I love a good scary movie or game, sometimes I’m actually craving the adrenaline rush. While I don’t scream and cower under my covers, I do relish something that can at least get my pulse going, and make me a little nervous. Issues arise when trying to satiate that desire and coming across a bevy of movies, games or books that just get it all wrong. Instead of a knuckle-clenching jolt to the adrenal systems you get a gassy shudder instead. See creating something that’s going to spook or thrill people is not an easy thing to accomplish. It’s more than just a dark forest. It’s more than just a gross looking monster. A good horror is heavily dependent on the multiple atmospheric elements working together. Lumber Island: That Special Place throws a lot of energy on setting a great stage for itself. It also blends mystery and scares along the way to lure your curiosity.
Not to beat a dead horse but Lumber Island: TSP reminds me in a way of The Note, because it is the complete antithesis of that game while coming from the same exact origins. Both are absolute indie products, but DeanForge Studio did not put an unfinished Unity student project up for sale on Steam and start charging for it. This is an actual game, more than that, this is a pretty good game pushing the right kind of atmosphere. This is an example of someone who cares about their craft, their idea, their story concepts. I had fun with Lumber Island, despite some flaws that jar you suddenly out of an otherwise wonderful thrill. That’s quite an accomplishment and enough to put this developer firmly on our list of “must follow” game designers.
Lumber Island plops gamers on the tip of an island, next to a rowboat that one can surmise brought you to this place. There’s no scrolling text or manual explaining anything about this place. It’s up to you to scrounge around and find clues about the place you’ve been stranded on. As you walk forward, you can see a dark misty wooded area, several structures in the distance. Dark droning music throbs on and on. A cloudy sky and moon provide the only light. You have no weapons. There is no heads-up display. You do not have a mini map. It’s just you, and your wits. Nearby up a hill there’s a campfire, and a teddy bear- yeah, a teddy bear. The kind of bear who’s beady little eyes follow you around no matter where you go it seems.
There’s a note near the campfire, letting me know what someone named “Helen” left a flare gun at the nearby Windmill for me. Quite by accident I clicked on something and I gathered up a lighter. In this case, the lighter is pretty important element to actually seeing what you’re doing, but there was nothing guaranteeing that I would find this vital exploration tool. Another player might wander the island for a considerable amount of time without finding this tool I would imagine. As advertised this game does not hold your hand in anyway, so I would have to be extra thorough in my searches.
As I explored, I saw a dark shadowy figure wandering around the woods. Hey look! There’s an axe in his hand, and a sack on his head. I decided against giving him a high-five and asking him if he plays fantasy football. Instead my body chose to loosen its colon muscles using the burst of air releasing from within, to power my flight behind some boulders. I watched as the looming figure lumbered toward the campsite. Seemed the smart choice to explore whichever opposite direction that guy was going.
On the other side of the island, there are numerous locations to explore. Clues and items are placed in both obvious and not so obvious locations. Move a pillow and find a missing half of a newspaper clipping. Find a key, then judging by the size you can tell if opens a door or a small lock, like a chest lock. Back track and read a note carefully, there’s usually a hidden meaning you’ll need to decipher first. In your hunt for answers and a direction, you’ll be avoiding Mr. Axeman, who is out there patrolling. In other portions of the game, you’ll find yourself inside an abandoned and eerie mansion, with an equally foreboding danger hanging in the foggy air. The effect and delivery was obvious, the way the game is laid out continually had me a tad paranoid. Whirling around and checking behind me not wanting to get slain by some crazy axe wielding maniac. I would run between locations unsure of where he was, and he WAS out there.
