Simulacra 2 Review - Killer App

Published: Wednesday, January 15, 2020 - 13:00 | By: Joseph Allen
Developer
Kaigan Games
Publisher
Another Indie
Release Date
January 15, 2020
Genre
Horror
Platforms
PC, Android, IOS
Purchase (Some links may be affiliated)
Steam
Killer App

Immersion in horror gaming is hard to achieve. More than any other genre, horror requires you to be completely sold on its narrative. That's very tough when the controller and TV are acting as an alienation device. These trappings remind you that you're not actually running from shambling horrors. Innovations like virtual reality help. Still, there are very few substitutes for a nice clever concept executed well. Simulacra 2 has that quality at a glance. Like its predecessor, it's a horror-thriller set within a smartphone.

The first Simulacra was a flawed game that attempted to explore themes of intrusion and alienation but fell flat on execution. Simulacra 2 boasts a larger budget and calls back to FMV adventure games of yore. If you've played Tex Murphy or The Last Express, imagine those games but with added Instagram. For a game like this to work, it needs to marry its gimmicky interface with a compelling narrative and make them work together. There were more than a few bugbears to squash from Simulacra. The sequel has its work cut out in polishing the intriguing central concept of smartphone horror to a mirror sheen.

Simulacra 2 | An Examined Life

An FMV sequence in Simulacra 2
Simulacra 2's FMV sequences are fun, but occasionally a touch hammy.

Instagram influencer Maya Crane died a short while ago under mysterious circumstances. The police are saying her death is an open-and-shut case, but the gruff Detective Murilo isn't so sure. He's gotten hold of Maya's phone, which could contain vital secrets about her life. Murilo recruits you to help him dig through the phone and find what you can. You'll take one of two roles. One choice is a fresh-faced detective cynical about the supernatural. The other is a hard-hitting investigative journalist. Your choice will have some bearing on the story, but for the most part, it's the same experience either way.

Simulacra wasn't a realistic tale of smartphone voyeurism. Naturally, neither is its sequel. The direction in which Simulacra's narrative progressed was divisive. If you played the first one and didn't like the resolution, you almost certainly won't get along with Simulacra 2. Though this is a standalone story, the themes of the two games are very much interconnected. If you've never played Simulacra, suffice it to say that while you'll start off innocuously checking apps and reading messages, that's very much not how the story will end up.

 
 

Unfortunately, this is the first failing of Simulacra 2. Perhaps it's churlish to criticize a game for wishing to stay away from social issues. Nevertheless, Simulacra 2 skirts around relevant questions about "cancel culture" and the inherent nastiness of social media. It never finds a satisfying way to address these themes. Certain narrative elements (which I don't wish to spoil) intrude on far more interesting ideas. Rooting through someone's phone to solve a crime has myriad ethical issues. The story never wants to examine them in detail. If you're just looking for a straightforward horror story, you'll find it here, but don't expect to be answering tough moral questions.

Simulacra 2 | Digital Native

A chat exchange in Simulacra 2
The writing in Simulacra 2 sometimes tends towards the expository.

It's a shame because it's clear that Kaigan Games has worked hard on Simulacra 2's interface. Like its predecessor, you play Simulacra 2 entirely within a single smartphone (with a couple of brief exceptions). The interface is a touch uncanny valley. If you squint, you'll notice several ways it deviates from a believable smartphone operating system. Still, Kaigan's attention to detail is remarkable. Phrases like "ok boomer" and "slay queen" pepper the home screen of Twitter analog Jabber, for example. Elsewhere, followers leave nasty comments on Maya's "Instagram" account.

This immersive quality is somewhat let down by Simulacra 2's writing. The devs have made a serious effort to improve the occasionally wonky writing from the first Simulacra. They haven't been entirely successful. Some of the dialogue in Simulacra 2 is patchy and breaks the suspension of disbelief. Some characters are supposedly native English speakers, but they don't sound like English is their first language. Since Simulacra 2 asks you to believe you're rooting through a real smartphone, this can be an issue.

For the most part, though, Simulacra 2 acquits itself well in the design department. Maya's phone is a believable environment. You'll find all the things a young fitness influencer would treasure. Pictures of food, emails from interested brands, and creepy stalker messages - they're all here. During Simulacra 2's quieter moments, there's a surprising weight to some of your discoveries. Moments where Maya consoled a friend or fought off a prospective stalker have a poignancy to them. This is, after all, a dead woman's phone, and you're scurrying about in the ruins of her life.

Simulacra 2 | Erring Tone

An audio message in Simulacra 2
If you're au fait with the complexities of social media, much of Simulacra 2 will resonate.

