Review: Love, Sam

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I can’t tell you how many indie horror games there are that lock you in a room or house to be tormented by something. It’s like this weird psychological horror gestalt where developers think they can tell Silent Hill 2’s story in Silent Hill 4’s apartment, without any of the mastery that made those games such touchstones. But Love, Sam is the one that gets it right. The folks who produced this dark little gem understood the needs of framing, pacing, and uncertainty to make the prison of your mind the horrific, oppressive place it can be. Not only that, they wove their horror into a fascinating mystery that will keep you guessing, right up until it’s too late.

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Holed up in your tiny studio apartment, you find yourself faced with the weight of your past. On your desk is a diary, detailing the lives of four high school classmates. Flipping through the pages, you are returned to a time of uncertainty, passion, and tragedy that haunts you to this day. Have you relived this story before? Why can’t you seem to escape its clutches? As you delve deeper into the events of that fateful year, your surroundings will change to reflect your fears and emotions. There’s something that you need to face, something that will not stop tugging at the edges of your mind. And it’s up to you to put an end to it.

That might sound a bit grandiose, but Love, Sam has the pacing and the escalation to back it up. The story starts as a very simple recollection of events, working through the diary and making notes of particular events. Conveyed through some very solid writing and believable characters, this is the part that so many indie horror games fail at: forming a connection between the player and the story. By the time things start to go bad, you’ll be invested in the tale and working to sort out the secrets and connections. That attachment turns the scares into an adversary to overcome in your quest, and makes the revelations all the more impactful when you expectations are confirmed, or completely up-ended.

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And oh Lord, do things go bad. There are some painful moments in this tale of love and loss, and there is a presence in your apartment that wants you to feel them. Things will start to happen the further you get into the diary, forcing you to search around your room or deal with things that should not be there. The interplay between the diary text and your surroundings is expertly done, with tons of those terrible moments where you know something is about to happen, but not what. Few opportunities to terrify are missed here, and there was only one sequence that I didn’t particularly care for because of how video-gamey it was compared to the rest of the experience. That’s an excellent track record for an indie horror game, and well-worth powering through to get to the game’s multiple endings.

In terms of looks, Love, Sam is exactly what it needs to be and no more, perfectly functional in its simple depictions of your room and its features. The sound design is exemplary though, with perfectly-timed cues, ominous ambiance, and oppressive noises right where they need to be. It’s surprisingly long for its scope, too, clocking in at just under three hours without any real padding or weak segments. Really, Love, Sam is what other indie horror games aspire to, a testament to the power of writing and pacing that it can make a single studio apartment so terrifying. If you’ve ever picked up a cheap first-person horror game hoping for a quality experience, this is the one you wanted.

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