Distraint PC Review
Oh God, watch out! It’s a giant bleeding elephant coming this way! A gory, skinned, phantasmagoric pachyderm breathes its foulness down my neck, a mammoth metaphor for descending madness—
Well yeah, Moby Dick it ain’t. No, it’s Distraint, a psychological horror game from creator Jesse Makkonen, and a game with a lot to recommend about it. It’s moody as hell and spooky enough to keep your nerves tingling and your heart thumping just a bit faster as you adventure through the side-scrolling levels. We are given an exceptionally brooding and dark version of reality populated by intriguingly demented characters.
You play as Price, a working schlub that is trying to make partner at a company that repossesses the properties of tenants that can no longer afford to pay rent. To achieve this ultimate promotion, Price has to see to the very unpleasant tasks of actually evicting people face to face. The properties in question range from a broken-down tenement apartment to a creepy old cabin in the middle of the forest. We don’t get any of the traditional ingredients of horror games: no monsters, zombies, psychos, vampires, or Cthulus. Instead, the game plays out in a weird dreamscape of reality that follows Price through a gradual descent into madness. The world becomes constricting and reality begins to breakdown as you plow your way through the missions. We watch as Price is forced to wrestle with his own guilt over having to be such a scumbag for a living.
It’s the overall feel of the game that is its best strength. The design is stylish, in an interesting off-kilter way, and the atmosphere is appropriately nightmarish. We are meant to question everything that happens: did it really take place or is it all just in your head? The game mixes harsh reality with moments of bizarre surrealism in a way that is artful but not always successful. I get the feeling that the creator is on the cusp of greatness but falls short in a number of ways.
Ultimately, things fall apart, for me, as the story unfolds. The premise is certainly interesting and the idea of focusing on the psychological deterioration of a man who must evict people for a living is a good one. The flaw comes in the delivery. Ideas are thrown around without being properly developed. There is a ton of potential that feels wasted. The backbone here is extremely strong yet the game remains skeletal.
Dealing with madness is itself a difficult topic to approach in a video game. Other games have tried to varying effects, but unfortunately in Distraint everything is just a little bit too hokey. It’s trying for B level horror movie but it ends up taking itself a bit too seriously. We get Price, for example, a man who spends the game learning the—guess what— price of furthering his own wealth at the expense of the lives of others. If that seems a little bit cringe-worthy to you, then you may also find that sometimes the game tends towards the pretentious when it is aiming towards the profound.
Take my elephant from above as another instance. There is a recurring image throughout the game of a bleeding, gory elephant that torments Price throughout his unpleasant jobs. If the game were just slightly more tongue-in-cheek, it might be able to get away with such grandiose symbolic bludgeonings. Unfortunately, it is just a little bit too earnest. It’s not that there’s not attempts at humor, it’s just that the game feels tragic to the point of being suffocatingly so. The mood of despair sets in and never lets up. I also never really felt much sympathy for Price. For a man that is on the cusp of achieving a corporate partnership, he lives in near squalor. And the drudgery of his everyday life is mirrored in some of the drudgery of the game. I really don’t need a mission in a video game where I gather the elements of coffee and then make coffee. The only reason I do those things in real life is so that, afterwards, I have a nice cup of coffee. In a video game, all I have done is waste thirty seconds on a mundane grind.
And that is another one of the weaknesses here. None of the puzzles are really that hard, which means most levels just turn into mildly stimulating quests to further along the main story. Almost all of the puzzles involve moving one item from one location and using it in another. After a short while, the challenge really dissipates as you realize that all you have to do is figure out which items to use where.
Fair warning: the game is quick. But its quickness could have been one of its virtues. You can’t deny that Distraint is cinematic in the way that it plays out. Had the challenges and the story been tweaked and balanced out a little bit better, it could have been an absolute triumph. Some of these criticisms are admittedly slightly unfair. The game was created as a self-described “speed project” and made over a period of just three months. It makes a lot of sense that a game made under such conditions would feel unpolished. I would love to see this game built on and improved upon. There’s so much potential in the creepiness that hovers over every step you take.