Motte Island review: an Indonesian indie horror adventure
Prefer to watch rather than read? Check out our video review of Motte Island right here.
When it comes to indie PC games, the Asian scene is still in its infancy, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t worthwhile indie games to be found out there. And Indonesian indie devs seem to be carving out a niche for themselves as a great source of indie horror games. There’s the upcoming Dreadout, of course, which has made waves internationally, but I just played another Indonesian indie horror game that has just been released: Motte Island.
Motte Island is a PC game from Indonesian indie outfit One Aperture, and it’ll run you just $4.99 on Gamersgate or Desura (the game is also on Steam Greenlight and you should vote for it). In the game, you play a convicted murderer returning to his island home to try to rescue his sister from sinister, and somewhat mysterious forces. As they often do in horror games, things go from bad to worse pretty much the moment you arrive.
Motte Island is a 2D, top-down action/adventure hybrid. When you’re fighting, it’s quite a bit like Hotline Miami: you can run around pretty fast and smash enemies with a wide variety of melee weapons and (eventually) a gun. Getting enemies from behind is vastly preferable to taking them head-on, as hitting anything from behind is a one-hit kill, whereas attacking most things from the front can become a more protracted (if frenzied) engagement. It’s also more satisfying, because a from-the-back attack comes with a sickening crunch as your foe falls to the ground a bloody mess.
Generally speaking, though, you can also just run away from enemies if you don’t feel like engaging with them.
In between the bloody melees, you’ll spend a lot of time playing Motte Island more like a traditional adventure game. To move the story along and unravel the mystery of what has your sister and how you can save her, you’ll need to talk to a variety of people across the island and find all kinds of things. You’ll spend a lot of your in-game time shining your flashlight around Motte Island’s dark environments, searching for the item you need to move forward.
Motte Island doesn’t give you much in the way of cues, and there’s also no map, so finding items and figuring out where to go next can sometimes get frustrating. That may be intentional—it makes sense the developers would want you to feel lost and confused at times in a game like this—but on a couple occasions, I found it was a bit much. Some of the items are also a little small, meaning that it’s easy to walk past them a few times before you actually realize they’re there.
The normal action/adventure gameplay is also punctuated by mini-games and puzzles that add a bit of variety to the experience. There’s a lockpicking mechanic, some code-breaking puzzles, a brief driving mini-game and several shooting-gallery style mini-games you’ll encounter over the course of the story. There are also boss battles every so often.
I played the game on casual difficulty and finished it in 4-5 hours, but I’m not sure that’s a good measurement of how much content is there. The game seems to have multiple endings, and there were also things I encountered during my playthrough (a locked safe, a mysterious coded bookshelf) that I didn’t bother to figure out before moving on, so there’s content that I didn’t experience. All in all, it seems like quite a lot of content given the game’s low price point.
That said, I did spend a fair amount of my time lost, and at least 45 minutes of that was dedicated to the final boss battle, which is pretty difficult even on the “casual” setting. But hey, it’s not a real final boss battle if it doesn’t make you swear and punch the desk a few times, right? Overall, the game isn’t without its frustrations, but it’s definitely fun to play.
Motte Island is a horror game, and it even includes a feature where the game changes based on how often you’re screaming into your microphone. I’m not sure what happens if you scream, because the game never scared me that badly, although it did give me a few good jumps.
That said, the game is damned creepy pretty much from the get-go, and while it may not make you scream, it’s got some of the most creative and memorable monsters I’ve ever faced in a horror game. They’re beautiful, in a nightmarish sort of way, and you’ll be seeing them in your head long after you stop playing.
Motte Island also deserves a lot of credit for creating the claustrophobic, what’s-around-that-corner feeling in first-person horror games through the use of its flashlight mechanic. The game is dark, and you’ll often need a flashlight to see more than a few feet in front of your face. But your flashlight also attracts enemies, meaning you constantly have to choose between being blind and being extra-vulnerable. Shiver.
Of course, that effect wouldn’t really work if the game didn’t have a fantastic lighting system. Your flashlight casts very realistic feeling light and shadows, and the game’s dark and noisy but detailed environments offer plenty of eye candy worth shining your light at. It’s weird to call a game that’s so dark, terrifying, and bloody “pretty”, but Motte Island really is.
The game’s music and sound effects also do a lot to add to its creepy atmosphere. Occasional sudden swells, often matched with just-in-the-corner-of-your-eye visual effects will keep you on edge, and the tense music even stacks on top of itself during battles, turning the game into a cacophonic symphony of bloodlust. This is also punctuated with quieter moments of classical music—Pachelbel’s Canon, I believe—that add a little emotional depth to the goings-on.
If the credits are to be believed, the art and programming in Motte Island was created entirely by two people. Given that, there are a few corners that were understandably cut when it comes to illustrating the game’s story. Cutscenes are really barely-animated concept art, and there’s no voiced dialogue in the game, with the story instead being conveyed through subtitles and suggestive sound effects (a radio crackles in the background when you’re hearing from someone over the radio, for example).
But the game’s story is well-executed enough that it hits despite the lack of fancy triple-A bells and whistles. The characters are memorable, if sometimes a bit inscrutable, and your own motivations are understandable enough: you want to rescue your sister. But you’re clearly not the average video game hero; even before things have gone wrong on the island, you butcher a few police officers so that you can escape custody. You are a man who is headed into darkness with honorable intentions, but also perhaps a man who deserves to be surrounded by the evil that lies on Motte Island.
I don’t want to give away too much about the story, but suffice it to say the folks at One Aperture have stuck to what works in horror games: the people are creepy and weird, the source of the evil is mysterious, and the path to salvation is fraught with nightmares. The game doesn’t directly explain much, instead leaving clues in bits and pieces all over the island for you to find—or not—at your own pace.
Motte Island isn’t a perfect game, but given the size of its team, it is a tremendous accomplishment. And at the price of just $5, it would be hard to argue that the game isn’t worth your time and money. If you like horror games, or if the idea of merging Hotline Miami with a dark adventure game sounds fun to you, you definitely need to check this one out.