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This review contains spoilers
Even though this review is already marked as containing spoilers, I want to make as clear as can be made clear that if you are at all interested in horror games, the ways mechanics intervene on mood and theme (particularly as direct input verbs, not context sensitive perversions of character ability), the afflictions of anxiety and isolation on our hyper-current age, or in how adventure game puzzle design could potentially progress in directions that are contiguous with old Lucas games but are not coded in their makeup as jokes, then play Homebody before reading any further. It is my GOTY so far, and more than any game I’ve played this year, it benefits from a complete naivete of any of the component parts making up the game. I was amazed at how touching and nuanced the game managed to be at progressive stages, angling from many different vantage points a direct line into the heart of its arguments, especially considering that it’s the second game from the Game Grumps; the quality of this game has changed my position on wanting to play any games from this studio to ‘because they made it’ from ‘despite that they made it’ in 6 hours of profoundly meaningful art. Please play Homebody.
Okay, where to begin? Because of how the game presents itself, being another in what may be the renaissance of PSX nostalgia or the pit of indie stagnation depending on your viewpoint (I love this graphical starting point for the record - I think the high fidelity rendering of ‘life-like’ models being pumped out right now marks the lowest valley of aesthetic norms or movement in the medium since the pre-NES era), the most immediate draw, or repellant, within the game is likely the visual style: depending on how invested you are in the revitalisation of low-poly environments and character models, the gorgeousness of Homebody’s aesthetic could be enough to compel you to play it on its own. While last year’s PSX horror darling, Signalis, hewed more closely to the grainy call sign of Silent Hill, drawing similarly on that game series’ greater penchant for expanding the scope of the horror in both a maximalist approach for game world density and a obscuration of the shape of the horror environment, rendering many of its threats in blur, shadow, and fog to foment an unknowability that buds into a madness of incomplete understanding, Homebody is much more aggressively skewed towards the early RE side of things: a more compact arena that demands returning endlessly to the same corridors of horror that you know to contain that which can very easily kill you, which will do so with complete actualisation, and which offers no possible escape to the safety of the unknown. Like in RE1, you are confined in a mansion that endlessly expands but never lets up its envelopment; the further you are able to probe away from the centre of your peril, the more you realise how isolated you are. This is the first place where the PSX style of design helps in lending thematic poignancy - the more generalised style of rendering, wherein something like a cardboard box, due to the limitations of possible complexity in creating the model, represents a platonic ideal, or something nearer to that ideal, than something which, by dint of characteristics like dents, marker, shipping labels, etc., has a greater degree of specific, and thus empathic, but not embodied, adornment to the scenario at play. By placing the player within a simulation of possible expression towards the average, when that average is skewed, the player has had the opportunity to invest themselves personally on, and appositionally to, the behalf of their being ingratiated to the player character. Similarly, the PSX low poly rendering lends a degree of unknowability in congress with the investment it engenders; the load which that can be anything to bear comfort can similarly be invested with discord and surreality by a simpler rearrangement of the surrounding contexts, becoming something which was the player’s tether to a reality which housed them and fostered them to a noose which repels and devours them. The excitement/volatility of simplistic and more iterable models allow for an ebb and flow of the gestalt presence that the game world entire takes on in Homebody: wherein a highly realised, in detail and description, world like that in RE4R can there be present anchors which are immediately tied to the place as it is and will be for the runtime of the game, it cannot as easily shift any in-game representation in a mirrored or perpendicular meaning. In Homebody, the fixtures of lights, the position of vases, the contents of bowls can all be manipulated and perverted along a broader axis of tonal affliction because of the broadness and generic qualities of their representation, which when manipulated by the volatile and horrific nature of the game as a surreal journey, are in turn invested with a personal veracity, not a pictorial trust.
And so then, what are these themes that are causing waves of return and away transgressions embedded in mundane household objects? There are a lot, surprisingly not in a sequence that might be expected if you were to map out the emotional intensity that each presents when typically seen in other media or in games, if these themes are ever represented in games at all: 21st Century entropy in adult friendships, existential guilt, the body as a unit of time outside our control, millennial’s arrested development as economic prospect, jealousy as a polished instrument, and more. Each are treated in their turn not as a series of escalating difficulties which our PC, Emily, is saddled with as her tribulations mount to greater show later triumphs, but are blows which one nurses in the state of belief that the pain we hold belongs in the body; each is not a product of actions or an unfairness dealt, but a return to the mean. For example: as Emily tours through the house time after time, the dialogue her friends have for her graduate from the slyly accusatory with a metre of forgiveness to varieties of carceral and caustic, glinting in accord with the the increasing violence that has occurred physically across the house, but also across the memories we are shown in flashback and reinhabitation. In Majora’s Mask, the perversion of the town as doom eternally comes is an excellent suffusion of mood to the game, but in Homebody, not only is the mood deepened with these changing knowns, but also the texture with which our understanding of Emily as a character inhabited by us, who, without spoiling anything, is strung along in many more ways than simply by a joy-con.
If you’ve read this far without playing the game, you probably don’t intend to or feel the need to dodge the spoilers, but I’ll give one more warning, because what I’m about to go into is the intercession of mechanical theme that really put my heart in my throat. If I’d known it was coming, I would have been sorely robbed of a wonderful experience.
