Slender: The Arrival will haunt my dreams for the next week, an exaggeration I might have been uncomfortable making had the infernal Slender Man not been the subject of my recurring nightmares the past two evenings. Each night that I closed my eyes anticipating the return of sleep’s sweet embrace, I was relentlessly pursued by a disfigured, well-dressed entity, only to awake startled and covered with more terror-induced sweat. For those of you undeterred by the horrors that await, though, you do not have to be a victim of undesirable psychological torment to know Slender: The Arrival surpasses The Eight Pages at every asphyxiating turn.
While the original game featured a nameless protagonist because of Mark Hadley's programming inexperience (the one-man team at Parsec Productions), the constraint also felt deliberate. Players were not valiant, 230-pound space marine. You were the victim left to perish by some supernatural presence, with no option but to flee for your forsaken life. However, with a second developer (Blue Isle Studios) comes greater attention to the narrative and the found footage perspective. Gamers assume the fate of Lauren, whose torture begins when she documents a visit to her friend Kate's estate in the woods.
Of course, nothing good ever happens in the forest after dark. Kate’s house has been ransacked, with furniture disheveled, windows broken, doors ajar, and the walls stained by hastily scrawled scribbles. Lauren’s friend has fled the premises too, but a scream lets players know they are not alone. First you hear them: a second pair of footsteps trampling the leaf litter of early autumn. A quick swivel of the camera reveals nothing; it must have been your imagination. But then you see him: a creature that lurks among the trees, watching from the shadows of the yard, standing, staring ... waiting.
Personally, I would have gone with the subtitle: NOPE. NOPE. NOPE.
Like Slender: The Eight Pages, The Arrival’s success derives from its antagonist. The lore surrounding the abnormal remains the hallmark of any great horror story, and after the Slender Man’s conception on the Something Awful forums, four years have turned the original photoshopped Polaroids into sources of frightening online acclaim. The genius of Mark Hadley's design still made sure you never wanted to look at his poorly modeled rendition, though that brilliance did little to downplay criticisms of The Eight Pages' fixed resolution, scant textures, and limited draw distance.
Thanks to the joint efforts of Mark and Blue Isle Studios, Slender: The Arrival features a significant graphical leap across all areas of the game. Now the ubiquitous Slender Man haunts a defenseless Lauren while she explores a barren park, a deserted mine, and Kate’s unguarded home. Several daytime settings allow for that needed emotional reprieve, but each environment is more mentally daunting than the last. The camera warps with static the closer Slender Man comes, startling you with a roar of horribly garbled audio that echoes through your speakers. The atmosphere feeds on insecurities, leading to frequent blood pressure spikes and false heart attacks, and the Slender Man disobeying standard video game protocols only makes the suspense all the more suffocating.
The Slender Man teleports about the scenery at random, from the edge of the distant treeline to centimeters behind you. While braving the park’s indoor facility for one of the few remaining pages, the unearthly being appeared out of thin air, inches from my face. The shock surprised me enough that I removed my fingers from the keyboard, yet these circumstances contribute to unfair instant deaths. Also, doors must be opened by mimicking a swinging motion with your mouse, a real hassle when you cannot adjust the sensitivity, or when the Slender Man lingers in the hall two feet away as you make your escape. Whether intentional or not, the results are goddamn terrifying.
Say what you will about the Slender Man, he knows how to keep his suit clean.
The two problems that have not been rectified are the means of progression and the overall length. Collecting eight pages, starting six generators, and sealing eight windows/doors are goals I expect to find in MMOs, not my horror titles. On the contrary, players will probably push that thought to the back of their heads upon hearing crackling static or the asthmatic cackling of Slender Man’s sadistic proxy.
If you are lucky, you can end the misery within the hour. For the more obsessive gamer, however, hidden notes detailing Kate’s fate and her correspondence with the enigmatic C.R. litter the locales. These scattered scrapbook entries paint a picture of the man's slow mental decline, accentuated by a degradation from grammatically correct emails to Crayola crayon graffiti, which all comes to a head with one of the best ambiguous horror endings I have had the (dis)pleasure of witnessing. With just enough explanation to satisfy the larger questions, Slender: The Arrival baits you down the rabbit hole of Slender Man fiction.
Time to never go hiking again.
The developers remove the memorization from repeat playthroughs, too. Anyone that toyed with The Eight Pages knows the drawings were swapped between the various landmarks. Although Slender: The Arrival retains the procedural generation of the notes and generators, the actual position of the forest’s key sights will change or disappear entirely. A page previously nailed to a forgotten row boat was now absent, as was the dingy. Instead, I found the picture plastered to a discarded vehicle at the bottom of a ravine. The randomization escalates tension, and every attempt is a fresh ordeal. You cannot plan how you accomplish your objective, or adjust for your encounters with the Slender Man. Only luck and perseverance will see you through.
Slender: The Arrival will keep fans up at night. As the camcorder point-of-view documents Lauren's dreadful journey, players serve as the narrator (and survivor) of a found footage film – a point often demonstrated by the audio and atmosphere. Be they Slender Man’s footsteps, his crony's unsettling cackles, or sudden electronic screams, the unrivaled sound design steals your breath away from a creature darker than night. I could chase rainbow unicorns through a field of daisies and Blue Isle would still find ways to unnerve me, but if you have grown bored waiting for the sequel to Amnesia, then consider Slender: The Arrival a terrifying addition to a genre in need of a good scare.
Publisher: Blue Isle Studios
Developers: Parsec Productions, Blue Isle Studios
Release Date: March 26, 2013
Number of Players: 1 (Campaign)
Platforms: PC (Reviewed), Mac