Title: Subway Midnight
Developer: Bubby Darkstar
Release Date: October 28, 2021
Reviewed On: PC
Publisher: Aggro Crab
Horror and cute are a classic pairing, perfect for lulling the audience into a false sense of security or creating a dissonance that makes the cuteness feel sinister. Subway Midnight’s distinctive, stylized artwork evokes this unsettling feeling as you progress through an impossibly long train in a surreal, immersive experience that should appeal to fans of “spookycute” art and walking sim-esque horror games.
The art is primarily a mix of stylized 2D characters and 3D rendered environments, and that sense of visual disconnect immediately sets the mood. The premise starts in a simple manner: you’re on a dark, empty subway train with nothing to do but keep walking forward and passing through the cars.
Some of the cars are papered with missing person fliers, and you soon begin to encounter these lost souls as ghosts, presumably victims of the sinister, shadowy figure that has started to follow you through the train. As you move through the cars, you’ll need to solve puzzles to find significant items that will help the ghosts move on.
There are about 100 cars (although you won’t necessarily see all of them in a single playthrough). As you progress, the settings become more immense and surreal; each its own little setpiece, tied together thematically but more and more disconnected from the idea that you’re on an actual train.
The train disconnection isn’t a negative at all, though. The environments are beautifully designed and varied. Further, the minimalist sound design focused on ambient noise and rounded out with understated background music helps set the atmosphere and give each room a unique feeling. It’s an immersive artistic experience, like walking through a gallery of interactive paintings, if that doesn’t sound too pretentious.
Still, this isn’t to suggest that it’s a pure walking simulator with no gameplay. Instead, the interactivity gradually evolves as you progress through the train, from simply pressing a button to open the door to more complex puzzles with secondary objectives that aren’t immediately obvious.
As the settings become more bizarre and surreal, so does the gameplay. For example, there’s an extended segment where you play an old-school, low-resolution first-person horror game to unlock a door in real life, and the pixelated art style follows you as you leave the game within a game.
Towards the end of Subway Midnight, there’s a series of rooms where you need to navigate a maze of railingless walkways and avoid enemies and obstacles without falling off the sides or reaching a dead end. At the same time, the fixed camera angle limits your ability to even see where you’re going.
It was here that I began to feel that this wasn’t the game I had signed up for. While it’s not the most technically challenging bit of precision platforming, it’s an exercise in timing and rote memorization. Rather than enhancing my immersion into the game’s atmosphere, it just felt repetitive, tedious, and frustrating.
When I reached a bad ending on my first playthrough and was prompted to restart the game, I dreaded the thought of replaying those sections to find a good end. As it turned out, though, the gameplay design is well-optimized for a game requiring multiple playthroughs. (I think it’s possible to unlock the good end in as few as two loops if you know exactly what you’re doing, but a blind playthrough with more looping should take around five to six hours.)
The fact that each car is its own discrete scene makes it easy to just cut out a string of cars from subsequent playthroughs once you’ve helped their associated ghost. This process of elimination also helps guide the player towards a solution for the more challenging puzzles without an explicit tutorial or instructions that might break the immersion.
The keyboard controls (WASD plus the spacebar) are acceptable for just walking through train cars but feel slightly stiff for the platforming-esque sections requiring more precise movement. Additionally, there doesn’t seem to be a way to remap the controls, so you can’t even switch to the arrow keys if playing right-handed would be more comfortable. However, the game does have full controller support, and moving with the joystick feels a lot smoother, so I’d recommend that for the best experience.
Subway Midnight is a horror game, but I wouldn’t call it a scary game, more just creepy and unsettling to varying degrees. (There are a few jump scares, of course, as tradition demands, but they don’t feel gratuitous at all.)
The story is told entirely without dialogue and only a bit of incidental text in the environment, making the game easily playable in multiple languages. This also serves to emphasize the often surreal, dreamlike tone of the settings. This design choice sacrifices detail, though, which personally lessened the story’s impact.
Artist/developer Bubby Darkstar has stated that the characters were designed without a canon age or gender in mind. Additionally, they were intended to be abstract enough for players to project themselves onto, but characters being blank slates don’t necessarily equate to more substantial player relations.
In broad strokes, the story of Subway Midnight feels like a metaphor for dealing with trauma. However, despite how much I enjoyed the artwork and environments, the vagueness left me without much to hold onto after it was finished. Players who do tend to project onto blank slate characters, though, will likely find Subway Midnight a more profound, more emotional experience, so I’d recommend the title to that crowd.
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