Dialogue, and to a lesser extent, in-game prose, are often the bulk, or entire, carriages that run the weight and density of thematic fulfilment in games which attempt some kind of excursion of meaning beyond mechanical exercise (this is true to such a degree that critics will often assign about as much time discussing theme in reviews as is proportionate to the talkiness of games: Into the Breach gets reviews which are 90% mechanical critique, Torment gets reviews which are 90% thematic critique). While many games create useful metaphors out of play, such as this year’s Sludge Life 2 or the real kings of mainstream metaphorical mechanics, Silent Hills 1-3, many which go for a degree of weight in their “point” have either realised or conditioned to accept that the transliteration of theme to mechanics will merely be disentangled and translated back upon critical play; it is often the assumption that architecture, play, and design will bear the brunt of tone, whereas writing and narrative design will carry the core thrusts of theme. Homebody is no real renegade from this formula. Its mechanics are pretty thoroughly Resident Evil meets LucasArts, and when not playing revamped Towers of Hanoi, Emily is typically in conversation. They are not ‘usually’ carriers for potent discussions of the themes laid out above (although they are marvellous red herrings for them). But, the twist of this dialogue is not that it merely says things on the themes above, but it does things with them as well. When chosen dialogue in conversations is switched out for varying degrees of nonchalance, deflection, or obscuration, Homebody is commenting doubly on Emily as a character, as well as allowing Emily both a perverse form of quantum agency: she is ‘choosing’ her words and receiving characterisation from the player, rebutting that control by being an enigma outside of the player who will not merely say what we choose, and disallowed of that choice by the antagonism of the game. She, when externalising nothing through these brush offs, is showing with telling, making as clear in the game as she can her interpretation of the events and how they emotionally affect her, but is suffering from the most common anxiety I know amongst people my age: she can’t say what she means, literally. Not only does this quasi realisation of Emily become a complex and bubbling uncertainty, but it applies exponentially outward to the house in all its tabula rasa PSX glory: the plainness of texts refuted and contorted does a similar trick of unreality that Control does with its theming toward objects of power in how they lodestone iconography with cultural subconsciousness. Emily is not allowed to say what she needs to, instead being a platonic “Emily” - what if a fruit bowl could not be what it needs to be, instead eternally presenting as the platonic “fruit bowl”. This is the major horror in Homebody. This is how the culmination of its influences congregate on the work as a total completeness. The unassuming nature of the adventure game style puzzles take this quality on; the music as a contextual undercurrent takes this quality on; the undressing of the house as set and its characters as housesitters takes this quality on: it is a game that languishes in the un of everything which is normally itself - a being in self negation that can only relay meaning through what it is, yet seemingly is not.
My only quibbles with the game are those likely born from budgetary issues: the AI of the homunculus is quite simplistic and easily broken, which turns the death it leers at you from a thing which terrors to one which moves the game forward (as dying is actually a wonderful thing for showing the next artful and morose interlude in the narrative). It will often stupidly loiter when not given a clear and immediate objective, turning the game occasionally into a queue of getting somewhere you already are. Similarly, depending on how often you have died throughout the game, the interludes can begin to repeat at the last mark in the game. This is disappointing because it's the full thematic peak as well as the peak of tension; the repetition of elements shows a bit more gaminess than is desired when it feels like everything else is organically crashing down on you. For a real minor nitpick, whenever you transition screens, your forward direction resets to a new alignment with the surrounding and you’ll often turn right back down into the corridor or room you’ve left from. It’s not awful, but a very minor annoyance that is constant.
An improvement in every area that the first game was weak in with only a few setbacks concerning the first game's strengths. Traversal has been expanded upon as well as ironed out, broadening the possible range of the platforming challenges that provide a quick and diverting compliment to the moderately sped up combat. Whereas in Blasphemous 1, platforming segments were not just monotonous and tedious to get through on a mechanical level, but they didn't toe the absolutely necessary line of 2D level design abstraction with worldly richness and sense of place. Most areas were navigable in a similar way, and that way was nearly always slightly aggravating and boring. In the sequel, areas have a more noticeable differentiation in architecture and transgressions of ingress, making for a varied and localisable pronouncement of site. With this, the finely tuned motorics of The Penitent One is complimented by a better expanded metroidvania toolset, creating more axes of incursion between the available elements of play; whereas in the first game, fight and flight were pretty grossly bisected, Blasphemous 2 anchors its platforming challenges in the tools honed with combat. While double jump, dash, and "grapple" (Metroid grapple i.e. only at specific point, but here with rings to grab onto) are all present, the major tools for both major gameplay modes, platforming and combat, are set within the weapons. With each of the 3 melee weapons, the player is given a new tool to experiment on many of the points of interaction within Blasphemous II's many varied systems: the rpg-lite progression paths born from each weapon elicits many interesting variations of play possibility, the traversal is more obviously built with the frictionless joy of metroidvania shuttle-running, and the combat sings with ebbs and flows that were not possible in the much simpler system of the first game.
Some minor regressions in terms of enemy design, many of which are carried over from the first game, and quest design, which, while archaic and obtuse in the first game, is dumbed down for a more simplistic collect-a-thon type of mode. The enemy that are carried over from the first game maintain the care of animation and attack variety, whereas the new enemies, while still deployed in interesting combat encounters throughout the entire experience, are less interesting to fight and to watch die (the first game got by with an incredible charm of gore: each enemy exploding in an ironic display of highly unique hubris when reposted). The dreamy and uncanny unknowability of ancient religion is also lost in the streamlined and gameified approach: I felt more at home in Blasphemous II, which kind of took away from the sublime terror and discomfort of the first game's religious theme. Religion in Blasphemous II is part of interesting world building, but it has less to be said about it when the second go around has finished - I feel about this messiah about as much as I do when thinking of Pantagruel: a far cry from the discomfort at sitting on Golgotha with Blasphemous I.
Overall, Blasphemous II improves over the first game, and is a better entry point for the games if you missed the first one in 2019. Going back to 1 from 2 would be difficult after the mechanical improvements, but so is reading Deuteronomy after the Gospels. There is a reason that the NLT is more popular than the KJV now.