I’ve recently been playing Horizon Forbidden West in my spare time. What was supposed to be a twenty to forty-hour experience has contorted itself into an eighty-hour slog that I can’t bear to suffer through any longer. Everything feels so intrinsically stale, an experience entirely rooted in old school game design and lacklustre storytelling. It is a testament to the leaps and bounds made in video games since the original launch of Horizon Zero Dawn way back in 2017, a relic that proves players deserve so much more. With Horizon Forbidden West I feel no frustration in declaring that I have had an enormously disappointing experience overall. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said with Boreal Tenebrae a game so intensely unique yet so unfathomably unplayable that I’m finding it impossible to put into words my greatly conflicting opinions on this compellingly haunting indie gem.
“Despite the confusing nature of Boreal Tenebrae’s narrative, it is so beautifully compelling that I found it near impossible to put down.”
To even begin to discuss this game’s narrative would be to open a can of worms I’m not all too sure I’d be content reopening. Boreal Tenebrae thrusts you into its surreal and abstract narrative without much thought as to whether or not its sudden in media res approach to storytelling even works in the context of its world and characters.
Boreal Tenebrae is a fundamentally non-linear video game, and as such, you’ll experience all manner of confounding and haunting events from the perspectives of multiple different characters. Unfortunately, the game makes absolutely no effort to introduce you to them in a meaningful way. Characters are thrust upon you without any real rhyme or reason, and their place in the game’s timeline is never particularly clear.
Fortunately, despite the confusing nature of Boreal Tenebrae’s narrative, it is so beautifully compelling that I found it near impossible to put it down. The gloriously bleak backwards town that is slowly crumbling into nonexistence and static makes for one of the most horrific yet enthralling backdrops to a narrative that I’ve ever had the pleasure to explore. Regardless of who you are playing as or which of the small areas you get access to, Boreal Tenebrae does a phenomenal job of instantly immersing you in the most unsettling way possible.
“When the game began introducing its huge cast of fantastically designed yet barely explained characters, I slowly began to lose the plot.”
Furthermore, despite the rather nonsensical approach to Boreal Tenebrae’s overall story, it does a fairly decent job of establishing enough context to understand certain aspects of its narrative. Which is to say, some characters make far more sense than others. Take, for example, Bree (the character you initially play as) and her missing sister Sarah. Their intertwining narrative, at first, makes enough sense to draw you in.
However, it was when the game begins introducing its litany of other fantastically designed yet barely explained characters that I slowly began to lose the plot. There’s a group of teenagers smashing post boxes and being asked to kill each other, a ghost who talks to a cat and a young girl who gets lost in the blood-soaked basement of her frog-run mill, to name a few.
Of course, none of this is to say that Boreal Tenebrae’s narrative is bad by any means. In fact, all of these incredibly surreal elements and the way they are all framed does work to a degree. The lack of explanation can be seen as a quirky charm, and at no point did I lack a purpose of what to do next. It was always fairly clear where I needed to go next or which item I needed to use, and as a result, details surrounding the game’s larger mystery were dished out at a steady enough pace.
“I was practically on the edge of my seat throughout my entire playthrough, soaking in the game’s unsettling atmosphere and lapping up its confusingly told yet expertly written and portrayed narrative.”
To complement this fragmented narrative are the game’s gloriously gorgeous visuals. Each and every location has been meticulously designed to invoke a depressing sense of desolation. The gas station where you so frequently gather is filled with cracked gravestones, spasmodically flickering monoliths, and destitute residents milling about.
The mill run by greedy frogs hellbent on abandoning their desperate flock of penniless workers is filled to the brim with bodies hanging from the ceiling, flashing red lights and workers who’ve succumbed to the depression and lost their minds. Even the lowly suburbs are smothered in an all-consuming shadow that renders even your weak flashlight entirely useless.
Of course, all of this is without even mentioning the game’s fantastic character designs that truly help bring to life its sleazily slick, dismally despondent and maddeningly maniacal inhabitants. The ease at which the designers have managed to integrate both humanlike and anthropomorphic characters into its desparingly desolate world is an incredibly audacious achievement. At no point did the striking differences in designs pull me out of this beautifully abstract world. I found the Tekkonkinkreet-esque style fit the game’s more fluid and surreal universe incredibly well and made it a far more compelling experience as a result.
