Horror games have been in a rut as of late - for every Until Dawn, there's a Daylight or a Slender that's so hell-bent on using jump scares and tropes that they're a chore to slog through. Developers Ice-Pick Lodge have thankfully gone for the opposite of that with Knock Knock, a psychological horror that's more about creeping the player out and making them feel uncomfortable, rather than getting up in their face with boisterous cheap scares - and it works quite well.
Knock Knock as a game and as a narrative is very dark, doomy, and gloomy. You play as the lonely owner of a lonely cabin in the middle of a wood that is slowly dying, and every night you're rudely awakened by the sounds and sights of strange, almost unreal entities that haunt your home.
It's also a game that throws you into the deep end; the controls aren't complex, but the game expects you to learn everything yourself. There's no HUD, only a couple of tooltips that pop up when you approach a door, and once you've learned a control from a tooltip, you'll never be given the popup again. It's a nice touch that makes it feel like less of a game and more of an experience - as much as we hate to throw that word around.
The main gameplay mechanic is surviving each night by hiding away from the ghosts and ghouls that stalk you. You'll have to figure out the patterns and tactics that these monsters use and adjust to them accordingly in order to make it to the morning. However, it isn't as simple as crouching behind a bed and hoping that you're not seen. During the night, time stops and changes, and the only way to start it again is to find special clocks around the house. Since the rooms are procedurally generated, you'll have to run around a bit in order to find the right clock, and in every room you must spend a few moments turning on the light. Pair this with being chased by an unseen enemy, and the horror of Knock Knock starts to shine.
Turning on the light may seem helpful, but the problem is that you can't always see the ghosts. There are some horrifying audio cues that alert you to their presence, but by then it'll be too late. The penalty for getting caught is a fate worse than death, as the clock reverses, and you'll have to spend an even longer amount of time fleeing and surviving. It's an effective punishment as it forces you to be even more careful, and is an excellent example of some of the great game design that this title radiates.
Some portions of the game require you to venture outside into the wilderness and trundle around looking for another cabin with another clock. These portions are easily the most unnerving bits in the game - at one point as we walked through the forest, the trees contorted into a face. It was here that we sounded a large, resounding "NOPE" and fled, which wasn't an uncommon occurrence throughout our time with the release.
However, that's one of the problems with Knock Knock; though the game feels good to play and achieves what it sets out to do, sometimes it makes you feel so uncomfortable that it stops being fun. That may be us being wimps, but the fact that it took us four days to finish a three hour adventure kind of says something about how enjoyable it is.
And it's not as if the gameplay is clunky or badly done, either; the big theme here is experimentation. You'll be met with plenty of different demons, from simple ghosts that chase you to huge behemoths that shake the entire cabin, and it's fun to see the different ways that you can dodge and escape their grasp. Sometimes your character can help, too. Many of his weird soliloquies are pointless, complicated riddles that can be a pain to listen to, but occasionally he'll drop a hint if you're really stuck.
Portions of the game can be pretty fun, and as mentioned, somewhat terrifying, but sadly, the repetitive mechanics and vagueness of the story can start to transform Knock Knock from an unsettling experience into a boring slog as you figure out where to go next. Though it's nice not to be held by the hand as with most games, you're never given the slightest inclination of where to go or what to do, which can lead to some pretty tedious and boring segments in which you walk for ages in one direction until you realise that there's nothing there.
Still, the design team at Ice-Pick Lodge have done the game a great favour - the art style is hugely fitting for the atmosphere, and each monster and entity is drawn to perfection. We would say that Knock Knock is a joy to look at, but the graphics really convey the opposite of that - the demonic creations are horrifying in every aspect of their being, yet you can certainly appreciate how well designed they are.
Knock Knock does very well at creating an atmosphere. The art style, the creepy musings of your character, and the way that you never feel safe at any point during the game ensures that you'll always be on the edge of your seat. Sadly, it's sometimes much too vague to be consistently enjoyable - which is a problem for such a short game. For every eventful chase that sets your pulse racing, there's a boring five minute slog that frustrates. Knock Knock isn't quite a nightmare, but with a little more focus, it could have been a dream to play.