White Night Review
Reviewed on Xbox One
→ March 9, 2015
Darkness, and the fear of what might be lurking in the shadows, can be terrifying. Or, it can also be deeply annoying – as exemplified by White Night, the adventure-game equivalent of banging your shins on a coffee table. The relationship between light and shade is brought wonderfully to life using a distinctive monochromatic graphical style, which lays the ground for an atmospheric and eerie adventure. Yet the same style undermines its exploration and puzzle-solving elements every step of the way.
The tone established by a near-exclusive use of black and white is definitely the best aspect of the experience. With a slow jazz piano playing softly in the background and darkness enveloping the lead character, I felt like I was stepping foot in a classic noir thriller from the ‘30s. I was drawn in by its heavy use of tropes, deliberately overwritten dialogue, crammed with outlandish similes, and its grizzled voice over – White Night wears its pulp influences proudly. But it’s also a haunted house mystery and a Hitchcock-inspired thriller. In short, there are a lot of influences swirling around, and while some overlap quite nicely – the damsel in distress reimagined as a restless spirit – overall I found it a bit of a muddled mashup.
Where it definitely succeeds, however, is in creating atmosphere and a sense of place. Vesper Mansion is a gloomy, fascinating environment I initially loved exploring. Emptying the world of colour creates a stark and stylish take on reality, where darkness really can consume you and light really does feel like a precious and powerful resource. Matches are needed to help you navigate the shadows, but they burn out quickly and provide no real protection from the evil ghosts that freely roam the gloomy corridors; electric light is the only way to permanently exorcise any nearby spirits. It reminded me of the original Resident Evil, where every room of Spencer Mansion had something cool or creepy to disclose, with the most disturbing secrets being buried deepest.
Likewise, the spooks themselves are excellent; they’re fuzzy, flickering creatures that look tormented in death. You can just about glimpse them through the darkness, contorted in a variety of sinister poses, from facing a wall or swinging from the rafters. If a ghost spots you, it issues a piercing cry and chases you – and that, right there, is the moment when White Night stops being any fun at all. It is possible to evade them, but more often than not, being spotted means you’re heading back to the last checkpoint, which is usually a frustrating distance back. There’s literally nothing you can do, unless you happen to be next to an electric light at the time. Any tension I felt pretty soon gave way to frustration, then boredom.
You can only save when you find an armchair in which to have a bit sit-down (similar to the original Resident Evil’s typewriter save system) which would be fine if Vesper Mansion weren’t so sparsely furnished with them. I found myself returning constantly to the nearest armchair – even if nearest meant a bit of a trek – to save my progress every time I completed a stage in a puzzle I was in the process of solving, because it got to the point where I couldn’t face redoing it all again should I accidentally run into the ghost on the final step.
That sounds whiney, I know, like I’m not up for a challenge. But the frustration I felt was exacerbated by another factor, one that unfortunately I have to traced back to White Night’s greatest strength: that art style. At the core, this is a puzzle game, in which you have to find items and solve problems. For example, you move an object and a ray of light falls to reveal a key. It’s neat, smart, and works well… but none of this is particularly aided by the near-absence of light or the insta-death enemies, and it’s actively hindered by the use of fixed camera angles. Seriously, for one reason or another, you can’t see what you’re doing most of the time.
At the beginning, I thought these stylish shots were fantastic. There’s one shot early on which looks down on you from a bird’s-eye perspective as you walk up the steps of the mansion; it’s straight out of Hitchcock’s Psycho. But when I was trying to find a light switch, and the camera angle obscured its location until I stepped into a very small sweet spot, I could have quite happily done without the artsy presentation. Sometimes I even resorted to the boring-but-reliable tactic of sweeping the perimeter of a room to see if an interaction icon would appear. (If you’re ever stuck, it usually means a light needs to be switch on somewhere.) Welcome back to the tedious old days of pixel-hunting adventure.