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Developer Strange Scaffold has an impressive variety of games in their catalog. Last year, they published the excellent monster-hunting Max Payne-like El Paso, Elsewhere, which I consider to be one of my favorite games of 2023, but that doesn’t mean all their games are third person shooters.

They’ve got a sci-fi body horror economy game (Space Warlord Organ Trading Simulator), a cutesy story-based poker game (Sunshine Shuffle), and even an adventure game where you talk to stock photos of dogs (An Airport for Aliens Currently Run by Dogs). Even knowing the variety of both theme and gameplay they’ve worked in, I don’t think I was prepared for them to announce Life Eater, which they describe as a “horror fantasy kidnapping simulator,” which simultaneously ended up being exactly what it says and nothing like I expected.

The story setup is pretty simple: you’re a modern-day druid who lives in the suburbs, and once a year you must sacrifice a person to your god Zimforth in order to keep the world from ending. After the first chapter of the game, the protagonist kidnaps a man and locks him in a cage in his basement, and the relationship between these two is the crux of the drama. Throughout the years you see their relationship evolve as they discuss heavy themes of questioning your faith and how far you let your devotion take you. It was clear from El Paso, Elsewhere that Strange Scaffold’s creative director Xalavier Nelson Jr. has a good sense for stories and characters, and there’s a great deal of warmth and relatability in the writing of these two. It’s all told through cutscenes featuring stylish still images with full voice acting, making for a very attractive narrative package to go between the levels.

So what exactly is a “horror fantasy kidnapping simulator” and what does that entail gameplay-wise? It’s a lot more abstract than you might expect. Instead of actually controlling an avatar and sneaking around, you use a video editor-like interface to slowly reveal information about your target’s schedule until you have revealed the percentage of their schedule needed to abduct them without getting caught. Each person has a timeline for each day of the week, and initially they’re full of boxes blocked out by static. Click on that box and you’ll get three options for how to reveal it, each costing a different amount of time and adding a different amount of suspicion to your character.

These options range from “slash tire” to “hack computer” to “enter home,” but this is mostly just flavor text, as the important part is the ‘resources’ that it uses. Each level has a specific amount of time you’re given before you need to abduct the targets, so watching your time is extremely vital. The suspicion meter also needs to be managed, but that can be reduced by activities that cost time. Even if you fill your suspicion meter, it’s not game over, as you’re allowed three strikes before you’re caught by authorities. Every action option has a different chance of successfully uncovering the activity on that block, but it never feels clear exactly what the percentages are you’re dealing with. Success reveals the schedule block with activities like sleeping, eating, working, etc., allowing you to eventually get the shape of the person’s day.

While it’s a very clever set up, sometimes the game struggles to balance the abstract nature of the mechanics with the narrative it’s trying to tell through the options and schedules. For a while I was paying attention to whether I was stealing a person’s pet or stalking their social media, but after clicking my way through several schedule blocks, I was mostly just looking at the numbers involved. Even when I was paying attention, the option still felt divorced from the action, as it wouldn’t feel natural for something like slashing someone’s tires to reveal that they were having dinner at that time. That said, there were a lot of tense times where I had to carefully choose my options in order to get by, and that tension felt exciting when it worked.

Aside from the resource game of revealing the schedule, there is a clever puzzle aspect in Life Eater that draws you back into the story of the game. In many of the levels, you’ll be given a vague order from Zimforth about who your target should be, and you’ll have to investigate multiple people in order to figure out which one is the correct target. This forces you to engage with the narrative aspects of revealing their schedule, tying mechanics and story together nicely. There were times when I was genuinely surprised by the results of one of these investigations paying off, but other times I got frustrated trying to figure out exactly what the game was trying to tell me. If you miss the wrong schedule square, it can really hamper the progress of your investigation, dragging things out and forcing you to play the level over again to give it another shot. I feel like there was at least one level where I just picked my victim based on a hunch and ended up being correct, leaving me unsure if I figured out the designer’s intentions for the puzzle, which left me feeling unsatisfied.

After each abduction, you also are tasked with performing the sacrifice ritual to appease Zimforth. The screen for this involves the victim’s internal organs along with some questions about them that need to be answered to guide the ritual. For example, you’ll need to either remove the victim’s pancreas or large intestine based on whether or not they have a commute, or break specific ribs if they have children. These questions never change from level to level, but they are another tactic to get you to be more involved with the actual content of your victim’s schedule. Although there was a fun tension to having to continue to dig for these answers even if you’re already revealed the required amount of their schedule, there were times where the answers felt less clear than they should or where I was failing the ritual for reasons that were not apparent to me.

Outside of the very good looking cinematics, the visual design in Life Eater is serviceable but underwhelming. It’s got a great color palette that ties it to the cutscenes, but the video editor aesthetic, while novel to see as a main interface in a game, doesn’t particularly wow you visually. Everything in the UI is pretty clear and laid out in an intuitive fashion, but for being such a UI driven game, there isn’t really a next level art focus on it.

Strange Scaffold prides themselves on their tight and worker-healthy studio culture, so it’s nice to see a game like this that’s properly scoped. It has its core mechanic down, it finds ways to add wrinkles, and gets out before it feels like it’s gotten too stale. Over the three hour campaign, I liked the story it laid out through both the cutscenes and mechanics, but I still wish there would have been a bit more polish to the final product. While there were some great moments that were revealed in the investigations, those moments of inspiration were less frequent than I would have liked. I appreciate when a game can meld mechanics and story together, and this shows that they can do it, but there’s a few too many points of frustration in the structure that can occasionally get in the way. I definitely see the storytelling potential that this format has, so I’m hoping that the Endless Mode, which is coming after launch, will help refine that process and show what it can really do.

Until then, Life Eater is a clever experiment in using a unique gameplay mechanic to tell a compelling tale that falls short of its full potential.

3 skulls out of 5

Life Eater arrives April 16th on PC via Steam. Code provided by publisher.

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