If the living are haunted by the dead, then the dead are haunted by their own mistakes.
“The following is a contributor post by the Middle-aged Horror Mage.”
For a company that usually deals in movie post-production, the folks at Thai-based developer Yggdrazil Group have come out of the gate swinging with Home Sweet Home; their first foray into video games. When I think of “first game ever developed” by small teams, I certainly don’t anticipate the level of quality on display here. But, here we are!
Home Sweet Home is a first-person horror title that’s heavily rooted in Thai folklore, stealth, and tense atmosphere, and it just so happens to be my favorite game to release in the genre this year. Granted, 2018 wasn’t exactly bustling with new horror titles, but that shouldn’t take away from such an accolade. It’s graphically beautiful, atmospherically intense, and proved to be quite the introduction to (what appears to be) an ongoing series.
It’s safe to say that I’ve played plenty of horror game over the years, from “classics” like Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm St., and Monster Party to more modern entries like Resident Evil VII, Outlast, and The Evil Within (and mostly everything in between). When you’ve digested enough of a particular genre, it eventually takes a lot to impress and surprise you — the ol’ dogs jumping through the window bit in Resident Evil is only really scary the first time, and far less so when other games attempt to emulate it.
Home Sweet Home is a rare beast in that it kept me guessing throughout its four-hour runtime. There was never really a moment that felt predictable, and the less I explain why the better your first experience will be if you eventually try it for yourself. It’s a game best experienced blindly, not by watching a Let’s Play on YouTube or Twitch, in the dark with headphones on. And it’s in these moments where predictability and expectations will get the best of you.
At least on your first playthrough. Unfortunately, while Home Sweet Home is an incredibly rad thrill ride (to borrow overused film buzzwords), once you know what’s coming it loses a lot of its steam. That’s only going to be an issue for anyone who habitually replays their games, though.
In a nutshell, you play as the Thai-name-as-hell Tim, who awakens in a bedroom that isn’t his. All he knows is that his wife Jane is missing and he wants to find her. Instead of finding Jane, though, Tim stumbles upon a boxcutter-brandishing, blood-soaked schoolgirl whose head can spin around like The Exorcist and can materialize in and out of blood puddles. Turns out, she’s not your friend. Or friendly.
In combat-less horror fashion, Tim needs to sneak around and hide to avoid being sliced open like an Amazon package. Hiding spots are pretty common and stealth is reliable enough to make your way through most of the game’s opening act, but what follows isn’t at all what you’d think.
Let’s break it down with the 8-bit Review!
For a small team, Home Sweet Home is definitely easy on the eyes and really piles on the atmosphere. Be it exploring your home, which becomes increasingly haunted as the game goes on, or sneaking through long-forgotten schools and apartment buildings, everything feels hand-crafted rather than a simple asset dump.
Bedrooms feel lived in, with clothing strewn about and personal items (not just the everyday stuff) displayed on dressers and walls. Homes feature portraits, cabinets, and plenty of “found documentation” that give a crash course on Thai folklore or potential information on Tim’s missing wife, Jane.
It’s important for games of this type to avoid feeling too samey, which easily distracts me and often ruins the immersion. Home Sweet Home does an excellent job at changing up the environments and dusting in some great scares along the way. The visuals certainly help in this regard, which leads me to believe Yggdrazil Group’s post-production background came in handy over the 2+ year they worked on the game.
There aren’t many character models in Home Sweet Home, with the “schoolgirl” being the most prominent. Her model is absolutely terrifying, with blood-soaked clothing, hair, and equal amounts decorating her face and hands. Watching her vomit nails is unsettling as it is, but witnessing her screaming face up close after being discovered while hiding is a whole different story.
In a game where plenty of time is spent sneaking around genuinely creepy environments and being stalked by horrific prey, I’m glad the developers took their time and really made them a sight for sore eyes — I mean that in the best way possible, of course.
There isn’t a ton of music in Home Sweet Home, which is much appreciated. The game is full of neat little audio queues, like the schoolgirl’s box cutter opening and closing, vomit, and items moving on their own, and most (if not all) of that would have been drowned out.
That’s not to say there isn’t anything going on in the background, of course. Prayer chants and news stories play through the occasional radio with static filters thrown in for dramatic effect, while certain noises drone in and out at times. Loud noises and shrieking music are often used for cheap jump-scares, but in Home Sweet Home they’re used only when needed.
The voice acting is more good than bad, with Tim providing 90% of the dialogue. His delivery isn’t as intense or terrified as I would have liked, but it doesn’t feel phony or out of place at all. His wife Jane, however, is… bad. Honestly, her character model and voice over is the worst part of the game, and since everything else felt natural, her awkwardness stood out like a severed head in a punch bowl.
Gameplay here is your standard first-person horror game, with dual analog controlling movement. You can crouch to decrease the likelihood of being seen by the stalking enemies, run if that happens, and hide inside of lockers or under tables in hopes of living to see another day.
