Version tested: PC
Few could deny that the recent boom in indie development has revitalised horror gaming. Free from the blockbuster expectations that too often see terrifying tension replaced with bombastic action, it's the independent PC games that have brought vulnerability and unease back into vogue, enabling players to be genuinely scared by games once again.
Of course, horror doesn't need to be gruelling and scary. It can also be fun and silly, and that's the approach taken by this unfeasibly cute pixel art strategy-puzzler from two-man indie developer Twofold Secret.
Inspired by 1980s slasher movies, you're put in charge of the harassed counsellors at Camp Keepalive, a summer spot with hilariously lax health and safety protocols, populated as it is by wandering oblivious kids and surrounded by monster-infested forests. It's your job to use the counsellors to bring the endlessly spawning campers back to the safety of the lodge before the bloodthirsty creatures lurking in the darkness can get them.
In keeping with the 8-bit pixel art aesthetic, the mechanics of the game are chunky and simple. Each counsellor has a small number of action points to use each turn, and the map is divided into large squares, each of which costs one action point to cross. Left to their own devices, campers will roam at random and fall prey to the monsters. Enter the same square as a camper, however, and they'll follow you. Counsellors can also lay a trap - at the cost of another action point - creating a temporary safe spot that will kill any monster that enters.
Each counsellor has their own special skill, however, and it's here that the strategy begins to thicken into something more satisfying. Wyatt is the nerd of the initial quartet, and can carry three traps rather than one. Ashley is the tough tomboy, able to kill a monster with her bow and arrow by entering its space. She's still vulnerable to monsters attacking her though. Dave is the preppy stud of the group, and can use his charisma to gather together any campers in adjacent squares. Pierce, meanwhile, is the athlete, blessed with four action points per turn rather than three, and able to sprint immediately back to the lodge in a jam - though any campers following him will be unable to keep up.
Ranged against the varied skills of the counsellors is a gallery of ghouls, all of which have their own quirks and rules to follow. Some, like the Devouring Swarm and swampy Shambler, move randomly around the map. Others have more distinct purpose. Werewolves will home in on the nearest camper, while sinister clowns make like Pennywise and lure the kids into the clutches of other monsters. Jason-esque Axemen attack counsellors, while the Texas Chainsaw-referencing "Pleathermasks" will choose a particular counsellor and hunt them around the map.
There are enough overlapping mechanics and rules here to ensure that the game is immediately engaging, as you race to save enough campers to earn camp badges before the death toll rises too high or all the counsellors perish. The game mixes things up with some clever map design and distinct scenarios, spread across a calendar month of camping days to survive. More counsellors are also unlocked as you accrue badges allowing, for example, the use of stealth to get past monsters.
It's all rather delightful, and while the retro look is a little overplayed, it feels appropriate here, harking as it does to early horror games like the Atari 2600 take on Texas Chainsaw Massacre and in particular the Friday the 13th game for the ZX Spectrum, which also asked players to shepherd campers to safety.
It's also a very funny game, with lots of witty text messages keeping you updated on the action. "Despite all common sense, Jose steps out for a walk," announces the game as a new camper spawns in the depths of the forest. "It's going to be tough to explain this to Jeremy's parents," it deadpans when another blunders into the whirring saw of a murderous monster.
Camp Keepalive is best in small doses, however, as despite the changing maps it never really builds a compelling long-term experience on top of its appealing first impression. Repetition sinks in, rounds are either over too quickly or drag on too long, and the random nature of many of the game's key components starts to count against it. Too often, you'll find yourself speeding towards failure because campers spawn in places you simply can't reach in time, or blunder into the clutches of a beast before you've had a chance to save them. Given that they're all identical little blue stick men, unlike the characterful counsellors, it's hard to feel too invested in their fate other than as markers of your own bad luck.
There's also an annoying recurring bug where the game sometimes gets stuck between turns, forcing you to quit. If you've saved enough campers at that point, you still get told "Great Job!" and get to move on, but it's a rough edge that the game can ill afford.
Yet if Camp Keepalive is more successful in concept than long term execution, that's a hurdle easily overcome by its winning combination of deadpan humour, compact strategy and impulse-purchase price. As it stands now, it's a fun time-waster for retro game and horror fans. With a little more balance and polish, however, it could be something quite special.
7 / 10