I’m not a complete stranger to video games, but my track record for this site isn’t the most stellar, and I can’t say that I’m a seasoned veteran of the past few years’ game scene in general. But what I do have a basis in is horror in all formats, including video games, so I jumped at the chance to review an independent spook-fest from Taiwan, a country not often included amongst consideration of the gaming greats. DETENTION isn’t quite what the promotional material promises, but I nevertheless found myself totally invested. With character writing and themes that can only be described as staggering, DETENTION occasionally stumbles in terms of actual gaming, but is consistently impressive for those looking to get invested in a time and place not often portrayed to Western audiences.
DETENTION takes place in Taiwan of the 1960s, which saw the Republic of China (distinctly not the People’s Republic of China) enact martial law under Chiang Kai-shek and his Kuomintang. From what Red Candle Games’ 2017 outing would tell us, it was an extremely difficult time, and one that doesn’t get brought up much in classrooms across the Pacific. Although we’ve been trained to consider Mao and his communist regime the bad guys, it would seem as if the Kuomintang were no better, imprisoning, torturing, and killing those with any socialist sympathies. With a militaristic school system and a comprehensive banned list of intellectual material considered dangerous, it was a paranoid and frightening era to come of age in, especially when you were constantly encouraged to turn in those suspected of being communists for the good of the nation.
Me (right) and the Crossfader team (left) during meetings
We take up with Wei, a student in the progressive Ms. Yin’s class, who falls asleep and misses her being taken away by military personnel. When Wei awakens, he finds himself all alone in the school, seemingly abandoned due to news of an approaching typhoon. Upon investigating the auditorium he finds Ray, another student who suffered a severely ill-timed bout of narcolepsy. The two soon take shelter in a classroom after discovering a bridge down the mountain has been destroyed. Wei goes off to find supplies to keep them warm throughout the night, but that’s the last we ever see of him. Ray awakens in the auditorium once more, with Wei’s body hanging above her, to find that things have taken a turn for the decidedly sinister…
The aspects of DETENTION deserving the most adulation are its theme and narrative. The game does a great job of making the oppressive military regime feel like a character in and of itself, even when literal spirits in military hardware aren’t giving you a run for your money. Ray continually comes across scraps of search warrants, military mandates, and school policies that contribute to a near-fascist aesthetic, in addition to the constantly looming specters of statues, plaques, and portraits that drive the stifling effect of the omnipresent Kuomintang home. In addition, the game is chock-full of references to East Asian religions such as Taoism and Buddhism, often juxtaposing the realities of the regime with the false and prescriptive hope people gave themselves through more esoteric means. It’s a fascinating cultural springboard for the narrative to jump off of, and it thoroughly sticks the landing.
Me at the debut of THE EMOJI MOVIE
While the narrative thread concerning unravelling the mystery of how Ray is involved with Ms. Yin’s arrest remains a bit obfuscated through dream logic, intentional mystery, and just a sprinkle of translation problems (in addition to some rather florid interstitial text), you’ll have no problem understanding 95% of the story, and both possible endings are devastating in their own ways. In addition, Red Candle has done a bang-up job crafting a morally ambiguous protagonist with Ray; while the game ultimately reveals her to have done nigh-unforgivable things, it also provides enough backstory and motivation that you can’t help but root for her to be able to find redemption over the course of her time in purgatory. The characters you meet over the course of your journey are few and far between, but each is given a surprising amount of depth, and all of them are flawed in ways that culminate in disastrous consequences.
However, while it is still most definitely worth playing, in terms of the actual gameplay and level design, DETENTION finds itself faltering just a bit. As a point-and-click mystery, it goes without saying that virtually all conflict is puzzle-based. However, apart from one true stumper, intermediate gamers will have no trouble breezing through all of the game’s riddles, and even beginning gamers will find themselves counting the times they scratched their heads on one hand. Since the game is so clearly intended to be appreciated for its ability to suck you into its world of story, it’s less of a criticism than it would be elsewhere, but this is a fairly unchallenging game, and one that YouTubers not dedicated to dogged completionism are tidying up close to the two hour mark. Since the puzzles are generally straightforward, it tends to wear some of the back-and-forth required to put a certain item in a certain place thin as the levels approach their end. Having long been a Fatal Frame fanboy, I wasn’t too put off by the backtracking, but less patient gamers may experience some frustration.
Also missing are the changes to the…graphics…you can make in Fatal Frame
On the Fatal Frame note, while the developers aren’t wrong to describe DETENTION as “atmospheric horror,” “atmospheric” should be triple underlined. Despite the regular presence of flickering lights, ominous voices and imagery, and bereaved sobbing, I found myself feeling far more safe than I wanted to at any given time. While Fatal Frame was almost entirely bereft of story and theme, it’s no exaggeration that I was pissing my pants every time I had to walk down a corridor for the 20th time, anticipating the shock of the next big, honkin’ jump scare. Depending on what kind of horror fan you are, it’s up to you to know how you’ll feel with the knowledge that the game only has two clearly defined jump scares as you’re sleuthing around. However, almost everyone will be mildly disappointed to learn that paranormal entities, while making quite a star run in the first chapter, leave midway through the second, not even stopping to say goodbye. The first chapter is the most effective from the perspective of a horror game, since it’s the only one where I dreaded having to go back to check a room because of the hungry ghost that was haunting the halls. While it’s still an enjoyable experience to learn more of Ray’s backstory in the later chapters (especially in the third chapter, which is one of the best narrative experiences I’ve come across in a game), DETENTION would have benefited from a more consistent and varied roster of evil spirits.
Despite technically being a full-length debut, I found myself wanting even more from DETENTION, so I think that can ultimately be read as a ringing endorsement. While only the most delicate will be genuinely scared, you’ll certainly feel uneasy, and I personally needed to take some time to process the absolutely haunting final images that both endings possess. I’ve harped on enough about the context and quality of the story itself; do yourself a favor, and buy this on Steam if you’re looking to lose yourself for a few hours. I hope to see more from Red Candle Games in the future, and hope that their games only get bigger in scope.
Reviewed on PC