It took a while, but the ‘lo-fi’ retro horror aesthetic has finally played out. One significant reason is that the subgenre’s pioneer, Puppet Combo, has played it safe for far too long. Games developed and published by Puppet Combo have stuck to the same general idea and have chosen not to innovate.
There was a wellspring of potential, but it seems like almost every game under this banner is barely improved or changes things in such a minor way that it feels like playing the same thing over and over. Every game is some kind of short, first-person action-adventure scenario with a very similar presentation.
Often, many of the UI elements, sound effects, voice actors, and even some models are recycled between the games. It was charming at first, but after so many games, it has become tiresome. With this new game, can this subgenre of horror games innovate? Find out in this Night At the Gates of Hell review!
Night At the Gates of Hell
Developer: Black Eye Priest, Henry Hoare, Puppet Combo
Publisher: Torture Star Video, Puppet Combo, Vague Scenario LLC
Platforms: Windows PC, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5 (reviewed)
Release Date: September 8, 2023
Price: $14.99 USD
Like most Puppet Combo joints, Night At the Gates of Hell begins with an optional prologue level that sets the mood. It seems promising at first since the influences draw from Italian horror sleaze like Lucio Fulci’s Demons, or The Church (1989).
It has gratuitous nudity, intentionally stilted dialogue that sounds like it passed through several layers of translation, and an intensely lurid color pallet. For a little bit, it feels like you’re in good hands, but the longer it goes on, the mask slips and it becomes apparent that the developers lost interest.
The prologue shows the beginning of a zombie apocalypse because of a cult conducting a creepy mass. When the first chapter begins, it seems like the world is already doomed. The real protagonist, David, has already lost his wife and the game begins with him deciding to finally escape the sieged apartment he lives in.
From the apartments onward, David’s quest unfolds in a series of linear levels. Each stage has its gimmicks to make it unique or interesting, but it rarely is anything more imaginative than finding some keys or hitting some switches.
The gameplay is a standard first-person shooter but with extremely limited resources and tightly designed rules. David reloads slowly and any headshot is the only way to permanently kill foes. If they’re wearing a helmet, run. David can only use knives as a last-resort defense from being wounded. These knives are for one-time use only, but more can be found throughout the game.
Annoyingly, David’s stock is reset for every level. This makes the scenario feel detached and like nothing matters. It doesn’t matter how efficient or skillful players are, the developers intend the experience to flow their way. It’s terribly artificial and the playability in the game isn’t fun enough to support it.
Night At the Gates of Hell is an intriguing example of a game that undergoes a significant transformation as it progresses; shifting away from its initial horror premise and adopting a more absurd and humorous tone. This shift is a deliberate creative choice.
As the game unfolds, events become increasingly silly, and the characters themselves adopt a farcical demeanor. This transition is not inherently negative, as it introduces elements of surreal and gross-out humor into the experience.
This departure from traditional horror is not necessarily a bad trait; in fact, it can be a refreshing and innovative approach. Most horror games take themselves too seriously, but infusing humor into the genre can add variety and engage players in unexpected ways. It breaks away from the conventional norms, allowing for a more dynamic and unpredictable experience.
Issues with Night At the Gates of Hell arise when the shift towards humor overshadows its original horror premise. This can disrupt the overall pace and tone, causing a loss of coherence. The audience’s expectations, which were initially set for a horror-themed game, will be disappointed as the scenario veers into bizarre comedy.
The transition adversely affects the visual elements of the game. The initial lo-fi horror visuals, which might have been effective in creating a creepy and filthy atmosphere, lose their relevance and aesthetic appeal in the context of absurd humor. The result could be a game that is not only tonally inconsistent but also intensely ugly.
Night At the Gates of Hell does not look like a real retro horror game no matter how many shaders and filters it uses to hide its crude models. Environments are incredibly basic, even for PlayStation 1 standards. There is an overreliance on scanned photos and not enough artistry.
Character models are especially haggard and look more amateurish than retro. Actual PlayStation 1 character models had more style, appeal, personality, and better animation too. Everyone in Night At the Gates of Hell looks like they are all made of the same blow-up sex doll but with different textures and face scans sloppily applied. The effect is very underwhelming.
A lot of the time, the textures aren’t even applied properly. There are too many instances of textures warping and twisting in ways they were not intended. This is such a blatant case of over-relying on the retro shaders and CRT effects to mask the art’s shortcomings.
At the very least, the developers were self-aware enough to realize that Night At the Gates of Hell was shallow enough that there had to be extra game modes in it to give it some value. There is a horde-style survival game called Evil in the House of Dr.Fleshenstein which hilariously ends with characters watching it as a movie and expressing how much it sucks.
The other mini scenario is The Booty Creek Cheek Freak. In this Slenderman-style ‘find the things’ mission, the player is stalked by Boggy Creek-esque cryptid with an ass for a face. This scenario was genuinely hilarious and was more consistent than Night At the Gates of Hell. It’s mind-numbingly simple, but the writing and imagery elevated it.
Night At the Gates of Hell is a mediocre guilty pleasure for desperate horror fans. If you squint your eyes, it kind of resembles something scary, but it’s mostly just absurd and low-effort.
The gritty synth music is way better than this game deserves, but the cheap and lazy YouTubers voicing characters offsets any goodwill the sound design offers. Hopefully, the next Puppet Combo joint won’t be so stale.
Night At the Gates of Hell was reviewed on PlayStation 5 using a code provided by Puppet Combo. Additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy can be found here. Night At the Gates of Hell is now available for Windows PC (via Steam), Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and PlayStation 5.