I’m a big fan of the horror genre, so when a new creepy adventure rears its head I simply have to try it out – especially when it’s a 2D one that utilises a much simpler aesthetic. I guess there are just a few too many first-person horror titles around these days to get too excited about, so playing the likes of Home, Uncanny Valley or The Long Reach can be a bit more refreshing at times.
Ellen is the latest release to fall into that category, with it recently hitting the Nintendo Switch after launching on PC earlier this year. With its intriguing narrative and creepy atmosphere, it really had the potential to offer some real scares too; however, some annoying gameplay mechanics see it falling a fair bit short of indie horror greatness.
Players take on the role of James, a young investigator who explores an abandoned house to unravel the mystery regarding the murder of a family known as the Smiths and the disappearance of their daughter Ellen. With strange sightings of a shadowy silhouette in the window frightening the locals, James looks to find out what exactly happened and if Ellen might still be alive…
Ellen’s tale is actually quite eerie, with documents, tape recordings, and pictures you find throughout the game helping flesh out the narrative. Whilst I’ll admit that some elements of the story could be a little bit predictable, I constantly found myself intrigued to find out more and uncover what was really going on. My only real complaint was that some of the text could be a bit small when played on the Switch’s handheld mode, but it’s all still readable so it’s not too big of an issue.
Gameplay-wise, Ellen sees you exploring your spooky 2D surroundings, all whilst avoiding monsters by staying out of their sight or hiding. There are plenty of collectibles to find along the way too, some of which expand the story and some of which are required to solve puzzles – it’s almost like a point and click adventure in this sense, though it also has its walking simulator moments too. Talking about walking, be prepared to deal with a slow movement speed in the game: whilst you can run, your stamina meter is so low that attempting to do so for more than a few seconds will see James stop for breath momentarily. Fortunately, he manages to grow his lungs for some of the chase sequences with monsters, but generally you’ll be moving around quite slowly.
A lot of the game’s puzzles are item-based and just require you to use the right item in the right place, but some require a bit more thinking – it might be unravelling the clues to figure out the code for a door, using a slide-puzzle to form a particular picture, or even memorising strange shapes and putting them in order to open a gate. There’s nothing TOO taxing as far as any challenge is concerned, but they’re decent little enigmas that keep you on your toes a little.
Ellen can be pretty linear in design; whilst the location you explore itself is quite big, areas will be blocked off by locked doors or an unavoidable monster that’ll give you a miserable death as soon as it spots you. However, when exploring particular areas an event will trigger, be it a little scare or an encounter with a monster. In turn, this will open up previously inaccessible pathways in the game (typically by removing a monster blocking your path). Whilst this ensures there’s always a way to progress and adds an extra bit of a mysterious allure of the game, it’s never made clear where this might be. There were more than a few occasions where I was stumped in the game and wondering where to go, only to find that one of the hallways that was previously blocked by a beast was now clear – it would take a good few minutes of searching around to uncover this though, which could be a bit of a pain. Now admittedly, Ellen’s environment is broke up into segments that aren’t particularly massive and there aren’t too many places to search, but when combined with the slow movement speed it could make for some unnecessarily frustrating moments.
What’s more, the inventory menu in the game is also a bit of a nightmare to use. Not only is it difficult to make out what section of the inventory you have selected, but you also can’t scroll through the items easily – you can only move through them by using the left or right buttons, with the up and down buttons not used despite the inventory’s grid-like layout. There’s no description as to what each item is either, so if you can’t work it out from its little pixely icon, you’re out of luck. It’s just fiddly, whilst the fact that you have to equip each items to a ‘quick menu’ just feels unnecessary too. Oh, and if you die after putting items in your ‘quick menu’, it gets reset and you’ve got to re-assign them again. Annoying.
Despite some sketchy gameplay elements in the game, there’s one thing that Ellen really does get right: its spooky vibe. The sound design is absolutely on point throughout with both the music and the things that ‘go bump in the night’ going a long way in giving the game an eerie atmosphere, whilst the little jump-scares, encounters with monsters, and ghastly sights do a good job of keeping the player on edge. Given that it’s a 2D adventure with a visual style that’s more similar to 8-bit than anything, it’s impressive that Ellen manages to nail the tone of what a survival horror title should feel like.
Whilst Ellen’s eerie atmosphere and intriguing narrative did enough to keep me entertained during its roughly three-hour runtime, I couldn’t help but to feel a little disappointed by my overall experience with the game. Besides the fact that the Switch version had a few little glitches here and there, it also had a cumbersome inventory menu, was unclear in directing the player where to go, and also had a character movement speed that felt unnecessarily slow.
These issues don’t do enough to make Ellen an awful game by any means, but they did enough to sour my experience with it. There really are a lot of things that the game does right, especially as far as offering little scares is concerned, but until it fixes some of its more obvious issues it might feel a little bit too frustrating for some players to handle.
Developer: Red Mount Media
Platform(s): Nintendo Switch (Reviewed), PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC