Platform: PlayStation 4
Review Date: 10/13/20
Few games have given me chills and made my skin crawl the way that "Neverending Nightmares" did. And with a title like that, you'd be disappointed if you weren't at least a little creeped out by it. The game opens with Thomas Smith thrusting a knife into his sister's stomach and then waking up from a horrible nightmare. But as the title implies, it's just one nightmare embedded in another, with each becoming more dangerous and terrifying. Death and self-mutilation are recurring themes as Thomas traverses numerous horror landscapes to reach one of three endings. Like much of the game, the endings are vague, confusing, and open to interpretation.
The game is hand-drawn in the Edward Gorey style, which is what attracted me to it in the first place. The aesthetic is unsettling and unique, and the rough lines and ragged edges reflect Thomas's deteriorating sanity. Quite often the details are frustratingly obscured by dark sketch marks, which mirrors Thomas's own frustration and confusion with his surroundings. The creepy soundtrack also complements the atmosphere with haunting melodies and crying children. The gameplay simply consists of walking, interacting with colored items, and occasionally trying to avoid or outrun enemies. Thomas has asthma and can only run for about eight seconds before becoming exhausted, which adds an extra layer of terror and fear. Enemies will kill you in gruesome ways, and each checkpoint is simply another nightmare to overcome. Thematically, the game is a psychological journey through depression and mental illness, as Thomas struggles with guilt, trauma, loss, OCD, suppressed memories, cognitive dysfunction, intrusive thoughts, paranoia, grief, and crippling despair.
Visually and symbolically, the game utilizes tons of familiar horror ideas, images, and themes, including a decaying mansion, a spooky cemetery in the woods, spiderwebs and torn wallpaper, a meat grinder, a bathroom sink full of bloody teeth, a sewing room with an old sewing machine and creepy dress mannequins (why are sewing machines so scary?), spooky porcelain dolls, an asylum with padded cells, lunatics in strait jackets with their eyes gouged out, mutilated animals, dark cellars, horrifying medical examination rooms, a morgue and crematorium, wheelchairs, infirmaries with questionable treatments, blood-stained walls, swinging nooses, deep pits, self-mutilation, etc. It actually reminded me a lot of "Silent Hill 2" (2001) with its symbolism, enemies, props, role confusion, guilt, suppressed memories, locations, and holes. Evidently, holes represent truth, and you have to fall into them to find the truth. Similar to Maria's role in SH2, Thomas sees Gabrielle in multiple guises: as his sister, his wife, and even his psychiatrist, so it's never clear what her connection actually is and how she relates to his trauma. One analysis I read suggested that his sister, wife, and daughter are all named Gabrielle, which seems odd and unlikely.
The game is short and takes 3-4 hours to get all three endings. The length feels about right, although the game's monotony can really drag down the pacing. However, like many design decisions in the game, I suspect this was done on purpose to mirror Thomas's mental state and the frustration and anxiety he's experiencing. Do the nightmares end when the game does? Or is it just the beginning of another one? I thoroughly enjoyed my time with the game and appreciated being able to soak in all of the details at my own pace - except when I was being chased by freaky monsters. A handful of jump scares made me shriek and drop my controller, while other aspects of the game just creeped me out and made my skin crawl. The art direction is both delightful and aggravating, and the short duration ensures that the game doesn't overstay its welcome. It's certainly not for everyone, but I found it to be a fascinating and very personal journey through the challenges of depression, grief, and mental illness.