Those Who Remain has something to say with its troubled cast of characters and darkness-soaked environments, but its message is muddled in questionable pacing, convoluted puzzles, and poor checkpoint placement. Despite all that, I still managed to have a good time in the spooky town of Dormont.
At its core, the game is a ‘walking sim’ where you explore spooky locales, read documents, and solve puzzles. Besides that, there are a few times you’ll have to hide and/or run from one of two creatures that are searching for you. The stealth is basic and running away is more about luck at certain points, but these sections happen so infrequently that, even if I was sometimes frustrated, it was a nice change of pace from the puzzles. The remainder of the gameplay revolves around finding ways to lighten up the shadows which are often filled with darkness-obscured people that will kill you if you get too close.
Most of the creepy things in the shadows don’t move or only have basic animations and sound effects, and this makes them less of a constant menace and more akin to a weird object enveloped in darkness. A lot of time is spent figuring out how to illuminate your surroundings to remove the shadow beings and allow you to access new areas. There was an opportunity here to make these shadow people truly intimidating but they opted for a different route. The game in general goes down this same route with few jump scares and a lessened focus on overt horror. It’s always suspenseful, but I wasn’t on the edge of my seat or about to cover my eyes at any point.
The constant darkness you must illuminate gives the game plenty of opportunities to showcase impressive lighting and shadows that give some moments a lot of impact. There are a handful of set pieces in Those Who Remain that I was thoroughly impressed by and enjoyed on a level much higher than the rest of the game. Some of the moments towards the end in particular were super cool and decidedly unnerving, but I won’t go into detail to avoid any sort of spoilers.
The puzzles are par for the course in this genre and often revolve around reading a note and finding the corresponding in-world item to interact with. It is a formula that works and, as a huge fan of Resident Evil’s nonsense puzzles, I like most of what was implemented here quite a bit. Although there are certainly moments where what to do next is not clearly explained or the in-game objective is way too vague. Additionally, the lack of a hint system can make some puzzles frustrating and even unfair. I only looked up an answer once, but honestly, I’m still not sure what the solution means or how it was supposed to be obtained. Solutions often must be done in a very particular order and this gets complicated when it can be quite easy to miss an objective or an item you need to interact with. However, Those Who Remain does a good job leading the player around and showing exactly what it should– especially for spooky moments.
A lot of the puzzles involve navigating an alternate plain of reality where objects turn upside down or float and other common rules are completely thrown out the window. Turning on a light in this plain also turns it on in the real world, allowing further exploration. The use of this ‘dark world’ is a definite highlight, especially as things escalate later.
The biggest issue with Those Who Remain revolves around the lack of checkpoints. Far too often I found myself dying in a puzzle or encounter and being forced to retread several minutes to get back to where I was. I can understand, given how nonlinear discovering objects in the environment can be, how making checkpoints all over the place would be difficult. However, I had several instances where there could have been one before a chase sequence, only for the checkpoint to take me back to the exploration section before the chase. Essentially, the puzzle in an area must be solved completely before there is any saving of progress, and I would guess an hour of my 7-hour playthrough was spent doing things over again. Some of the chase sequences are intense and it can be hard to know exactly where to go or what needs to be done at times. This becomes frustrating when I had to walk down a long hallway, listen to a small scene, and start the chase over just to give it another go.
Unfortunately, about half the areas you investigate in Those Who Remain aren’t large or complex enough to be that memorable as they are more a narrative means to an end rather than a set piece you are stuck in. The latter half of the game improves on this a lot and it only goes to show how basic and limited the beginning is. Even so, no locales stick around long enough for you to have multiple keys and puzzle items going on at the same time. It remains a linear affair throughout, in stark contrast to something like the police station in Resident Evil 2.
The story fits the various locations together as you try and figure out what happened to Annika, but it ends up being just about what you would expect. Along the way you’ll gather evidence to decide the fate of other key characters, which is a compelling idea but it never goes much further than surface level. I enjoyed where the plot goes in the last hour significantly more, even if the writing and voice acting isn’t top tier. There are also multiple endings but getting them will require you to play through the entire game again and that’s a lot of effort for such a small fraction of change.
I wholeheartedly enjoyed certain parts of Those Who Remain, the problem is that the overall experience isn’t up to that same quality. It is a bit too long for its own good and the checkpoints and occasional unclear puzzle drove me crazy, but there was more than enough atmosphere and intriguing story elements to pull me through. It is also nice to play a horror game that has very few jump scares and is more about the puzzles and environments themselves. Those Who Remain is rough around the edges but there are a handful of standout moments that make it a journey worth taking, if you can get past those aforementioned edges.