Decay: The Mare is an interesting name for an interesting game. Unfortunately it’s also an incredibly daft name, which doesn’t really mean anything. Decay is simply a reference to an episodic point-and-click horror franchise developed by Swedish indie outfit Shining Gate and published by Daedalic. The Mare, you learn only through looking at the Steam Trading Cards you get from playing through the 2 hour adventure, is one of the characters you meet, but who is never referenced by that name. “Bloody rotting-mannequin thing”, yes. “The Mare”? No. I didn’t understand the title of the game until after I finished it and looked it up.
In Decay: The Mare, you play as a man named Sam. Sam has checked himself into a strange rehabilitation clinic called Reaching Dreams, in a wild effort to rid himself of his drug addiction and the miserable life which went hand in hand with it. For some reason – possibly the “spooky” name of the clinic – he starts having crazy nightmares that never seem to end. Sam has a funny feeling that he’s supposed to be protecting one person from another, but doesn’t know who is who or what’s going on. In fact, he can’t tell if he’s awake or not, as he walks around and clicks everything possible to see what the hell is going on.
The premise of not being able to tell fantasy from reality is nothing new in the horror genre, but it does at least lend itself to gripping stories and a suitably creepy atmosphere. One of the many problems with Decay: The Mare is that its nature as a point-and-click game robs it of that other much-needed ingredient – tension.
The first thing which comes to mind when playing the game is that it feels like an homage to both the original Resident Evil and Silent Hill games. But unlike Silent Hill, which famously used fog as an integral part of its suspense, Decay: The Mare places a heavy-handed and ultimately irritating grain effect over everything you see. It’s like playing a game through Instagram, and it detracts from the experience. It’s a shame, because the story starts to approach becoming something interesting towards the end.
I say that the story only approaches becoming something interesting, because until it comes together in the final 2 minutes of the game, the plot is paper-thin. Sam’s involvement in the nightmare scenario is simply that he was unfortunate enough to be there – he has no ties to anyone else in the building, nor does he know who they are. He lacks the required emotional investment in his situation to make his plight interesting.
The puzzles, while amusing at times, are generally unrelated to the tone of the game and often feel shoehorned in. At one point you have a magic camera which sees magic graffiti. It’s like the developer just threw ideas at the game to see what would stick, without spending the time to ensure they made any kind of contextual sense.
Instances like this are forgiveable once or twice – and let’s face it, both the point and click and the horror game genre are hardly innocent when it comes to this; but Decay: The Mare is littered with them to the point where you are constantly questioning the point of what you’re doing and why certain things just happen to be in what is supposed to be an otherwise ordinary environment. None of this is helped by the fact that the item interface is clunky at best.
All in all, the biggest problem with Decay: The Mare is that it lacks consistency. When you examine a newspaper clipping, Sam will read it aloud. When Sam engages in conversation with another character, the dialogue is simply conveyed by reams of text. Perhaps that was a deliberate choice, or perhaps the budget couldn’t stretch to a full voice cast; but the result is that the game feels unfinished.
Decay would have benefited from more time in the planning stages. Developers, take note: if you’re trying to make an effective horror game, go and play Silent Hill 2, or Dead Space. The developers did something clever there – they hid the UI and the game became incredibly immersive as a result. Now imagine playing Dead Space with a UI overlay and a heavy-handed grain filter. It doesn’t work.
If you’re trying to make a good point-and-click adventure, go and play Broken Sword, or the LucasArts classics – games which featured (mostly) logical puzzles, and easy-to-use item management.
Talking about things that don’t work, I’m not convinced that point and click horror games are something which will ever live up to their full potential. Sure, there are some examples like I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream, but they’re the exception. Pacing in a horror game should be slow and steady – which you certainly get with Decay: The Mare, just not in the way that it should be. Take Amnesia, your progress is balanced between wanting to press onwards and trying not to defecate yourself. In Decay: The Mare, your progress is based on how fast you can click through the puzzles. You never really feel vulnerable, with the exception of three scripted jump scares which fall flat thanks to how cheap they feel.
The atmosphere is there at least, even if the lack of story and character development and do their best to spoil it. And if we scrap that irritating film grain, Decay: The Mare is a nice-looking game which rewards players who scour the environment. There are a number of coins hidden throughout, and collecting them all in one episode unlocks a hidden extra. Unlike older point and clicks like Grim Fandango or Money Island, items you can interact with are surprisingly hard to spot at times, but never so much that the game falls into dreaded pixel-hunt territory. Decay: The Mare can certainly be challenging at times, even with the presence of a hint system, and for that I tip my hat at the developers. The music is also pretty decent, albeit not particularly unique; it adds to the atmosphere just enough to keeps you interested while it lasts – which, as mentioned, isn’t long.
There isn’t really much more to say. I finished Decay: The Mare in 2 and a bit hours, and given all the other problems the game suffers from I can’t really recommend it. While it does some things rather well, they’re either hampered by being tethered to more problematic elements, or entirely negated by them. It’s not outright bad, and one can imagine that with a bit more polish and by avoiding some of the more glaringly obvious flaws in pacing and puzzle design, Shining Gate may have been able to elevate the score below by a good couple of points. But hypothetical scenarios about what Decay: The Mare could have been, won’t change what Decay: The Mare actually is. So unfortunately, unless you’re particularly forgiving when it comes to episodic point-and-click 3D psychological horror adventure games (deep breath!), Decay: The Mare is unlikely to be the game for you.