Reviewing Crow Country: A Dive into Old School Horror

Crow Country pays loving homage to a golden age of survival horror while distinguishing itself with an enthralling story, excellent world design, and creative puzzles.

By Richard Wakeling on May 16, 2024 at 11:44AM PDT

Crow Country is coated in a murky green veneer that gives the impression you’re playing it on a grainy CRT TV in one of your friend’s bedrooms back in 1996. The polygonal figure of its protagonist, Special Agent Mara Forest, with her visible joints and single block of purple hair, harks back to any number of PlayStation-era character designs. Similarly, Crow Country’s environments look wonderfully pre-rendered, lavished in extra detail that sits in stark contrast to its simple, blocky characters. These aren’t the static backgrounds of yesteryear, however, but fully interactive playgrounds that add a modern tinge to Crow Country’s distinctly retro sensibilities.

This affectionate nostalgia is in service of a game that pays loving homage to landmark titles of the survival horror genre while also boldly standing on its own two feet. Resident Evil is Crow Country’s most obvious influence, but traces of Silent Hill and Alone in the Dark also stalk the darkest corners of its ’90s-inspired horror. It can be a tad too authentic at times, featuring unwieldy combat that’s tempting to ignore completely, but this is still a true advert for the joys of retro-modern survival horror when executed well.

Set in 1990, the story begins as Mara arrives at Crow Country in her Volkswagen Polo imitation car. Crow Country is a dilapidated yet complex theme park full of secrets waiting to be discovered. Mara is on a mission to find the park’s missing owner, Edward Crow. It’s not long before she finds herself digging into the mysterious history of the park.

The plot is meticulously unraveled through various mediums such as notes from park employees, archived news articles, and interaction with a handful of characters. The storytelling is brisk, with clever and self-conscious writing that honors gaming and horror conventions without being trite. The quest to uncover what transpired in the two-year closure of the park pushes the narrative onward towards a memorable conclusion. Crow Country’s creativity shines in the choice of setting and lack of predictable elements commonly found in genre classics. Its novel take mirrors the original 1996 Resident Evil game’s unique twist.

Monstrous beings, reminiscent of David Cronenberg’s nightmarish creatures, roam the park. These creatures carry a tragic backstory built on human ambitions and selfishness. Crow Country gives the players the choice to play in two modes, Survival and Exploration. The Exploration mode allows for a monster-free experience, leaving you to unravel the park’s mysteries and puzzles.

In survival mode, unearthly beings increase in numbers as you progress in the storyline. True to its genre, survival horror, evading these creatures is possible, which also helps conserve ammunition. The monster’s growing population doesn’t pose unnecessary issues, and fights are only necessary if they block puzzle solutions.

Survival in Crow Country is somewhat straightforward due to the abundance of items like ammunition, medical kits, and antidotes. Few incidents pose serious threats, and both common enemies – from fast-moving, Pinochio-esque creatures to oddly extended skeletons – are rare and easily avoided that they become little more than bumps in the road. The common challenges associated with the genre – inventory management and life-threatening enemy encounters – are largely absent, which often makes gameplay feel unrewarding.

Combat in Crow Country, which adopts an intimate isometric viewpoint with free camera movement, isn’t particularly engaging either. Aiming and shooting can feel awkward due to its unique camera angle, but taking down enemies remains straightforward despite clunky controls. Weapon progression sees players start with a service pistol before acquiring a shotgun, magnum, and flamethrower. Despite their potential for differing impacts, the weapons fail to offer palpable variations in feel, further dulling the game’s combat dynamics.

Nevertheless, Crow Country is successful in establishing an eerie atmospheric backdrop as players navigate through the park’s various sections. The game’s excellent score manages to establish tension reminiscent of the era. The game’s setting – a rundown theme park – significantly contributes to its charm as players explore different zones such as an aquatic section with artificial sand and starfish, a fairy forest teeming with oversized mushrooms or a haunted town leading to a frightening mansion and underground crypt. The uncanny automations and the pervasive crow theme can give anyone the creeps.

The park’s layout is both distinct and intuitive, designed to make navigation easy. The design has a Central Park-type square with access to the three various zones, encouraging the expansion of access by venturing back and forth to uncover clues and items. Shortcuts reduce backtracking monotony while adding complexity to the park’s layout, making progression in the game inherently satisfying. Crow Country is full of rewarding moments that come from solving puzzles to discover new connections, making it an enjoyable experience despite some shortcomings.

The puzzles themselves are fun to solve, too, expertly maintaining the balance between perplexing and condescendingly straightforward. The hints can be found in employee notes and company memos, but most solutions are based on logic and common sense–even if the logic is quite specific to the survival horror genre. The compact nature of the map is advantageous here as well, as most puzzles are remarkably self-sufficient. The solution to a given problem often requires items that are in the vicinity, and even if you need to go further out, the return journey isn’t overly lengthy. The puzzle designs are delightfully diverse too, with tasks such as playing specific piano notes to reveal hidden compartments, finding a key by liquefying a robot’s head with acid, and solving a riddle based on the names on various tombstones, all while a bony arm threateningly brandishes a shotgun.

Crow Country is truly a tribute to the storied era of survival horror, but it doesn’t simply rely on imitation. It manages to feel both familiar and uncharted; it incorporates classic genre elements but utilizes contemporary techniques, making the theme park full of secrets and rewarding puzzles much more accessible to new players. The game isn’t overly difficult, and although combat is tedious and cumbersome, it’s not a major focus and can be easily disregarded. The narrative is surprisingly robust, with a captivating plot, sharp writing, and a memorable conclusion. The painstaking craftsmanship behind Crow Country is palpable, resulting in a nostalgic nod to its predecessors that deftly avoids being derivative. It does justice to the games it draws inspiration from, while also exhibiting great merit on its own.

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