The Park was originally released on PC back in 2015 – we’re reviewing the Xbox One version which is available to purchase now.
When I was a sprog my grandfather lost me for all of about ten minutes in Disney World. That was too many years ago to remember what exactly it was that distracted me to the point of walking in the opposite direction through a milling crowd while he had his hands full with my little sister.
Like I said, I wasn’t lost for long, and I didn’t get very far. I spent a bit of time hanging out with Goofy and Pluto outside some cheap tat shop while one of the human characters went to let security know. I had the time of my life, and I couldn’t understand why my granddad was so angry and scared when he stormed out of the sea of Mickey Mouse ears, dragging my red-faced sister behind him, acting like there was something to be worried about. I thought he was silly – it was Disney World, nothing bad ever happens in Disney World, right?
The Park sets out to recreate that sense of parental dread, a first person horror story playing out the thousands of awful possibilities that run through the mind of a mother when her child is missing. In fact, your only two controls besides movement is a button press to examine things in the environment and another to call out to Callum (the missing little’un). Placing you in the hilariously high-waisted jeans of single mother Lorraine, you’ll search for your wayward son in the derelict, abandoned Atlantic Island theme park. Dark forces manipulate the rides, a killer in a Chipmunk costume is on the prowl, and Lorraine’s own mind is unraveling rapidly, causing the player to question how much of what they’re seeing is actually happening and how much is just stress-induced delusion.
The game definitely succeeds in creating a pervading sense of suspense, and it does so without leaning on jump scares excessively (they’re still there, of course, but it rarely overuses them). Funcom definitely have the right idea – once you’ve made somebody jump, you’ve cashed in on the tension, and the next scare won’t be as jarring for most. In a narrative experience as short and sweet as The Park, a gallery of jump scares would have had the player wandering through the twisted endgame with all the casual haste of a mum browsing the reduced section of a supermarket five minutes before closing. If you know something ugly’s going to pop up behind that window, half of the fear is already gone – and while you anticipate terrible things boarding The Park’s ferris wheels and rollercoasters it usually manages to surprise you with exactly what they are – it could be a CreepyPasta-style boogeyman, or an emotional admission of Lorraine’s guilty past.
The narrative is what really shines here, glimmering through occasionally stiff animation and shaky voice acting. What genuinely grabbed me was the sudden switch of focus from the external horrors of the ghoul-infested park to the personal demons of Lorraine’s equally haunted past, but given that the whole game can be completed in just under two hours, it can be a little jarring. Lorraine goes from caring, frightful mother to pill-popping nutjob in an instant, with very little build up, but the way the story goes from leaving scattered notes about mysterious deaths and malfunctioning rides to doctors’ notes, prescriptions, and letters offering small glimpses into Lorraine’s messed up life is sublime.
As a whole, the story works. The individual moving parts are where The Park suffers, and much like one rusty gear on a rollercoaster, it comes perilously close to derailing the whole experience. At the very beginning you learn that you can’t go into the area Callum definitely just ran into without a flashlight, so, naturally, you set out to find one, the path ahead littered with broken rides and snippets of exposition. Before you take a spin on any of the amusements, you’ll read news articles and letters that build suspense for the scares. The main issue is that 90% of the time there is absolutely no reason for Lorraine to board the rides in the first place, and it seems really out of place that a mother – even one with such a difficult past – would randomly get on a ferris wheel in the middle of chasing down her offspring in a creepy-as-shit theme park. Even if you thought Callum was on the damn thing – just wait at the bottom.
People doing things real people never would are a staple of horror, and the rides are splendidly atmospheric for the most part – it just seems absurd when Lorraine takes a ten minute boat ride moments after her son disappears. As a result a lot of the time you spend walking between plot advances doesn’t feel coherent, and it’s only when the credits have rolled that the experience really sinks in as a whole instead of feeling distinctly like a series of disconnected events. The psychological horror builds to a satisfying crescendo shortly before the end, and just when it seems as though the game is going to capitalise on all the weirdness and suspense, it just kinda fizzles out with a third-person cutscene the player has no input in. When so much of your atmosphere is built up in first person, suddenly switching to another forces a disconnect that slams the brakes and reminds the person holding the controller just how far away they are from the horror.
The Park is definitely an interesting experiment, a decent prototype for what could be a very compelling horror game, and the design is fantastic. It carries brilliant ideas on questionable tracks, and I would recommend it to horror fans with a healthy amount of caution. A bumpy ride – but an interesting one, too.
- Scares feel intensely disconnected from each other – and the narrative – most of the time until the final set piece.
- Jerky animation and wavering voice acting can interrupt an otherwise immersive atmosphere.
- The underlying narrative is extremely well told and Atlantic Island has a twisted history you’ll no doubt absorb with morbid fascination.
- Doesn’t immediately stand out in the first person horror crowd but if you play it, you’ll discover some clever storytelling and fresh ideas that make The Park a great showcase for Funcom’s considerable talents.
The Park is developed and distributed by Funcom. You can buy it on PC, Xbox One, and PS4!