The Crow’s Eye is a confusing beast. From the outset, you’re presented with a typical horror game introduction. You wake up in Crowswood University, a long abandoned and very unsettling labyrinth of rooms and corridors, with one objective. Escape. Not surprisingly, you happen across a variety of notes and recordings detailing a number of morally grey experiments being undertaken at the University, all orchestrated by the mad scientist William Holtwick. So far, so blah. As the game progresses, The Crow’s Eye turns out to be vastly deeper, more intriguing, and more enjoyable than your standard psychological mystery game. The majority of the gameplay consists of navigating and solving environmental puzzles, all set against a gloomy atmospheric mechanical aesthetic, and I was continually reminded of Half-Life 2, Bioshock and even Portal during the course of my playthrough. When a piece of work is reminiscent of three such acclaimed gaming goliaths, you know something has been done right.
That isn’t to say The Crow’s Eye‘s allusions to these great cultural icons gives 3D2 Entertainment a free pass. The game takes a while to really pull you into the narrative with it’s almost bog-standard introduction. The brown-upon-brown interiors of the University do nothing to stimulate the gameplay. Even the mad scientist William Holtwick initially annoys as he raves down a portable radio at you, but after an hour, a certain realization hits: this isn’t the game you expected it to be. After a jumpscare very early on, it seems the experience will be standard horror fare. It’s anything but. Sure, there are creepy moments, but at it’s core, The Crow’s Eye is a platforming puzzler wrapped around a deep narrative. Early on, Holtwick speaks plain: you are part of a human experiment. While you progress, you learn that the experiment you’re part of clearly isn’t the only thing going on at the University, and the steady drip-feed of information regarding your role in everything drives you through the game in an effort to uncover the whole truth.
There are a handful of colorful characters you can learn about and hear from, but the majority of the exposition comes from Holtwick himself. I found his warbling irritating at first, but there was something very reminiscent of Mark Hamill’s Joker about it that I soon grew to like. The voice acting from the other characters is also excellent. The sultry tones of Holtwick’s protégé, Elizabeth O’Donnell, are smooth and sexy enough to add an extra layer of menace considering the part she plays in the depraved experiments. The audio design throughout The Crow’s Eye is of a very high standard. Frenzied music that builds in tempo during timed puzzles adds to the tension in a way that somehow confounds your senses. Eerie ambient notes linger about the hallways as you move from place to place. It’s a shame that some of the sound effects for manipulating objects in the game make the action feel displaced from the physical location. It doesn’t matter if you’re in a huge auditorium or tiny store room, smashing a glass anywhere sounds as if you’re standing in a muffled recording booth.
While we’re on the subject of smashing stuff, I didn’t really understand why the ability to break various objects was coded into the game at all. Plates, vials, wine glasses are littered about the University, and being able to break them never serves a purpose, apart from unlocking a couple of Steam achievements. I became suspicious that it was one big joke by the developers, after I sent the 20th beaker hurtling onto a pressure pad in order to get a door open, before realizing I’d overlooked an appropriately sized companion cube. I also didn’t really understand why there was a health bar. The only damage you take is environmental, and it’s never very much. Upon falling into a chasm, you simply respawn at the ledge you fell from, having lost a tiny portion of health. That isn’t to say I didn’t make sure my supply of health kits was stocked up, not that I ever came close to dying. The Crow’s Eye features a very simple crafting mechanic that allows you to botch together bandages, level maps, and a few other story related items, but again, I didn’t really see the point in it.
I started to wonder whether 3D2 Entertainment had the intention to add enemies into the mix, but either never got round to it, or decided it would detract from other elements of the game they wanted to focus on. It would explain a lot. Throwing breakable glass objects could distract any prowling monsters. Crafting bandages, scouring for resources, and managing health would become vital. It even makes sense in the narrative, as experimenting with humans usually throws up some horribly malformed beasties in other games. As it stands, the only real obstacle to progression are the puzzles. The Crow’s Eye doesn’t surpass Portal‘s mind-bending antics in this regard, but they take some basic premises from Valve’s style of puzzling, and make it their own.
The puzzles start simple. Put your companion cube here and climb on it to get to higher places. Congratulations. Then things start to heat up. You’re presented with a surreal chamber of floating, colored cubes, that you have to push into corresponding slots on the wall. Even more perplexing was a room containing more cubes that needed arranging to match up with a pattern on the floor. You’re also eventually given access to a hand-held electromagnet, which can be used to attract and repel the player towards or away from metal panels and orbs. This mechanic is marvelously novel, and made for some interesting and enjoyable platforming. As the game goes on, there’s a rat-in-a-maze vibe that pervades as you start to deftly manoeuvre across shifting platforms and through tight spaces, all while being observed by cameras and Holtwick himself. These puzzles were demanding, but not so demanding as to make you quit in rage, just enough to make you fist pump at finally solving them. You also have the ability to slow down time and give extra distance to your jumps with an adrenaline injection. As well as helping you to better control your movements during some of the trickier puzzles, slowing down time always adds a cinematic element to the gameplay. I don’t think I’ve enjoyed a puzzler like this since Portal 2 or Antichamber.
At 8-10 hours in length, The Crow’s Eye hits the sweet spot between being too short, and becoming repetitive. The grand reveal at the end of the game, the reason for why your character is being put through these trials, is satisfying, if a bit disappointing considering the build up. The entire game is centered around movement, but in the final scene, you’re rendered immobile while being treated to an extended expository dump. On the bright side, it’s learning about Holtwick’s other experiments that really make the story interesting. Things get very creepy as you approach the finale, and I was once again re-evaluating what kind of game this was. Strangely, this inconsistency improved the game. You were never able to tell whether the next room contained a cool puzzle, or a horrific revelation. This was the lasting impression The Crow’s Eye left me with. Although there are a scattering of minor annoyances, it was the enjoyment of unraveling both the story and the puzzles that you’ll remember.
The Crow’s Eye releases on Steam, March 20th, and will cost $14.99 according to the developers. Click here to visit the store and check it out for yourself.