It is very, very hard to stand out in the modern horror scene. The viral success of Amnesia: The Dark Descent back in 2010 completely changed the landscape of the genre, and its influence is still felt to this day. First-person, jump-scare-laden experiences with minimal fighting and plenty of running and hiding. In over a decade, little variety can be found in these video games, as the tried and proven formula that has catapulted dozens of screeching YouTubers to stardom.
It is precisely because of how painfully unoriginal and predictable these horror games have become that make SNAFU such an intriguing title. At its core, this is the usual run-of-the-mill indie survival horror, but its main twist and genre-bending structure are what differentiate it from all the other releases that are flooding digital market stores. Players are catapulted inside a medieval Grow Your Business game, a riff on idle clicking games where money keeps going up and unlocking new businesses, hiring staff, and buying adverts increase the rate per second of income growth. However, things quickly become creepy as textures get muddled, glitchy boxes appear out of thin air, and an unsettling big-headed humanoid creature lurks in the shadows at night.
This is where SNAFU’s strengths lie. Its setting and blend of two genres are ingenious and surprisingly effective. The inherently addictive nature of clicker games makes travelling around the map, unlocking new areas and maxing out stats a really engaging gameplay hook. Once said hook is firmly inside the gamer is when the horror is unleashed. Despite relying on often cheap scares (having a creepy image appear over a tiny sign is a surefire way of startling even the most hardened genre fans), the atmosphere is genuinely unsettling. The medieval location and the giant gothic castle looming in the background lend themselves well to the unnerving atmosphere, and the day/night cycle makes the dark hours feel much longer and more dangerous than if the game were to be set entirely at nighttime.
Another element that developer Stanislaw Truchowski cleverly implemented is a progression system. Outside of having to buy new ranks to unlock certain shops and areas, the presence of upgrades and game mechanics that can be bought keeps the game from ever getting stale. These upgrades can range from getting a simple flashlight and increasing the sprinting speed to equipping a camera to take pictures of the titular virus that is corrupting the game. The presence of three separate endings, based on how quickly players achieve certain tasks and discover certain secrets, heightens the replayability factor in interesting ways too.
Of course, SNAFU is still the passion project of just one developer, and some cheapness is felt in how barren the landscape really is, with buildings feeling too far away from one another which, if it is done solely to infuse terror, primarily leads to frustration. The sound mixing is also incredibly uneven, as certain sound effects of monsters giggling are blasted directly into the speakers with no real sense of spatial relation. The most tiring aspect on a purely visual level is the depth of field, which turns objects close to the camera into nauseatingly blurry textures.
Still, despite its low production values, SNAFU is a very commendable indie horror game that deserves recognition. It is hard to be truly original in this day and age, and even though the developer resorts to some tried tricks to elicit scares in the players, he still managed to create an experience unlike any other in this sphere of gaming. The first encounter with the virus, quickly running through the shadows, promising to kill the player, is a memorably upsetting moment that nearly pushed this reviewer to stop playing. That alone is worthy of praise and a good enough reason to give this indie production a shot.