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’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’re in ghost limbo.
The Black Page’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 – think Sigourney Weaver’s fridge in Ghostbusters, minus the milk. Freedom instead lies in discarded mobile phones and your ability to warp between them. Dial another phone’s number and you’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’s horror dud Ju-On. Both focus on simple FPS exploration and laying on the scares. The difference is that Calling’s cast members don’t handle like double-deckers. Hudson ignore Ju-On’s shocker of a control scheme for traditional Nunchuk-assisted movement. That said, the 20 years they’ve spent remaking Bomberman over and over have left them a bit rusty – smooth this ain’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’ll-miss-’em apparitions. As in all J-horror, it shrugs off unnecessary gore – not a drop of blood is spilt – for the intense creepiness inherent in things that shouldn’t be. Hair shouldn’t grow from floorboards. Dolls shouldn’t turn to face you. Little girls certainly shouldn’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’s Ju-On this isn’t bound to any specific movie. The concept – internet as conduit for the dead – is wrenched from Kairo (known as Pulse in the west) but the phone warping lets Hudson jump us between many films. RING! You’re in a school, trying to find a line out of there as three bullies stalk you. RING! Now you’re in a tiny four-room house and something’s stomping around upstairs. RING! You’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’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 – 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’s spooks are drawn in an ugly western style. What the hell are these chubby cartoon ghosts? Seriously, Scooby-Doo’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’s combat resembles fun; here they just shake you until you shake back or hit a timed button. It’s laughably poor.
What scares the art design doesn’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’s not when it’s from a crappy Shaggy from Scooby-Doo impersonator. These goons even say ‘wahhh!’ 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