Creeking wood, things going bump in the night, mysterious objects falling all heighten your awareness. I have to admit the sudden jolting sounds startled me momentarily, and this isn’t abused at all, just unexpected at the placed before the player at the right times. A low droning musical backdrop keeps the mood mysterious and dark. If I had a pacemaker surely its battery would be drained in the first 20 minutes of Lumber Island, but I don’t have a pacemaker so I kept playing. Visually Lumber Island for the most part very well done. It has this “Unity” tinge to it, and if you’ve played a lot of Unity games you’ll instantly pick up on it. However DeanForge Studios has done a pretty good job of masking and working on various aspects to keep the game continuously fresh, sharp. From open forest areas to a claustrophobic creepy mansion players are given different angles of creepy exploration mixed with deadly puzzle solving.
Lumber Island has a few head-scratchers and unexplained glitches that sort of swept me out of the moment and back to my critique notepad. Since the game does not hold your hand, you can trigger events perhaps out of sequence. I say “out of sequence” because thinking back these things do make sense but perhaps because I missed a note or a newspaper clipping, I didn’t understand what was happening at that time. One such example, I found two boots in the various dwellings. Thanks to the contextually sensitive cursor I know they were objects that I could manipulate in some way. As I was trying to make my way to the Windmill, an area you discover early on houses a flare gun (could be useful for getting off this dark place right?) I ended up in a house with locked double door, a bed, and a chest with… a teddy bear inside. I mistakenly clicked the chest before clicking the note. Plop! Two boots went in the chest, and a cutscene unfolds where I am apparently hiding under the bed, watching Mr. Axe come in, open the chest and leave.
What the hell just happened? I wasn’t sure. I spent the next 30 minutes creeping around the woods whirling around expecting Mr. Axe to kill me at any moment. Once that cutscene occurs, you cannot go back and look in the chest. So I spent the next 20 minutes creeping around the woods expecting death at every turn. It wasn’t until a second playthrough did I realize that the note tells you once Mr. Axe has his favorite boots he will withdraw further into the island. Why? I don’t know. It’s a trigger, one that is expected I suppose to be triggered by finding the note first, backtracking for the boots and then starting the next scene.
In another instance I spent almost twenty five minutes stuck trying to open a door, I was convinced could be opened, but was unable. The reason was because I wasn’t close enough to spot the tiny lever that held the door handle in the locked position. There are other “What the… ?????” moments, one of the game’s enemies is just an awkwardly disfigured monster that looks out of place and far less spooky than Mr. Axe. A few notes are translated to English quite poorly, but you do get the gist of it most of the time. In a normal world, you could probably just get to the Windmill by jumping into the water for two minutes, but you’re not allowed in the water to get there. Or a meter tall boulder blocks your path on the other side, no way to jump over anything either.
There were a few areas I could not get past simply because I didn’t understand at all what to do next. There is a notable lack of clues, papers, photos, or explanations as to what to do next. I was confused thinking at one point, the game was over, but it was actually some kind of strange cutscene type moment that felt oddly disjointed, it triggered and ended in the most bizarre of ways. In another area I was constantly being killed by Mr. Axe. It became painfully obvious there was an invisible line in a hallway that triggered his appearance and he rushes to you and kills you dead. I went over this area a dozen times. Since I had previously been stumped and found a teensy tiny little switch in a dark corner I spent an annoying amount of time searching this small room for a clue. There was nothing. Finally I just went for the door in the hallway, which I had done ten times before, but this time I held the shift key to run and that got me through.
A few frustrating elements like that and a few awkward jarring moments do not take away from the rest of the game. Lumber Island: That Special Place, is a good horror thriller, one that will have you hooked and exploring each area carefully. Sure it could use a bit more polish, but as is, it’s one horror fans should not overlook. I’m already looking a back at a few of the “What the… ?????” moments with that cheesy nostalgic vision reserved for special kinds of cheese. When you step back and realize this r game was made by just one guy and its actually pretty fun, well I couldn’t help but be impressed. If you are looking for a thriller, give this game a shot, at it’s initial price on Steam the game’s already at pretty good value, and if you enjoyed this title keep an eye on developer DeanForge in the future, because I plan to.