One of the best aspects of a horror game is atmosphere. A successful horror game is one in which the elements within create a scary experience all their own, without necessitating jump scares, gore, or shock. This can be done through music, environment, or by the utter loneliness and fear of death around every corner, and it's rare for a game to accomplish this in all aspects. Stairs is one of those games. A game where even when I figure out there isn't actually anything waiting to kill me, I still found myself obsessively peeking around corners and rushing from hallway to hallway. It is when the only monster is in your imagination that you know you've got a great horror game on your hands.
It's actually hard to write about a game like this, because it requires "spoiling the atmosphere" a bit. This doesn't just mean story spoilers (though, those are also included here), but even certain basic mechanics and aspects are done in such a way that, if you know how they work, it can make the experience less fun or, less horrifying, but that's why it's fun. So for once, here is a summary of the review before the review starts for those who may desire the full experience: yes, Stairs is a good game. A great horror game. A truly terrifying experience. Not without faults of course—it has the "too much talking" issue in parts and some of the environments are built to make you think you can traverse them when you can't (I got stuck multiple times thinking I could squeeze through to a door but I actually couldn't). But honestly, it is one of the more traditionally scary games I've played this year, and it doesn't rely on jump scares. In fact, it doesn't have any jumpscares. Occasionally a noise might spook you, but it's less a jump scare and more you becoming so focused that any tiny deviation shocks you. If you need a game for Halloween that will truly scare you, no gimmicks, play this.
The story is a bit confusing at first, and the way it's told is ingenious if not disorienting (but hey, what's a horror game without the mystery). You are a journalist named Christopher Adams who is searching for the next big story and decide the appropriate course of action is to investigate an abandoned warehouse where a gruesome murder of a missing woman has taken place. You wander down into the basement, and from there things get weird.
You climb down the stairs (roll credits) and come across a woman begging for help, who you believe to be the supposedly dead victim, Valerie. She begs you to help her escape, but you immediately get the sinking suspicion that all is not what it appears, especially after she hangs herself mid-rescue. When you get inside the room, her corpse is gone, and her voice still echoes through the halls. (Fun story, at one point I looked in the room to check up on her, and didn't see her, then did a 360 and she was just sitting by the bookshelf, and I'm still not sure if this was intentional or I just wasn't paying attention but good job either way).
This is a survival horror game of the purest kind. You must complete the game solely on your wits and perserverence, wielding nothing but your camera, which is a neat mechanic I'll explain in a second. Your main obstacle is your own jarring fear. Honestly, the game almost feels like a slightly more meaty walking simulator at the start, because of the lack of any true threat or even, apparently, a fail condition. But you only really get that impression thinking back to it, because the atmosphere so successfully tricks you into being afraid.
In the first section, for instance, you come across a silhouette painted on the wall. It does nothing. Will never attack you. But I still found myself never ever turning my back to these things because, y'know, the one time I'm not looking at them they're gonna kill me. There are actual challenges later in the game you can fail, and one section with an actual monster.
The main mechanic of the game is your tasks to photograph certain things—which you log in your journal—and later, find you must use your camera to uncover hidden doors, levers, and to view otherwise unviewable messages and hints. It does suffer from the Outlast problem, where there is no battery or anything preventing you from ever putting your camera away, but it's only a slight problem. Some addition, to discourage using the camera constantly, may have been warranted, but that's more a nit pick than anything.
After the first room, you find more stairs—you see the pattern here—and you find yourself in a mine, discovering notes from one of the supposed murderers of the woman above, talking about finding an escape. This is the only time in the game you come across actual monsters, and this segment is probably the most horrifying. Not the part where the monster is stalking you, though that part is as spooky as you expect. You get a night vision peripheral and have to wander through a maze while avoiding what appear to be wendigos (as in, the horrifying creatures from Until Dawn that are born when a human resorts to cannibalism). The real horrifying part is when these things aren't attacking you. Stairs really banks on the power of imagination and it does it tremendously well. This was probably the scariest "level" of the game because of the impending threat. The wendigos only really come out later, but you feel ready to run during all segments, and occasionally catch what seems like glimpses of them. Unfortunately, I didn't get any screenshots of these. Mostly because every time I saw one I was too busy thinking about all the way I was going to die and have to start over.
