Two hours into my playthrough of Perception, a first-person horror game where you embody a young blind woman who uses echolocation to see the world around her, I discovered the story of a character by the name of Betty. Betty was the daughter of a military man who regaled her with stories of service, told her about the honor of serving your country, and inspired her to serve as her father did. I also learned that Betty fell in love with a man named Gene. Betty loved Gene deeply and more than anything else in the world, Betty wanted to start a family with Gene. But Gene was also a military man at a time of war who had no choice but to leave Betty back home.
As familiar and perhaps played-out as this bit of story sounds, experiencing and uncovering it beyond this introduction through Perception’s various storytelling tools elevates into something that drew reactions of empathy and elation from me. It’s a section where all of Perception’s pieces—characters, ideas, mechanics, performances, and writing—fit together and deliver on the exciting pitch of an exploration horror game where you see the world through the sounds around you, but it’s the exception. Because a lot of Perception doesn’t leave you with those great feelings, more often it leaves you with feelings of confusion, frustration, and apathy for not actually delivering on most of its ambitions.
The place where you reside in Perception is a house known notoriously as the Estate on Echo Bluff. It’s a place that haunts the dreams of Cassie, the aforementioned young blind woman who you play as, and she can no longer let it stand. She takes it upon herself to find out why she has these visions, and tracks down the house to get answers. Inside, the house shape shifts and tells the stories of those who inhabited it in the past. Using a cane and the sound that comes from the use of one, Cassie can paint a picture of what’s around her. It’s a picture mostly covered in darkness, but one with a light-blue glow outlining furniture and such to give you an idea of where you reside spatially, at least momentarily, since you need to be using the cane regularly to maintain that picture.
The use of that cane can be just as hazardous as it can be helpful, tapping around too much will alert a cloaked figure only referred to as The Presence, a being that haunts the estate and will halt your progression if it catches you. Naturally, this leads to you balancing when you use the cane and when you just have to deal with the reality of you fumbling around in the dark. At many moments, more than I can count, it can be frustrating, but I also found that when it works, when you find yourself making detailed mental notes of where you have been, the Estate at Echo Bluff becomes more of an actual space because of this mechanic.
Using echolocation is also how you will find Touchstones, key objects in the world that will tell you a little bit about those who have shared this home in the past, people like Betty. These Touchstones essentially act as the traditional video game audio log that give you insight into the intimate thoughts of various characters. Often these familiar devices are what you would expect, but thankfully some Touchstones really do act as just the right vehicle to deliver a story-beat. Locating these objects at times can be more troublesome than necessary, due to their only distinguishing characteristic being a slightly more bright variant on that light-blue glow that highlights objects. More than once I missed an essential Touchstone that I only discovered after accidentally revisiting a room.
While I certainly have my qualms with the implementation of the very mechanic that makes Perception stand out so much, it’s not just a gimmick. When it worked, it added a special tension. It created interactions that felt unfamiliar to me, and those moments made me want to persevere to the end, and it would very much be worth preserving if Perception’s narrative elements that it wants to marry with those mechanics were more consistent in quality.
The story of Betty is one of four stories that you and Cassie will discover. Again, it’s a story and instance that is effective because all of Perception’s parts work in tandem. It’s a moment where the pacing of learning about this character, discovering more about the house, and evading The Presence just work. But this is sandwiched between two cliche stories, one of a doctor gone mad, and another revolving around creepy dolls with handguns. The dialogue, writing, and tone in these two sections just don’t carry much weight, and it failed in convincing me that I should be invested in the goings on. The bulk of Perception, sections like the ones I just mentioned, didn’t feel like a dialogue or a narrative being presented to me, it felt more like haunted house employees playing characters. Especially those dolls that say empty, creepy nothings to you as you fumble around in the dark and they begin to fire at you with what appear to be 9mm handguns.
All of this concludes in a final chapter that explains the connection between the estate and Cassie in a rather quick manner with a straightforward critical path. At this point I had the realization that I never made a connection with Cassie. I learned more about her, but I never grew to like or know her as I think Perception hoped I would. Her reactions to what occurs around her aren’t consistent. One moment she’s appalled by the discovery of a dead body and the next she’s making a Doctor Who joke at a moment that does not call for it. She, like a lot of Perception, is inconsistent.
A lot of Perception dosen’t come together, but when it does, it proves that this idea was worth pursuing. Its take on a game where echolocation is your means of discovery and necessary to move forward lead to some frustration, but also to new experiences. It makes its shortcomings that much more regrettable.
This review is based on a digital code provided to the reviewer from the developer and reviewed on retail PlayStation 4 Pro hardware.
The writer of this review for Perception donated to the game’s original Kickstarter at a tier that did not net the reviewer any rewards or a copy of the game.