Legend tells of an online forum populated by the dead. Forumites, faces gaunt with a deathly pallor, lure you in with smileys, before plunging the knife in your back. But enough about ngamer.co.uk. Ho ho. We%26rsquo;re talking about The Black Page, an allegedly haunted chat room. You log in, LOL, ROFL, pretend to be a 17-year-old girl, meet a ghost. Wait. G-g-ghost?! Turns out the dead have pretty reliable internet access. Before you can type picard-facepalm.jpg, you%26rsquo;re in ghost limbo.
The Black Page%26rsquo;s victims, our playable characters, awaken in a realm detached from reality, haunted by pale spectres. Their single aim: escape. Their major hurdle: a dark void swirling beyond the exits %26ndash; think Sigourney Weaver%26rsquo;s fridge in Ghostbusters, minus the milk. Freedom instead lies in discarded mobile phones and your ability to warp between them. Dial another phone%26rsquo;s number and you%26rsquo;re sucked off down the line.
A basic rhythm emerges: explore limbo, find number, ring number, travel to new part of limbo, repeat. Eagle-eyed readers may spot similarities with last year%26rsquo;s horror dud Ju-On. Both focus on simple FPS exploration and laying on the scares. The difference is that Calling%26rsquo;s cast members don%26rsquo;t handle like double-deckers. Hudson ignore Ju-On%26rsquo;s shocker of a control scheme for traditional Nunchuk-assisted movement. That said, the 20 years they%26rsquo;ve spent remaking Bomberman over and over have left them a bit rusty %26ndash; smooth this ain%26rsquo;t.
With these pieces in place, Hudson flick the J-horror switch, and like Sideshow Bob in his field of rakes, Calling manages to hit every last cliche: hair, dolls, confined attics, fogged glass, handprints, footprints, blink-and-you%26rsquo;ll-miss-%26rsquo;em apparitions. As in all J-horror, it shrugs off unnecessary gore %26ndash; not a drop of blood is spilt %26ndash; for the intense creepiness inherent in things that shouldn%26rsquo;t be. Hair shouldn%26rsquo;t grow from floorboards. Dolls shouldn%26rsquo;t turn to face you. Little girls certainly shouldn%26rsquo;t snap backwards and walk down stairs on their hands. No sir.
Hudson borrow the iconography of Ringu, Ju-On, Dark Water and the like, but unlike last year%26rsquo;s Ju-On this isn%26rsquo;t bound to any specific movie. The concept %26ndash; internet as conduit for the dead %26ndash; is wrenched from Kairo (known as Pulse in the west) but the phone warping lets Hudson jump us between many films. RING! You%26rsquo;re in a school, trying to find a line out of there as three bullies stalk you. RING! Now you%26rsquo;re in a tiny four-room house and something%26rsquo;s stomping around upstairs. RING! You%26rsquo;re in a hospital, following the ghost of a loved one. Calling sets a great, varied pace.
For all its influences, Calling could have done with borrowing from Fatal Frame. Hudson%26rsquo;s signposting of missions is atrocious, often leaving you in sprawling great levels with no idea of what do next. Fatal Frame subtly guides with its scares %26ndash; apparitions and mysterious bumps always point the way forward. Bar a few well orchestrated smaller locations, Calling has a nasty habit of dumping you in sprawling multi-floored structures. Trekking through near-symmetrical floors, trying every door handle looking for a scare, is not good design.
Neither are the ghosts. Despite borrowing J-horror tricks, Hudson%26rsquo;s spooks are drawn in an ugly western style. What the hell are these chubby cartoon ghosts? Seriously, Scooby-Doo%26rsquo;s janitors with sheets over their heads are scarier. And just like Fatal Frame, Calling has no clue what to do with them. At least Frame%26rsquo;s combat resembles fun; here they just shake you until you shake back or hit a timed button. It%26rsquo;s laughably poor.
What scares the art design doesn%26rsquo;t kill, the localisation does. The script is hokum, made worse by voice actors comically mismatched with the action. Getting a ghostly phone call through the Wii remote should be scary. But it%26rsquo;s not when it%26rsquo;s from a crappy Shaggy from Scooby-Doo impersonator. These goons even say %26lsquo;wahhh!%26rsquo; instead of screaming. Ludicrous. What a shame that such a structurally and conceptually solid title should be hampered with such a limp western reworking.
Mar 9, 2010