Simulacra 2 spends so long building up tension and a believable environment, so it's unfortunate how quickly things start to go sour. To put it simply, Simulacra 2 relies far too heavily on horror clichés. The dead silence as you consume more and more of a young woman's life is eerie enough. Sadly, it's not long before the jump scares begin and Simulacra 2 starts to repeat old tricks. Mysterious reboots, images not behaving as they should, and digital noise on videos are all scary to begin with. When you're seeing them every few minutes, however, it's hard not to become desensitized.

That's not to say Simulacra 2 has no more tricks up its sleeve once these scares start. Generally speaking, Kaigan Games maintains a tense and tragic atmosphere throughout the experience. Jump scares feel entirely unnecessary and don't contribute anything to the narrative. It's entirely possible to foster a sense of unnerved dread simply through subtle visual changes. With that in mind, it's a shame that Simulacra 2 dispenses with any pretense of subtlety pretty swiftly. Don't expect to make it through this one without the lights on if you're as much of a wimp as I am.

 

There is also a problem with tone. Although Simulacra 2 mostly manages to stay consistent, there are moments when the tone veers into the absurd. Early on, there's a video file explaining what your new law enforcement organization does. This video is ridiculous and immersion-shattering. There are a handful of moments like this throughout Simulacra 2 (although thankfully not too many). It feels like two games are at war here: an exciting smartphone thriller and a goofy horror game with pretensions towards B-movie camp. I never got a sense that these two warring factions resolved their issues.

Simulacra 2 | Puzzle Box

The Jabbr app in Simulacra 2
Simulacra 2's gameplay mostly consists of scrolling through screens like this one.

Actual gameplay in Simulacra 2 isn't too difficult. You'll spend most of your time fiddling with apps and scrolling through timelines. Occasionally, you'll also solve simple puzzles. When you're chatting to characters, you'll be able to select from a number of responses. There are also occasionally timed responses that require you to pick an option quickly. This is a nice touch - it's reflective of the real world, in which people won't often wait for you to type your response before they continue talking to you. Still, it's not exactly brain-teasing.

Since Simulacra 2 tells its story entirely within the confines of a smartphone, it does find time for some clever gameplay tricks. I don't want to spoil any of them here, because most of Simulacra 2's joys exist in its surprises. Despite its boasts of multiple endings, I don't think this is a game to replay frequently. Its horror tricks will feel like old hat on second, third, and fourth playthroughs. For new players, though, they'll be a breath of fresh air. This is especially true when comparing Simulacra 2 to modern triple-A horror games. It's much quieter and more menacing than, say, The Evil Within 2 would dare to be.

In some ways, it's tempting to look at Simulacra 2 as a smartphone walking simulator - a tapping simulator, perhaps. That's true, but it's more than that. Simulacra 2 manages to successfully tap into (no pun intended) the mixed feeling of wonderment and dread when using someone else's phone. That it achieves this with little more than a mocked-up smartphone interface is pretty remarkable in itself. Myriad problems drag Simulacra 2 away from greatness, but its central concept and execution do deserve praise.

 

Simulacra 2 | Final Thoughts

An email in Simulacra 2
For the most part, Simulacra 2 convincingly presents a young influencer's life.

There's a lot to like in Simulacra 2. It's an immersive, well-crafted smartphone thriller with some very effective spooky moments. Though its interface would never pass for real in meatspace, what few concessions it does make to gaming convenience feel earned. If you're simply looking for a reasonably-told story with a cool interface gimmick and some neat puzzles, you'll find that here. It's also an excellent balm for some of triple-A gaming's more bombastic and loud tendencies. Its short length comes as a relief in a world plagued by hundred-hour sandbox monsters.

With that said, Simulacra 2 is decidedly not a classic. Its horror shoots for the profundity of Silent Hill 2 but more evokes the rollercoaster scares of DreadOut. Again, if that's what you're looking for, then look no further, but there's so much potential here. If there is to be a Simulacra 3 - and I very much hope there is - Kaigan Games could do with stepping back and thinking about what this property could truly achieve. As it stands, like its predecessor, Simulacra 2 is an interesting, flawed experience. It frequently entertains, sometimes engages, but never truly stuns.


TechRaptor reviewed Simulacra 2 on PC via Steam using a code provided by the developer. It's also available on iOS and Android.

Review Summary

6.5
Simulacra 2 is an improvement on its predecessor, but there's further to go. A tighter narrative and better interface design don't quite compensate for sketchy writing and silly horror.

Pros

  • Excellent Interface Design
  • Some Very Effective Horror Moments
  • Often Tense And Exciting

Cons

  • Sometimes Veers Into Self-Parody
  • Uneven, Inconsistent Writing
  • Some Hammy FMV Acting

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Joe Allen's profile picture
Staff Writer

Dark Souls changed my life, and I'm here to spread the good news. I like pretty much all sorts of games, but I judge everything by its proximity to our Lord and saviour, Dark Souls.