After the mine you end up in a small mountain town that at first glance seems to be some kind of cult, led by the other alleged kidnapper, Remens. Things get especially supernatural for a bit and your player character even seems to become more involved. There's a very intense segment where you have to chase a light through a dark cavern, without falling behind or losing sight of it. It isn't scary, but it is eerie. Another segment requires you to uncover hidden levers by taking pictures of where they should be. The mixed mechanics and puzzles are a pretty good strength but also something of a weakness. Aside from the photographing mechanic, the tasks seem very loosely connected, and often don't include the main mechanic at all. It isn't necessarily a bad thing, but the story already seems somewhat unfocused because of the vastly different environments. Most of the puzzles and tasks are still interesting ideas though so you can probably give it a pass.
Probably the biggest problem I had with the game is that it is not without bugs. There's actually quite a few bugs, most of them related to you or other objects getting stuck in the environment. On one occasion, a wendigo got stuck on a door and I had to let myself die in order to continue. The game crashed once and I had to replay a section again. The camera is often very picky about the angle and distance from which you can take pictures. And the loading and rendering times break up the action a bit too much. These are all very technical, but they often take you right out of that otherwise excellent atmosphere—the only time I could ever feel afraid when getting stuck on a rock is when I was running from something, and that's more frustrating than anything.
Now, SPOILERS, but I really want to talk about the ending. While the end is a bit weird from a storytelling perspective, it's also fairly unexpected and makes a pretty crucial point. Not that I like politicizing my games but this one actually takes a turn I've never seen a horror game make. Remember how I said lots of horror games seem to be about journalists? Stairs is the first horror game I've ever seen where them being a journalist actually turns out an important factor in the story.
Throughout the game you seem to get the impression some characters know you, and at the end everything seem disrupted by a booming voice taking to you directly. You have to walk back through each level, as this narrator ties them together, revealing that who you believed to be murderers and killers were actually cancer victims who wanted to go out "on their own terms." They make a not so subtle hint that Adams, the player character, painted those people as killers through his writing and created the monsters he saw. It's an intriguing ending, and makes me think the game might be good as required play for all journalists. From a more technical standpoint though, it has some problems.
Namely, there isn't much buildup to this. You don't really relate to Adams much, who mostly interacts by documenting what he sees in the journal. But his reactions aren't relateable, and he seems completely aloof to the supernatural things happening. If you walked downstairs and somehow ended up on a mountain, a normal person would react to that. It doesn't seem to phase him. We don't learn anything about him personally, what he's written about it, or who he is. So this sudden epiphany, while interesting, isn't as striking as it could be. For a minute, I was just confused, because I hadn't gotten any glimpse of this guy doing something wrong. If he had been given more suitable reactions, and more buildup to this character, it may have hit harder. In the aftermath, you can see it. His first priority when investigating this murder was for himself, regardless of the victim. But when he comes across the victim, and she asks for help, he obliges despite the looming danger, so he doesn't seem all so terrible. Mostly, to be absolutely blunt, he just seems kind of dumb. His priorities are whack, but not in a sinister way, just in a "Why are you so concerned about that bookshelf when there's a dead body in the corner there" kind of way. He's oblivious, but he's not a monster in the way the game suggests.
So, ignore that, and maybe take the ending as something directed at you, the player. Obviously, it's specified for journalists, but that idea about sensationalizing and painting people as monsters, without ever knowing the whole story, is pretty common in all society. While most horror games tend to have messages against greed, or the overreach of science, this one stands out to me.
Stairs overall has an interesting story, a pretty well-done mechanic, but mostly it has amazing atmosphere in not one but three different environments, ranging from terrifying to eerie but always appropriate. The music and sound-mixing, pacing, all blows the atmosphere out of the park. It's something of a "haunted house" game, where you just sort of wander through and, realistically, there is very little that will actually hurt you. But it makes you think there is something to hurt you, and that's when a horror game is most terrifying. The bugs do take away from it, but they don't make the game unplayable. The story is not the best, and some of this may be because this game was translated from another language—Swedish, I believe, but I could be wrong—but it is a well-intentioned story, and the way it is told is what allows for the many environments, making it where you can never just get used to the atmosphere. It could do with more focus and some polish, but for what it is, I was very impressed by it, and I would likely play it again despite it being mostly linear.
Now, if you aren't convinced, there is a demo for this game on GameJolt. The pre-alpha demo, which I played before this title, but is more like an interactive teaser since this particular level doesn't appear in the full game (unless the levels are actually randomized and there is a lot more too it, though I got no indication of this. When I replay the game, if I get different levels, I'll make sure to update this). This demo is free and doesn't include the camera mechanic, but the atmosphere is similarly disturbing. You can check it out here. If you want the full game, you can get it on Steam for $12.99. This is a bit steep, considering a single playthrough is only about 3 to 4 hours. But it's still cheaper than seeing another Paranormal Activity.
Stairs was provided by the developer and reviewed on Steam.