June 1, 2015 6:00 AM | Joel Couture
A lot of my first forays into deep storylines and psychological horror involved jagged polygonal characters walking, tank-like, through blocky-textured walls. I didn't even realize how much I missed PS1 and Sega Saturn visuals until I saw Back in 1995, a mystery game from developer Throw The Warped Code Out. I was curious to see if I really, truly missed those visuals and controls, though, wondering if nostalgia was just making up for hours burning my eyeballs out with those old 3D graphics. So I bugged the developer to give it a try, and after a few minutes, I felt myself getting sucked back to days spent squinting at a thirteen inch television fighting horrors from beyond my worst nightmares.
I was pretty pumped for some old 3D horror, but the developer informed me that Back in 1995 is more of a mystery game, although it uses similar mechanics to those old spooky games. Tank controls are back, for starters, meaning you'd better get used to turning with that D-pad (a PS4 controller did the job nicely). The short demo also had an emphasis on finding items, which the pack rat in me loved. I was back in action finding keys and picking up wrenches to beat on monsters.
The visuals are pure PS1, through and through. I'm not talking nice background PS1 like Final Fantasy VII or Resident Evil, but the kind where everything is rendered and textured with those blocky, jagged polygons. Beyond the appeal of nostalgia, I liked the graphics because they gave everything this otherworldly feel - as if the world you're standing in isn't quite right. It set me up to enter this dream-like state, one where you can tell what something is but the graphics still aren't visually perfect, leaving some places and things open to interpretation.
A good example of that is the monsters. This is a really early demo so these bizarre masses of arms and brown flesh might have just be stand-ins, but the vague look left me wondering what the monsters were. Were they masses of brown slime, disfigured humans, or charred monsters? That uncertainty made me uneasy about them, and while this isn't a horror game, I like being uncomfortable with what I'm fighting. I like that uncertainty when I'm facing a monster, as it lends combat a kind of mental weight. I know a person should go down in a few shots or a good thump on the head, but weird, disfigured monsters? Who knows? Not exactly pretty, but they are interesting and show some of the positives of this art style beyond just liking it because you had fun playing games that looked like this years ago.
In the short demo, I explored a very limited space to find a few items. I picked up a wrench which I used in some simple 3D combat. Hold down a button to ready your weapon, then hit another to knock a noggin around. Good times. If you got the drop on the enemy you could stun lock them with this basic weapon, but you wouldn't want to trade hits with them. They hit far harder than you do, and I died three or four times before the demo was done. The enemies also respawn when you leave the main area, resulting in even more deaths and challenge. I'm not sure if this is how things will play in the full version, but that respawning made me play very carefully and check each area thoroughly before moving on so I could avoid extra combat.
The enemies dropped some kind of wooden item, but I didn't seem to have access to an inventory yet so I didn't know if they had any particular use. I'm assuming some sort of crafting system requires all of these items, but I'm only guessing at this point. Another mystery was an ever-present clock on-screen, which told me it was 11:54 for my entire play time. Does this clock factor into the game's events? With only a few screens and images, I'm already intrigued by a few of the game's mysteries.
After finding a key and opening up a path that showed a distant radio tower, the demo closed. I wanted more. I was curious what the clock and the items meant, and want to square off against other weird monsters while I learn why I'm in this place. Nostalgia for old 3D games got its hooks in, for sure, but I can see the beginnings of an interesting game for others to enjoy as well. That visual style captures a vagueness of depiction, creating worlds that are both concrete and indistinct - the perfect land for nightmares and dark mysteries. I think it will be interesting to see what sort of twisted places Back in 1995 will bring us to when it's complete.
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