularly strange because it’s entirely unintentional; the game very clearly wants to be taken seriously, but everything that happens is fucking absurd. What I thought would be a serious murder mystery culminated in exorcising child corpses while wearing an iron diving suit inside the mouth of a giant demon. It’s the fever-dream madness of low-budget indie horror with a fresh coat of paint, a coherent-enough style to hide the insanity but only for so long. The voice acting only makes this worse, with your priest character giving the most deadpan, inappropriate responses to witnessing atrocities. And the puzzles are hardly that, just clicking on items until you can click on other things that use the items. I can only think of one actual puzzle in the game and I solved it on accident.
I wish I could say Gray Dawn was worth your time, because I hate to see such impressive visual style go to waste. But even there, the game breaks down by the end with un-textured notes and terribly stiff, waxen characters. It’s not worth it for that, it’s not worth it for the plot that I spent most of the three-hour runtime laughing at, and it’s not worth it for the scares because there are none. I would love to see the developers create something more appropriate with their bright, colorful art style, but if they do they need to at least hire a writer to save them from this kind of embarrassment.