Detention’s greatest strength is its tangible, unsettling atmosphere, which is lucky because fledgling developers Red Candle have built their whole game around it. Despite this being the studio’s first release, it shows a huge amount of maturity and hits most of the marks it aims for. Ultimately a few rough edges prevent Detention from rubbing shoulders with the classics of the genre, but it’s still an enjoyably chilling experience from start to finish.
In 1960s Taiwan, horror wasn’t an abstract concept. Horror was life, and it was everywhere. The country was in the midst of the White Terror, a brutal era where the very real threat of neighboring mainland China caused intense paranoia. Hundreds of thousands of people were persecuted in the name of uncovering alleged Communist insurgency, with whole families imprisoned, tortured, and executed for being suspected sympathizers. The constant menace of the Government’s imposed martial law was felt by ordinary citizens like an ominous shadow.
Detention mixes this real-life backdrop of oppression with a bunch of established Asian horror themes to create its own unique sense of dread. This is certainly a game with something on its mind — the political background is referenced, and it’s clear the developers want to draw attention to this shocking period in their country’s history — but it’s never spoon fed, or forced on the player through pages of exposition. It’s more like the intense scrutiny of this period of history bleeds through into the characters’ story, informing their behavior, and enhancing the threatening presence. The game is interested in exploring how ordinary Taiwanese citizens were affected under this regime, and in that way, it succeeds.
Over the course of Detention, you’ll take control of Wei and Ray, two pupils of Greenwood High. You switch between these two characters at designated times in the story. The gameplay itself takes place mainly in-and-around the school and is very much in the tradition of the classic point-and-click adventure. You move your character around the two-dimensional screens that make up the game’s locations simply by clicking where you’d like them to go. Items can be examined and picked up in the same way, with the game’s puzzles generally solved by grabbing an item and using it at a specific location, or combining two items and doing the same. Detention’s puzzles are mostly logical, or at least obey the game’s own set of warped rules, so you never get stuck because you’ve overlooked some sort of obscure and unlikely item combination (a staple of the point-and-click genre). If anything, some of the game’s puzzles are a little on the simple side, but in a game where uncovering the mystery of the story is given more emphasis than the mechanics of the game, you can forgive the developers for wanting to err on the side of maintaining forward momentum.
Aside from the puzzle solving, there’s also some threat in the form of the game’s enemies. The presence of something that can harm the protagonists is a bit of a departure from the genre norm and puts Detention more in line with survival horror games. Indeed, this feels very akin to the way these sorts of enemy encounters are handled in the Silent Hill series, both in the way that avoiding the enemies is usually the best course of action and also in the way that audio plays a huge role. Whenever one of the creatures is near, a relentless industrial din can be heard that is very reminiscent of the work done by Akira Yamaoka for Konami’s series. Confronting these creatures can be deadly, and you’ll find yourself back at a nearby save point if you come off the worst. I should point out that the sound design, though obviously derivative, is supremely effective not just in these moments but throughout the game. Small moments of eerie exposition are made all the more effective with the presence of perfectly delivered musical cues.
Mostly, Detention eschews jump scares and in-your-face gore in favor of the carefully crafted sense of dread with exists throughout the game, and this is helped by a washed-out, rudimentary art style which perfectly realizes the disturbing world of 1960s Taiwan. The simple color palette and emphasis on subtle lighting effects coupled with the simple character models at times reminded me of shadow puppetry. It’s a largely effective approach, though at times I would have liked a little more finesse in the character animation and a little more consistency in the detail of the game’s backdrops. I must also report that experienced some recurring graphical troubles with (unintended) ghost images, although this doesn’t appear to be a widespread issue, and will no doubt be fixed in a later update.
And while I’m feeling picky, I’ll also mention the writing. The story is told largely through text, which is fine, lending itself well to the atmosphere of the game as a whole. The script, however, clearly has some translation issues, and suffers from numerous typos and moments where you’re not quite sure about the specifics of what’s being communicated (some of the text’s vagueness is intentional, I’m sure, but not all).
Also, towards the end of Detention’s three to three-and-a-half hour runtime, the game’s established mechanics are thrown aside somewhat in favor of a more linear narrative, and I think the game suffers a little from that decision. The ending itself, however, I found extremely affecting, underlining how much, by its conclusion, the game’s setting and characters had gotten under my skin.
Detention is a real rarity. Its unique atmosphere and engaging mechanics grabbed my consciousness and didn’t let go. It seems nitpicky to criticize the elements that could have used a little more polish when the finished game is so unique and successful in what it sets out to achieve, but it’s really just because those inconsistencies prevent Detention from being the modern classic I’d like it to be. Perhaps most tellingly, the game forced me into the shoes of those living through the hell of that period of secret history, making it perhaps the most thought-provoking indie title I’ve played through in a while. If this sounds like your thing, take my criticism with a pinch of salt — if you can overlook the game’s failings and keep an open mind, there’s a truly singular experience waiting for you in Detention.
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