Review: The Park + Halloween in The Secret World

I’m not normally very keen on horror games, or horror in general, really. But as anyone who reads this blog knows, I adore The Secret World, so I absolutely had to buy its spin-off, The Park, as soon as pre-orders went live, and I played through it within hours of its release on Steam.

The entrance to the Atlantic Island Park in The ParkI have a lot of love for the Secret World setting, and for the bits of written by Joel Bylos (who helmed The Park) in particular, so I went in with very high expectations.

The Park is far better than I expected.

The Park is another narrative focused game, meaning it has little to no “gameplay” in the traditional sense. It’s another game to be derogatorily referred to as a walking simulator, but while that isn’t necessarily my normal cup of tea in gaming, it works well here.

It could be considered a prequel to The Secret World, but only in the very loose sense that it takes place in the same setting, uses a familiar location (the Atlantic Island Park), and takes place before the events of TSW. There are many references to TSW in The Park, but they’re subtle, and you do not need any knowledge of TSW to enjoy The Park. They are very much separate entities — they simply exist in the same universe.

In The Park, you play as Lorraine, a troubled widow whose son Callum becomes lost in the theme park after dark. As she delves deeper into the park’s twisted underbelly, nightmare and reality intertwine, and the story of Lorraine’s life and her struggles as a parent unfolds.

As in TSW, the ambiance in The Park is stellar. The music is subtle, just noticeable enough to help communicate the rising tension and dread of the game. The graphics are excellent, hauntingly beautiful and chillingly eerie.

Riding the Octotron in The ParkMost impressive of all are the ambient sound effects. There were moments when the wind blowing through the foliage sounded so real I actually felt the chill even sitting in my computer chair.

What’s most interesting to me about The Park is that it really isn’t what I’d expect from a horror game. There are few jump scares (that are good enough to seriously threaten your sleep), but honestly, it’s not a terribly frightening game. Creepy, yes, but not exceptionally scary. It’s not even possible to die or lose.

What The Park excels at is character and emotion. The park is ultimately just a backdrop for a story of tragedy, depression, and the dark side of parenthood. In a game set in a haunted theme park designed to harvest the lives of the innocent, the true horror comes from struggles all too mundane, and the demons that can lurk in a person’s heart.

The Park may not be frightening in the traditional sense, but it can be profoundly disturbing.

At no point along the way does The Park’s storytelling falter, either. Its pacing is impeccable. The voice acting is top notch. The slow slide from ordinary life to surreal horror is masterfully executed.

It’s amazing to me that Funcom never even intended to release this game to the public up until about two or three months ago. It’s just something they threw together to learn the Unreal engine. And it’s absolutely brilliant.

Approaching the ferris wheel in The ParkThe only thing that could be considered a negative about The Park is that it is extremely short. A full completionist play-through will take two hours at most.

Yet even there, I struggle to fault it. It’s short, but it’s an incredible ride while it lasts, and it doesn’t feel at all rushed or incomplete. It’s exactly as long as it needs to be.

If you’re a fan of The Secret World, you’ll love The Park — think Tyler Freeborn with a better emotional hook. If you’re not a fan of The Secret World, you’ll love The Park — it’s a beautifully twisted piece of interactive fiction.

Overall rating: 9.6/10 A brief but masterful experience.

While I’m on the subject, I will also mention that The Park features some swag for TSW players. Specifically, a killer chipmunk costume (which I hate, and you will too once you play The Park) and some very high level neck talismans. The jury seems to be out on how good these talismans are — half the people are saying their unusual procs make them useless, while the rest are claiming the talismans are overpowered to the point of being game-breaking.

For those who don’t currently play TSW, The Park also gives you the option of a seven day free trial. Which you should take, because TSW is awesome, and don’t you want to learn more about the Atlantic Island Park after all that?

Samhain 2015: The Seven Silences and more

A nightmare dreamscape in The Secret World's 2015 Halloween missionOn the same day as The Park’s released, The Secret World released its latest Halloween event.

This year’s new mission is The Seven Silences. It’s a good mission, though not quite on the same level as the last two events.

A bee has died. The story is that they managed to commit suicide, and it’s up to the player to travel across the world and through the world of nightmares to discover how an immortal can die.

The mystery of how exactly you can kill one of Gaia’s immortal chosen — which we always knew to be possible but supremely difficult — has been around for a long time, so it’s an interesting plot with a lot of significance to TSW’s greater mythos, though it does ultimately raise as many questions as it answers.

The ambiance is also once again absolutely top notch. I never cease to be amazed by Funcom’s ability to create the most surreal and unnerving environments — places as awe-inspiring as they are dreadful.

However, the mission is a lot longer than it needs to be, and the travel time in particular is a real drag. There are also several stages that can become quite frustrating if you fail at any point — and you probably will — due to the need to repeat the entire stage and, again, long travel time.

Running the Cat God dungeon in The Secret WorldSo it’s a decent story-arc, but it’s not on the same level as The Broadcast by any stretch of the imagination.

It’s also worth noting that you require access to Kaidan to complete the mission, so this is the first holiday mission to be completely inaccessible to new players, even if they get high level help.

However, I’m still loving Halloween in TSW. Between the new mission and the return of all the past events, there’s an almost overwhelming amount of stuff to do, and the whole event is just a joy. There’s nothing else quite like it in gaming.

Oh, sure, lots of MMOs have events, but none of them can match the quality of content or the sheer festival air that permeates TSW in Halloween. Even an antisocial curmudgeon like myself cannot help but be caught up in the wonderful sense of community and celebration it cultivates.

I’ve even put aside being a spiteful hermit for the moment, sharing my loot bags with lowbies in Kingsmouth and offering to carry lower level players through the content from time to time.

I guess my point is: Halloween in The Secret World is awesome.

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