Furthermore, Boreal Tenebrae’s masterful use of both diegetic and non-diegetic sound to create genuine moments of tension and unease was tremendous and left me with a sinking feeling in my gut. I was practically on the edge of my seat throughout my entire playthrough, soaking in the game’s unsettling atmosphere and lapping up its confusingly told yet expertly written and portrayed narrative.
“Beyond some small interactions and occasionally listening to a tape you may discover, there isn’t much to do in Boreal Tenebrae.”
Unfortunately, when it comes to gameplay, Boreal Tenebrae doesn’t have anything particularly inspiring on offer. You’ll explore locations from a fixed camera angle perspective, interacting with a range of objects or characters in the hopes of progressing further into the narrative. Through collecting disks you’ll be able to revisit certain locations at a later stage in the game and potentially use one of the many items shared across each character’s inventory.
While there aren’t many opportunities to make the most of your assortment of nicknacks, whenever you do require the need for one, Boreal Tenebrae does a fantastic job of making it abundantly clear which items need to be used or potentially combined. As a result, you’re never left scratching your head wondering what to do next.
Alas, beyond these small interactions and occasionally listening to a tape you may discover, there isn’t much to do. You can record sigils that you find scattered across the floor and are even told to by a certain character, but I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what it resulted in. Perhaps, had I been able to finish the game, then I would have likely understood or even appreciated this aspect of Boreal Tenebrae. Alas, that was not the case.
“Even despite game-breaking bugs, Boreal Tenebrae offers a plethora of other issues that create a frustratingly laborious experience to trudge through.”
As much as I wanted to preserve through Boreal Tenebrae’s compelling unique set-up and story, I was prevented from doing so practically every step of the way by a litany of game-breaking bugs. At one point I found myself unable to leave a forest location and was left with little to do other than watch the character pointlessly contend with egregious invisible walls or reload a save. However, upon reloading the last autosave, I was cast back a significant amount of time, meaning I had lost a lot of progress.
Of course, this didn’t deter me and I continued up until it happened another two times in different locations. At that point, I gave up. Because, even despite these game-breaking bugs, Boreal Tenebrae offers a plethora of other issues that create a frustratingly laborious experience to trudge through. For example, its static camera angles cause movement issues whenever a new one is suddenly thrust upon you, which, in addition to the frequent invisible walls that block you from going down seemingly available routes, made movement a truly exhausting task to overcome.
“Boreal Tenebrae is an astonishing accomplishment and an oftentimes masterful work of art. It is just held back by its medium in a way that is incredibly detrimental to the overall experience.”
It may seem that Boreal Tenebrae is a quirky indie gem with a few too many issues worth contending with, but I’d argue that isn’t the case. Because, while the above is certainly true, I found that the game’s compelling narrative in conjunction with its phenomenal visuals made the entire slog worthwhile.
Unlike Horizon Forbidden West, I can’t confidently state that Boreal Tenebrae is a bad game. Because it simply isn’t. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that it is a truly astonishing accomplishment and an oftentimes masterful work of art. It is just held back by its medium in a way that is incredibly detrimental to the overall experience.
Were Boreal Tenebrae a movie, or perhaps a series of short films exploring each character, then I would have happily recommended it and even likely considered it one of my all-time favourite works of art. There is even an animated short that I recommend watching, should you pick this up, that offers a lot of much-needed exposition.
I suppose all of this is to say that I’d ignore whatever numbered score I eventually give Boreal Tenebrae. This isn’t an experience that can be so neatly tied up by a singular score. This is an indie title that is so brashly brave in its unique style and storytelling techniques, so wholly compelling in almost every way that I found myself so mesmerised by its confidence. However, its unfortunate gameplay issues do hold it back from being the very best it can be. For its low price, I would recommend picking it up, if only to enjoy as much of Boreal Tenebrae as it will let you. There is a masterpiece in here somewhere, it just needs to be dug out from within all the static.