There’s no way to defend yourself in Home Sweet Home, so if you’re a fan of other combat-less games like Outlast or SOMA then you’ll feel right at… well, home. It’s pretty bog standard, though, in terms of technical innovation. It plays and feels just like any other run-of-the-mill first-person game with an emphasis on exploration and doesn’t reinvent the wheel anywhere, but that’s fine.
For the most part, you’ll avoid detection by way of stealth and hiding while collecting items and solving puzzles to progress the story. The story is broken down into sections, each with their own theme and monsters, but the gameplay remains mostly the same — hide, solve puzzles, survive.
The stars of the show are the unsettling visuals, dense atmosphere, and terrific use of audio, not the actual gameplay.
The story of Tim’s missing wife is interesting enough, but most of my narrative enjoyment came by way of found documentation and radio dialogue. I never really felt connected to Tim or his plight, so he just felt like a vessel in which to experience a great horror experience.
Where genre brethren like SOMA use its narrative to further terrify its players, adding depth and fear in equal parts, but Home Sweet Home’s falls short and ends on an abrupt cliffhanger that felt wholly unsatisfying. I know it’s the first part in a (potentially) new series, but if that fails to gain traction then what I was left with undoubtedly stings even more.
More effort was put into radio tales of a battered woman, a motorcyclist, or ritual instructions than the main characters, which is an odd decision. However, those little stories were effective when used in tandem with monster designs and puzzles, as well as the fantastic atmosphere.
As I mentioned above, Home Sweet Home provides ample scares and intense atmosphere throughout — at least during its first playthrough.
The folks at Yggdrazil Group do a great job at using your expectations against you, scaring you with psychological and physical thrills in equal measure. When you think something’s about to pop out in front of you, nothing happens, but the moment you turn around the entire room has changed.
It’s not a major gorefest or anything, but when blood and gore are used it felt earned. Some games, like The Evil Within, thrive on visual grossouts, but Home Sweet Home blends everything together rather nicely. Hearing a boxcutter creak open and closed never failed to widen my eyes in anticipation, nor did witnessing the stalking schoolgirl materialize out of a pool of blood.
I can’t stress how effective the audio and visuals play together in Home Sweet Home. Imagine hiding in a locker, where your only light source is a dimly lit bulb swaying out in the room. You hear a crackling news story lightly playing from a radio nearby detailing a gruesome highway accident while the sound of a boxcutter opening and closing gets closer with each second spent in your hiding place. The likelihood of me leaving the sanctity of that locker? Not high. Not high at all.
With meticulously placed scares, Home Sweet Home doesn’t offer much in the way of replay value. There are documents and picture pieces to find, but the story always plays out the same and the scares just aren’t nearly as effective the second time around.
Other “stalker” style horror games, like White Day: A Labyrinth Named School and The Coma: Recut, tend to randomize the encounter rates and locations, but once I noticed they all followed a set path (like a Metal Gear Solid guard), that unpredictability went out the window. I honestly preferred Home Sweet Home being hand-crafted for a single playthrough because sometimes randomization works against you in ways that damper the experience.
If you’re looking for a horror game to play through numerous times, Home Sweet Home is short enough to do so, but the incentive just isn’t there.
While Home Sweet Home certainly plays like any other first-person stealth horror game, it’s the masterful blend of audio and visuals that really set it apart from its genre pals. Yggdrazil Group has put together a game that cranks up the intensity and offers some great scares, along with some interesting lore bits to seek out in the process of sneaking around.
I get that’s not exactly unique, but there are very few horror games that I’ve played where the importance of audio was at the top of a developer’s priority list. It’s used to such great measure where playing with headphones on had me white-knuckling my controller for 3-4 straight hours.
There also aren’t many horror games rooted in Thai folklore, which made for a unique setting (both thematically and narratively).
Home Sweet Home rates slightly above average in this category, as for each interesting, fresh aspect, there’s likely another that feels like treading in familiar waters. It’s more unique than it isn’t, but it’s hard to stand out in such a saturated genre.
My Personal Grade: 7/10
Home Sweet Home feels like a game developed by industry professionals, not by a small team that’s, until now, focused on film post-production. Yggdrazil Group knows how to make an intense horror game, masterfully combining their visual know-how with expertly placed audio bits, but I hope they put a little more emphasis on Tim and Jane in the upcoming sequel.
I want to care about the person I’m controlling, not just view sheer terror through their eyes. Give me a reason to charge heroically into a dimly lit hallway littered with blood and turned over furniture! Jane is missing, but their relationship with Tim felt simple and boring.
Otherwise, Home Sweet Home proved to be a terrifyingly brief horror game. It looks great and has a solid foundation, and I can’t wait for the sequel.
Aggregate score: 6.5
Trash is the Middle-age Horror Mage here at TWRM, an irregular co-host on The Unlikely Herocast podcast for CA! Radio, and sole contributor for his own games-related website, Cheap Boss Attack. Follow him on Twitter @Trashlevania!
Did you enjoy this post? Consider becoming a Warrior of Light and join us in restoring integrity and quality to games writing through thoughtful, long-form reviews. We’re a community aspiring to pay our contributors and build a fairer and happier alternative to mainstream games writing and culture. See our Patreon page for more info!