Perhaps no other game genre is more inundated with tepid garbage than horror – which is why it’s refreshing to see an indie horror game that is at least competent in most respects, particularly for a developer’s first effort.
My biggest gripe with modern horror games is the sloppy, amateurish writing they almost all seem to be guilty of. I try to remember that I’m a writer by trade and therefore have a more critical eye toward others’ writing; even so, I can’t help but rip the hackneyed stories and stilted dialogue of most horror games to shreds. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the writing in The Piano, while far from masterful, is at least solid enough to hold the game together.
Meet our protagonist, John Barnerway, the youngest of four brothers. Ever living in the shadow of his three siblings – all master pianists – John is a generally sympathetic if occasionally bland young man. The game opens with John hopping into the back of a car in 1940s Paris, ostensibly to attend a performance being given by one of his brothers at the opera house. Things quickly get weird as the driver begins to speed up and stops responding to John’s questions – then something unspecified happens, and the screen fades to black.
We fade back in and are greeted by some humanoid shadow demons, ghostly graffiti all around the opera house, and a plethora of pickups that reveal sparse snippets of backstory on the Barnerway brothers. After sneaking (or just sprinting) past more shadow ghosts, it’s revealed that all three of John’s brothers have been murdered, and he’s the prime suspect. As the narrative gradually and haltingly unfolds, a thick backdrop of mental illness becomes apparent, first hinted at when John again fades to black and reappears in a mental hospital. After this segment, John warps back to the streets of Paris to hunt down clues and oversized newspaper clippings in an attempt to find out what really happened to his brothers – and to himself.
Only a few things about The Piano outright annoyed me, but the over-reliance on fading to black was one of them. It happens frequently when you’re being moved to a new area and usually leaves the impression that the developers lacked the skill to animate what’s going on, opting to simply fade out and load you back in with no clear understanding of what just happened. Besides being a minor gameplay annoyance, it doesn’t do any narrative favors for a game so outwardly committed to telling a story. The Piano does eventually conclude the tale it sets out to tell, answering most, if not all of its own questions – although those answers are not especially original or interesting. If nothing else, there is a beginning, a middle, and an end, with adequate character-driven momentum along the way.
The Piano is a Unity game, and it shows. With no native support for resolutions above 1920×1080, boxy models, and a rather narrow field of view, I felt like I was playing a mid-range PS2 game. The graphics and animations aren’t bad, they just aren’t especially good. There are also some noticeable UI problems, such as text running off the screen and a sanity meter that fades in and out so quickly and frequently as to be highly distracting.
Enemy design is generally uninspired, with a few exceptions. Most are slight variations on the same basic idea: translucent shadow creatures that chase you at about the speed of a healthy 80-year-old power walking around the mall at 5:30 in the morning. Each type of enemy is supposed to represent a specific aspect of John’s failing mental health, but their overly expository bestiary descriptions strangle the last semblances of any real gravitas they may have had.
Most of the game takes place in various parts of Paris, many of which look remarkably similar to one another. The outdoor neighborhoods, in particular, are so bland and samey that I got lost on quite a few occasions, confused as to whether or not I had already been in that location. Cutscenes are marginally better than gameplay in appearance, offering brief respites from the shadow monsters that were never very scary.
Sound & Music
You would think that a game called The Piano would feature lots of piano music, and you’d be right. Of all the game’s constituent elements, its soundtrack is the strongest. I consider myself a talented amateur when it comes to playing the piano, which is how my ears readily recognized music composed by someone of a similar skill level – someone with good musical ideas who only mostly knows what they’re doing. There are many haunting solo pieces throughout which aptly carry the whispers of loss and desolation that John must be feeling. There are occasional uncertain hiccups in the music and, here and there, a note which doesn’t sound quite right. Whether these are the errant fumblings of a young composer or intentional missteps meant to lend subtle shades of uncertainty to John’s developing madness is unclear, but choosing to believe the latter makes everything fit together a little more cohesively.
