The Crooked Man
David Hoover has been going through a tough time lately. His fianceé left him, his ailing mother can't remember who he is, and when his friends think he's not listening, they bicker over the difficulties they've faced in trying to help him out. To make things worse, there's been a series of strange happenings in his new apartment. It quickly becomes clear that something happened here, and now the place is very, very haunted. Maybe David just wants to get a good night's sleep, maybe this provides him with some sick new sense of purpose, but either way, he's off to track down the previous tenant and solve the mystery. Thus begins The Crooked Man, a free indie horror adventure game made by Uri and translated by Vgperson, who brought Ib and The Witch's House to the English-speaking side of the internet.
Take control of David as his investigation leads him to new places, exploring and solving puzzles along the way. You'll run into other people, all searching for something, just like him. How do you help them? Is it just a coincidence that everyone you meet carries a very familiar sort of hurt, or is there something more sinister afoot? But people aren't the most pressing concern—the Crooked Man is ready to rip you to pieces at a moment's notice, and you'd better be ready. It's very easy to die or get a sudden bad ending, so it's a welcome relief that the game allows you to save (almost) anywhere.
Analysis: The Crooked Man turned out to be a surprisingly solid game. The characters and environments are mostly the standard RPG toolkit pixel fare; fortunately here they serve as proof that the right developer can create a cohesive, unsettling atmosphere with those types of resources. Certain events are illustrated, which looks great and brings out a dirty, gritty feel that really emphasizes the story's essential... crookedness. The sound isn't especially notable, but it's nice enough and usually appropriate. But, the best part of The Crooked Man is probably its big, detailed levels. No complaints about games that need to flesh out their concepts here—each location is expansive enough to feel plausibly real, and stuffed with just the right amount of puzzles (which themselves are, while not extremely difficult, fun and consistently well-done). For those who like horror, Uri's world is a treat to explore. There aren't many jump scares or cheap ways to die, but it's still so deliciously eerie, almost reminiscent of early Silent Hill in pixels. Besides the Crooked Man himself, the people, the places, and even the protagonist are just a little bit off in the best kind of way.
Failure, depression, what it means when your life doesn't measure up to your own expectations... The Crooked Man explores some uncomfortable subject matter, but does so thoughtfully. There's nothing wrong with the trend of using wide-eyed young girls in frilly outfits as horror game protagonists, but The Crooked Man does something more original for the genre by casting the player as an adult that, for adult reasons, it can feel vulnerable to play. He's been through a lot, and maybe he hasn't come out from those experiences entirely unbroken. Many of you have probably felt like David at some point. He's the kind of player character that's difficult to trust, the kind that leaves you preparing yourself for the inevitable twist where he's not only a failure, but but a monster himself. It's not easy to be David, and though the best ending resolves on a high note, The Crooked Man as a whole is very aware of this. There have been games solely about these unhappy places in life, and those games have their place, but it's also nice to see these topics worked so well into a greater story.
Some players, however, might find the happy ending too happy. The Crooked Man will take you to some deeply dark places in David's life, and perhaps such a unilaterally positive outcome doesn't do those dark places justice. Hope at the bottom of Pandora's Box is one thing, but sunshine and rainbows are really another. And speaking of endings: hope you find the best one satisfying, because that's the only one with a sense of closure that you're going to get. The others, all bad ends, are reached instantly by a single wrong choice at various points in the game. While it solves the problem some games have where you need to replay something with little replay value again and again just to see all the endings, it also makes the bad ends feel a bit shallow and random. Points for rethinking that tired structure, but perhaps a compromise between the two extremes would have been best?
The Crooked Man has a few other problems, too-- the combat is better than most attempts to fit non-turn-based combat into a game made with an RPG toolkit, but it's still a little shaky. Sometimes the excellent atmosphere is broken by a line of awkward dialogue or a truly silly name (why would a little boy go by "Fluffy"?) But even with its flaws, The Crooked Man is still a smart, well-made game that stands up well among others of its type. It paved its own way instead of following the crowd, and hopefully other developers can take that and learn from it. The Crooked Man is creepy, memorable, and original, with great locations and characters it's easy to care about. If you're a fan of horror games, this one comes highly recommended.
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