No matter the medium, the horror genre is often joyfully derivative of more successful works. Just as slasher flicks and found footage rippled through film for decades following their respective impact points, games have been largely playing in the shadow of first-person, quasi-psychological horror experiences. In this sense at least, imitation and flattery are in a flirtatious cycle with wildly varying offspring. Does the ostensibly new rendition of a beloved formula elevate and pay homage or simply offer up the familiar with no real additions of its own.
All this to say, you’ve played Fobia – St. Dinfa Hotel before. In the early noughties, fresh-faced journalism graduate Roberto Leite Lopes travels to Treze Trilhas to investigate a string of mysterious disappearances and apparent hauntings. As the rain pelts down from above and a sombre melody strums, he arrives at a colossal old hotel in the dead of night. To give you an idea of the kind of experience this is, in the first ten odd minutes alone there are two separate hard cuts to haunting music and title cards, an amnesia prologue and scripted stalker sequence. The game is, kindly, a shitstorm of tropes and mechanics lifted from several other popular horror experiences of the past half-dozen years.
Some big “dead dove” energy here
Fobia – St. Dinfa Hotel plays like a B-grade rendition of the recent first-person Resident Evil titles, themselves schlocky action horror titles that just happen to have the budget of a blockbuster. A familiar loop of exploration, puzzle-solving and combat quickly settles in as our intrepid investigator nabs a pistol and a mysterious sense of purpose propels him forward into the nightmare. You have a grid-based inventory that can be expanded over time, a small selection of guns and set save rooms with magically warping item boxes. You know the drill.
As a point of differentiation, the game equips you with a special camera that can be used to peer through time and space. Looking through the camera casts the game into an effectively eerie night-vision grunge filter as it warps the world around you to reflect a different reality. In this space you might find new ways through previously inaccessible spaces, hidden items and small narrative clues. Having the ability to essentially remix the play space is a welcome addition to the game as you’ll be spending a fair amount of time skulking through pretty basic hallways with an ungodly amount of locked doors.
When the game does lurch into combat sequences the limitations of its mechanics become increasingly tiresome. There is very little weight to gunplay in the game, with aiming that floats its way across enemy weak points as you pepper them with shots that feel like you’re firing off blanks. Ammo isn’t exactly scarce, but I found I was burning through supplies, including healing items, far too quickly as I tried to wrangle with the controls. Fobia – St. Dinfa Hotel does have a rudimentary skill upgrade system that allows you to better tweak your guns, camera and so on, but short of thorough exploration I found I was not exactly flushed with upgrade points and dearly wished for a more focused experience that did away with this system entirely.
A haunted camera allows for some cool world-bending
This is an issue because the game isn’t all that fun to explore, effectively knee-capping its myriad systems before you ever get the chance to sink into them. The hotel itself is expansive but strikingly dull, a hall-of-fame-of-halls filled with the requisite supernatural fungal growths and spooky little girls peering at you from behind half-closed doors. There are a couple of other environments that were mildly more effective at setting the tone but even those were held back by arbitrary locked doors and puzzles. At one point you find an ornate key in a box with several other pieces of the key next to it. Instead of examining each piece to be fit it together, you simply slam the ‘combine’ prompt four times and the ‘puzzle’ is solved.
The game is littered with these kinds of moments – safes that have the code scribbled on the wall nearby just waiting for your camera lens to pass over it, an errant chess piece that must be returned to the one chess board you saw with no other flair or trickery. Much like its action-horror coding, the game has the aesthetics of an exploration puzzle experience but fails to grasp why those experiences are popular in the first place. It’s all so radically fine, an inoffensive collage of better games that might amuse for the weekend but will be forgotten by Monday arvo.
Fobia – St. Dinfa Hotel’s narrative is cut from the same cloth as its systems, a passable facsimile of horror stories you’ve seen a dozen times before. The well-meaning outsider with a secret connection to the looming evil, the mysterious woman on the phone who guides you from plot point to plot point and of course, the aloof quest for power from an organisation with a rather silly logo plastered everywhere. It’s self-serious and thoroughly well-trod ground but much like the core mechanics will suffice for a brief dally with a handful of neat enemy designs and light scares.
This will feel familiar to any Resident Evil fan
To its credit, the game implements a minimalist HUD over an occasionally striking art direction. Your inventory and HUD information is essentially lifted directly from Resident Evil 7, the degree to which this bothers you will vary greatly, but at least the game is borrowing from the best. And while the environmental design might be a little lacking (the opulent hotel, the grungy corporate-branded depths), the core vibe of the thing is fascinating in its shimmery, early 2000s grittiness. The horror sequences feel like something from an old music video that is trying ever so hard to impress you and Fobia – St. Dinfa Hotel did at least manage to do so a handful of times. A sin not unique to the game but the genre as a whole remains the pacing though, specifically not knowing when to deploy these absurd horror elements to best impact the player. There is no time to develop a sense of normalcy before you’re facing down blackholes and Mr. X knock-offs.
There are small touches that indicate a level of care for the genre here though. You don’t have a map of your own, instead relying on the hotel maps on each floor that Roberto marks notes on as he uncovers more of the building. The camera, while a little underutilised, is a brilliant bit of horror goodness that ramps up tension nicely. The voice acting is spotty but earnestly fun too, exactly the kinds of performances you’d expect from a budget horror film with a good heart.
Some of the game’s locations can be effectively spooky
Fobia – St. Dinfa Hotel ends up a relatively comfortable but wholly forgettable stay. The concierge was a little off and you can’t help but notice the distinct presence of some kind of smell, but the trappings of a decent night’s rest are present all the same. If the game was to imitate anything then I’m at least glad it was the best of the genre, but without a clear understanding of why those original works work, Fobia – St. Dinfa Hotel winds up feeling welcoming but rather vacant.
Reviewed on PS5 // Review code supplied by publisher
- Pulsatrix Studios
- Maximum Games
- PS5 / PS4 / Xbox Series X|S / Xbox One / PC
- June 28, 2022