I fancy myself something of a detective based on the erroneous number of cold case shows and British crime dramas I've consumed. My video game library includes the Ace Attorney series, Hotel Dusk, Why Am I Dead At Sea, and many other intriguing mysteries. So, when a game popped up in my Steam recommendations that promised to be akin to solving an actual cold case, where evidence must be gathered and my hand wouldn’t be held if I missed anything, I dove right in with my notepad at hand to test my gumshoe skills. There began my journey through The Painscreek Killings.
The notebook remark was no exaggeration; right after I started a new game, a message popped up that encouraged players to have a notebook with them during the playthrough. I cannot recommend enough that future detectives heed this message. The semi-open world is chock full names, dates, missing evidence, locations, and happenings. Having my notebook allowed me to make connections and wrap my head around things I could not have kept straight otherwise. In a world where things are rarely where they should be and everything is important, it's easy to get lost without old-fashioned notetaking.
The Painscreek Killings opens with an introductory exposition voicemail introducing me to Janet, the up-and-coming eager journalist who serves as our first-person protagonist. Years prior to Janet's arrival in the town of Painscreek, Vivian Roberts - the mayor's wife and all-around do-gooder - was murdered, and nobody was ever convicted for her death. Vivian was a beloved figure in Painscreek and her death came as a shock to all. The town had since been abandoned by all residents and was scheduled to be demolished to clear the land. Janet is charged with using her camera and wit to glean from the clues left behind in the ghost town the answers to three questions: who killed Vivian, how, and why.
What I liked about Painscreek from the get-go was the semi-open world quality. There weren't hints or objectives. I was dropped into an unsettling town and had to pick a place to start randomly, hoping it would lead to more and more clues. The lack of hand-holding made the game more realistic to detective work, and it's a rare treat for people like me who love solving mysteries. I don't want to be told where to go or if I've missed evidence - if I mess up, it's my own fault!
Before I took two in-game steps forward, I became suspicious that there was something far bigger going on. It’s no spoiler, it's right in the title of the game: The Painscreek Killings. Plural. Even though I was sent to solve one murder, it was clear from the moment of purchase that more deaths had occurred, and they were likely connected in some way. With that mystery casting a shadow over everything I would note, I began my investigation.
The little town of Painscreek immediately established itself as a creepy place. The only sounds were the wind in the trees, my shoes on the ground, and the occasional piano as the simplistic, atmospheric soundtrack drifts in and out. It was chilling. Full disclosure: I don’t deal well with horror or anything even slightly scary. At first, I thought my imagination was getting the better of me when I kept convincing myself that the town wasn’t completely abandoned, that someone was going to appear and come after me. It turns out, in several ways, I wasn’t wrong. As I walked out of a half-burned building, I was greeted by this staring at me from across a river:
As soon as I looked away and back, Ghost Lady was gone. When my heart rate returned to mostly-normal, I took to the internet to see if The Painscreek Killings had any jumpscares, because I was ready to quit my career as a detective and return to the wholesome farmlands of Stardew Valley instead. I was promised by a Steam thread of likeminded fearful detectives that no, there are no jump scares in this game. Fantastic. On I went, occasionally having to audibly remind myself that the game had no jumpscares and the scary ghost lady probably couldn't hurt me.
Walking around the town of Painscreek brought me to endless locked doors needing keys, desks, and boxes with number codes, and more diaries than I knew people were supposed to keep. (Seriously, everyone had multiple diaries strewn around their houses.) There’s intrigue in every building, with each new clue revealing answers to puzzles across the town. You'll find yourself running back and forth across town frequently, but the excitement of watching pieces fall into place is thrilling. The Painscreek Killings makes solving clues and having revelations feel like a great accomplishment.
I cannot imagine the design skill it took to create a game like this. With so many clues available in a semi-open world and no way of knowing which order players will find the clues in, the team at EQ Studios have my admiration for making the game coherent no matter which way players end up going. There are different ways to learn the same thing without the game getting repetitive. Every new angle on the same clue gives more details, painting a thorough picture of what happened in Painscreek. Nothing is wasted when everything means something.
More than that, the game is genuinely intriguing. I introduced some friends to it, and they were sucked into the mystery as much as I was. We all had our notebooks open and would discuss theories between gaming sessions. It was refreshing to play a game that really let me solve it on my own – no hints, objectives, or nudges given. Either you understand the clues and follow them, or you’ve missed something. It’s humbling in its simplicity.
If I had to nitpick problems, I’d say the loading screens take a long time and that it takes a bit too much precision and back-and-forth between inventory and an object to make the two interact. I feel the way objects in the inventory are used could have been simplified. I also wish the soundtrack had a bit more variety; as creepy as the piano’s offerings are, it loops too much for a game that can last seven to ten hours. It loses the creepy factor and becomes a nuisance.
Overall, the bulk of The Painscreek Killings is an excellent gaming experience. There is so much to the story that I felt I had to complete the game before writing this article, just so I had the full picture of what was going on and put my thoughts into writing. And, boy, I’m glad I did, because the end of the game turns the gameplay on its head.
Mild spoilers ahead – no names revealed, but ending gameplay style is. If you’d rather have no spoilers, then let this be your takeaway from this article: The Painscreek Killings is a fantastic game, but if you scare easily and just wanted to have a nice walking simulator and puzzle-solving detective experience, you might have a large heart attack when the endgame arrives. You’ve been warned.
The thread that stated there were no jump scares in this game was telling a half-truth. While most of the game involves walking around and solving things with the occasional cameo from the harmless Ghost Lady, the endgame takes things from zero to one hundred way too quickly. Sure, there are technically no jump scares, but let me set a scene for you: I find a hidden room. There's a desk with a bloody weapon resting on it. A tape recorder is in a desk drawer. I listen, jaw on the floor, as the killer confesses to their crimes in detail. The voice's lack of remorse chills me to the core. Things are taking an unexpected turn, but I finally have my answers. The tape stops. There is a second of silence.
Then a door locks.
I cannot put into words the sheer sense of dread I felt when I heard that door lock. It was a helplessness that few other games have made me feel, scaring me to my core. Without warning I had a health bar and was being chased through Painscreek by a person in a hooded sweatshirt who was keen to get their kitchen knife well acquainted with my chest, taking things to a heart attack level of intensity that I wasn’t prepared for. I will be recovering in Stardew Valley for a few weeks.
The change of pace was jarring. On the one hand, I understand that it could make sense to confront the killer when there were hints of someone else being in the town with the player the whole time. On the other, confronting the killer gave a very liner, straightforward ending to an otherwise non-linear game. I personally think that letting players leave town with the evidence they’ve gathered and letting them try to piece things together would’ve made for a more interesting ending. There are grey areas and we could theoretically fail our investigations. I wish I was able to give a wrong answer at the end if I didn’t draw the right conclusions, but the inciting incident to the chase scene leaves no doubt about who the killer is. (I also would rather not scream so loudly and disturb my neighbors, but I admit that's a personal problem.)
My feelings on the endgame aside, I have to say that The Painscreek Killings is truly a great game and a fantastic experience. The story and the world will draw in seasoned detectives and throw them for several loops. Despite presenting a myriad of questions, almost all of them get answered if the player can put together the right clues and make sense of the dark past of Painscreek. With another detective game on the way, EQ Studios has established an excellent foundation for what they can do in the mystery genre.
TechRaptor Played The Painscreek Killings on Steam using a copy purchased by the player.