Steam’s Early Access scheme is allowing a lot more unusual, off-the-wall game projects come to light; a recent example being Damned. A five-player “randomized online  horror game”, Damned puts you in the shoes of one of four survivors… or something else, with your mission being to escape one of two locales through exploration, teamwork, and running for your life. Whilst in something of an unpolished state currently, what I have seen so far is highly unique and inexplicably fun.

Damned: Steam (Early Access scheme), Desura.

Developer: 9Heads Games

Price: £6.99

Damned is not a pretty game yet. Character models are rather basic, and some of the texturing and model work leaves something to be desired. However, considering the game is the work of a mere three man development team, I think kudos is deserved for getting to this standard and still being in the development period. For comparisons, I would say Slender: The 8 Pages is a fair comparison for graphical quality.

Speaking of being pursued by unholy terrors in the dark, I am yet to mention the added twist of Damned; whilst four players get to play as humans in a quest to escape one of the two currently available levels, the fifth player takes on the role of “The Monster”. Currently, only one monster is available, with more monsters (as well as levels) planned for later release. The fifth player can traverse the level with ease whilst in “ghost mode”, which allows them to pass through locked doors simply by flying through them. As a ghost, the fifth player cannot see the other four players; only a blue-hued rendition of the world. In order to detect survivors, the fifth player can set up traps by clicking on inanimate objects within the world, such as pianos, radios, radiators, lamps and planks of wood. Should a survivor go near one of these objects, a noise sounds, allowing the fifth player to narrow down where their prey is, and zero in on their position. Only when this happens can the fifth player take physical form. And it is a rather alarming physical form, I warn you.

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The fifth player must then go about carving up as many survivors as possible, whilst the survivors can use teamwork, diversion tactics and speed (as survivors can sprint temporarily and outrun… whatever that is) to evade their pursuer. The game ends as soon as the survivors escape the level, or the monster has wiped out all four survivors.

After four hours of play, I have to say that despite a rather lukewarm start, Damned has certainly become one of the more interesting indie titles to emerge since Outlast first reared its ugly head. Whilst multiplayer “horror” and co-op are hardly new things, Damned has successfully managed to make this game genuinely terrifying in a way that the likes of F3AR and Left 4 Dead never managed. An apt comparison would be “if Amnesia: The Dark Descent had a bastard child with Left 4 Dead, and the child had five heads and two foot claws”.

It’s the little touches that make it. There’s something of an old-school charm to the idea of collecting keys as survivors, gradually working your way through the level, finding new areas, and all the while being pursued by something resembling a slow, shambling version of the Fast Zombies from Half-Life 2. The low visual quality actually works in the games favour too; making the budget rendered hallways, objects and monster appear infinitely more sinister than anything Dead Space has thrown at us in a while. I especially like the doors which have been borrowed from Amnesia and Penumbra, requiring a “click-and-drag” action rather than a mere button prompt. This mechanic also makes the moments you’re being pursued all the more terrifying as you hurriedly try and slam the door in the face of the monster (who cannot open doors unless they’re already ajar).

The audio perhaps works the most magic, however. Sound effects are used well, with your basic door click and footsteps. The music changes, however, depending on what is happening, with a more Jaws-esque tune suddenly filling your headphones whenever the monster takes physical form. Perhaps the most alarming realisation is when, as a survivor, you hear a long, ghostly breath; this noise means the monster has just flown through you in ghost form, and could well manifest if you trip any alarms. Such moments caused me to freeze on the spot, crouch down, and glue my eyes to the entrances, despite the fact that the monster can (and often will) spawn in the same room as you.

It has to be said that perhaps the best experience in Damned is playing as the monster. Whilst you can set up many items to be traps, only the most clever and sinister of players will know that triggering too many traps will make it more difficult to zero in should one be triggered. I myself took to only triggering one of each type of object; a piano in the Bar, a radiator in the Lounge, a lamp in the Dining Room, and a grandfather clock in the main corridor. Once one of these items triggered, I could fairly quickly figure out where my next meal was.

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I also like the fact that the monster isn’t too overpowered. Don’t get me wrong; the odds are highly stacked against the survivors, but victory is still possible. A clever team will possibly only trigger alarms a few times, be constantly on the lookout, and know exactly what to do should the monster appear. Such behaviour led to my survivor team last night successfully escaping once. However, a clever monster can tear apart any such plan, and with numerous traps, can pinpoint the exact location of the whole team, and figure out where best to spawn in order to pick off one or two before returning to ghost form. Perhaps the monsters main drawback is the fact it has no better ability to see than the humans, and also does not have the aid of a torch. A clever team can all hide and switch of their flashlights, and never be found by the monster.

Despite being in something of an early stage of development, Damned is something that I feel anyone with a few quid/dollars to spare and some friends who likewise have some cash lying around ought to experience, especially with the promise of more levels and new monsters to try out later. Whilst the likes of Slender and Amnesia might dominate the indie horror scene at the moment, Damned gives us something much more terrifying; a monster controlled by a human, potentially unpredictable, and infinitely more scary. The occasional drop in frame rate and some muddy textures are easily overlooked, especially when you’re fleeing for your life down a dark corridor as you hear your friends being torn to pieces behind you.