For the most part, the voice acting in The Piano is decent, especially when one considers that English is very clearly not the native language of anyone involved. John’s voice actor is the most competent of the bunch, offering a solid B minus performance. Other sound effects are less memorable; they get the job done in the moment but don’t especially help to flesh out the atmosphere.
Like I said earlier, The Piano is a Unity game. You can run, crouch, awkwardly dodge-roll, and that’s about it. The game emphasizes stealth when it comes to enemy encounters (combat is not possible), but I found stealth to be both ineffectual and unnecessary. The first few times a shadow with a flashlight for a head showed up to hunt for me, I tried to hide, but more often than not I only managed to fling myself around the corner rather than take cover behind it. Once I discovered that it’s entirely possible to simply outrun almost all the enemies, that’s what I did, and it became a regular chore.
Being close to an enemy or in its line of sight steadily drains John’s sanity, represented by a meter. I assume that the game ends if John’s sanity ever depletes completely, but I don’t know for sure, because it never happened to me. The Piano is, in this respect, easy to the point of being trivial. By the end of the game I had picked up dozens of recovery items, but never had to use a single one, because John’s sanity rapidly regenerates on its own as soon you lose your pursuer. Once in a while, you’ll be confronted with a clunky QTE in which you have to stare at a shadow and click your mouse until it goes away. For a self-proclaimed horror game, The Piano is never actually scary, but it does succeed in creating a persistent feeling of vague unease.
The game’s one truly interesting system is one in which you can piece together various clues in order to help John figure out what’s happening. You’ll be presented with a handful of clues you’ve discovered, each of which rehashes some information about a character or event, and you’re free to click on any two clues if you think they go together. If you’re right, both clues will combine into a new one, which will, in turn, offer new information. Sometimes you’ll go through several rounds of this process, whittling many clues down into one that integrates all of that information in a way that sheds some light on a particular facet of the mystery. After a certain point in the story, you’re even free to revisit old memories and remix them into alternate interpretations.
Were The Piano a game aiming to sell itself on its mechanics, I would mock them mercilessly, but it isn’t. It makes no secret of the fact that its primary desire is to tell you a story, and for that reason, I’m willing to go easy on its clunky presentation. The gameplay won’t be winning any awards, but it’s not so awful as to be unforgivable.
I spent a lot of money on my current PC. It can even run Crysis on max settings (this joke will likely never die). There’s no good reason my rig should have had as much trouble with The Piano as it did. Granted, I had a pre-release review copy, and some things may have been smoothed over in the final version, but my copy was rather abysmal on the performance front. It froze and crashed about a dozen times each throughout five hours of play, and there was noticeable stuttering in many places.
Verdict: 6/10 – Wait
The Piano is a very mixed bag indeed. It doesn’t truly excel in any regard, but it makes an honest effort to be good. Its shortcomings are primarily born of inexperience, rather than laziness. I have little patience for the latter, but I make every concession for the former.
If I were editing the script for The Piano, I would use a lot of red ink but would send it back to the writer with a sticky note reading “Needs work, but a good start – you can do this!” This is really saying something, considering we’re talking about indie horror games; most of their scripts would go directly into my shredder. It’s clear that Mistaken Visions knows what their strengths and weaknesses are. They chose to put most of their chips on the story while asking players to forgive the clunky gameplay, and the request to judge their work on these terms is made so forthrightly that I’m happy to oblige. If they learn from their mistakes with The Piano and keep honing their skills, I’m confident that their next project will be much stronger all around.
The Piano is currently 25% off its base price of $9.99 on Steam, in celebration of its recent release. I would hesitate to recommend a purchase at full price, but at a discount of 25% or more, I think it’s worth a buy. Even though it’s far from perfect, I’ll likely find myself thinking about its soundtrack and parts of its story for days to come; given how hard I can be on horror games, in particular, I’d call that a win.