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Whether from listening to an overly-invested summer camp instructor or watching a bunch of stilted actors in older cheesy TV shows, scary campfire stories likely hold fond memories for all of us. Now, in this advanced age, these hokey tales of olde find new life in creepy pasta threads. One such example is The Slender Man: a lanky, faceless humanoid in business attire. He starred in a 2012 freeware game, Slender: The Eight Pages, which skyrocketed to popularity thanks in part to Toonami’s short review. Since then, Blue Isle Studios crafted a more expansive Slender: The Arrival for additional platforms; now, its 10th Anniversary Update marks a re-imagining of sorts, with a graphical overhaul and new content. Despite seeing such dedication to this initially-obscure idea, and the humble origins that I appreciate, I’m still left with mixed impressions of gaming’s reigning underweight-class horror champion.
The Arrival starts with hissing background noise and some intentionally-vague sentences smattered onscreen while you’re trekking through the woods. Step into the shoes of Lauren, trying to meet her friend, Kate, whose house is conveniently isolated from the rest of society. You find it abandoned but with clear signs of someone – or something – stalking her. With only a camcorder and newly-acquired flashlight in hand, you’re impelled to go deeper into the woods and rescue her. It succeeds in giving players a possibility space to heuristically investigate the surroundings and discover scattered notes, subtly introducing new character dynamics and world-building. It goes a long way in contextualizing play, which is a shame because after the first ten minutes we’re foisted back to the original freeware game’s lackluster template.
For those who may have missed the original, it’s rather simple: you’re plopped in the woods with no map and have to maneuver through a wooded landscape to collect eight pages. Slender Man tries to catch you by teleporting off-screen and having your camera experience loud audio shocks and disorienting visual shutters whenever he’s near, with them becoming more and more pronounced the closer he gets. Let him get too close, or look directly at him, and you’ll be caught. Bringing Slender Man to life sounds interesting on paper, especially given his mismatched outfit in this environment, but the end result doesn’t quite click.
The best way of showcasing this is – once again – that disparity between the first and second level and how the atmospheric experience turns into a collect-a-thon with “spooky” audio/visual effects. You’re more focused on the game’s tasks on a mechanical level versus it feeling blended in with the larger world around you. Even with changes and expansions to the formula – settings and enemies – it’s still trial and error until learning the map and an enemy’s moveset. Slender Man’s jump scares lose bite as you begin to get some inclination of when they’re going to happen. Eventually it comes down to the only scares just being quick, strident sound shocks booming at a moment’s notice.
Because of its shallow template, rules are learned through repetition and this quickly makes planning overshadow the retro-vibe horror. As it’s mostly about Slender Man stalking you off-screen, there are subtle tricks in trying to get him behind geometry and keep him at bay. Since he doesn’t start until you’ve grabbed the first page, getting any in the middle nets an implicit advantage by then running while looking past the map’s limits to get the rest. Even then, occasionally he’ll teleport a few feet away and that move just feels so cheap. He may be a demon or interdimensional being, but that tawdry design reveals how transparent his most surprising move actually is – subsequently dampening effective setups and payoffs.
Despite being the headlining villain, The Arrival actually spends more time with a rouges gallery of secondary adversaries. The next prominent one is a mysterious girl who nicely contrasts Slender Man’s rule set. Rather than trying not to stare at her, you have to blind her by focusing your flashlight while turning on generators. It’s an inspired concept that perfectly marries with the different scenery; that said, it still can’t elude mishandled execution. While this creepy hooded girl has basic stealth detection systems (visual & audio) and she’s initially fun to avoid, the rote chase scenes just devolve into flipping generators while keeping her at bay with your flashlight. Run for a bit, turn around, and then blind her over and over and over again. This tips from repetitive and simplistic to unfair when Slender Man importunately teleports nearby, potentially at a time when you can be cornered in a dead-end room.
Ironic that The Arrival’s least annoying segments are essentially traipsing through a haunted house. Sure, it’s still nothing more than solving a “micro-puzzle” while walking ahead in camcorder vision, but the linear strictures complement a better horror tempo. There are a consistent bunch of setups and payoffs, while it also feels like you’ve adequately explored a level and learned more about the world. This principle is exemplified in the newest content too, which implies part of Lauren’s backstory. There are specific criticisms for these segments as well, especially the more laughable jump scares, but they’re still decent side dishes compared to the main course.
That sort of… limited credit filters down to the storytelling as well. A lot of the trope gang is here: VHS-themed static shocks, the plaintive cries of a young woman from a distance, an abandoned mine, a creeper in the woods, and so and so forth. It’s not hard to see similarities once past the svelte, well-dressed demon stalking you in the woods; that said, the semi-linear structure succeeds in making it feel like a patchwork of revelations. Not only was it a good design decision to minimize collect-a-thoning while facing Slender Man, it narratively builds up his significance as an ethereal threat corrupting anyone within reach. Granted, the overreliance on random collectibles shouldering so much of the storytelling and insipid jump-scares does diminish the better moments, but there are enough interesting moving parts to maintain interest.
If you had a more positive reception to The Eight Pages, or the original Arrival, and are more concerned with the production qualities then you’re in luck. Blue Isle went about doing an engine overhaul from Unity to Unreal Engine 5 and the results speak for themselves. A variety of settings between forests, a farming area, an underground mine, and more all effectively evoke a dreadful atmosphere while sporting higher-quality textures and improved lighting. Not every aspect received the same attention to detail, like character models and animations, but it’s nevertheless a commendable feat. Not much needed to be tweaked or added in its sound foley or Mark Hadley’s original soundtrack either, given how that’s among Slender’s best qualities already, but they received appropriate upgrades as well.
This new work does lead to a burning question: how much is a new coat of paint and new content worth? Given Slender’s previous upward trajectory from free to $10 with the original Arrival, even I was taken aback by the new $20 price (though a free update on owners of the original on Steam). From a consumerist perspective, not many will bite with a campaign clocking at a brisk 80 minutes; even with extra goodies like missed collectibles or a new difficulty mode to re-experience the campaign, it’s a tough sell with other options out there. Even if I’m averse to strict counting of dollar-per-hour value, what’s offered feels too – well – slender on its own. Beyond no particular idea feeling wholly explored within this scant runtime, it’s even evidenced by the rushed ending.
Slender: The Arrival is a frustrating horror game in that it’s easy to complement specific elements while disliking the core conceit. I may have found Slender’s origins to be flawed from the start, yet I’m also left commending a full-fledged game rising out of creepy pasta threads. If nothing else, it’s a sign of earnest appreciation from unexpected source material. But when I feel more legitimate tension from linear sections than repeated trial-and-error collecting bits – i.e. the series’ main identity – I can’t help but feel something is fundamentally lacking. The 10th Anniversary Update showcases Blue Isle’s sedulous care in honoring the past, but it’s nevertheless tainted by a game trying to pad out a one-trick pony.
Contractor by trade and writer by hobby, Lee’s obnoxious criticisms have found a way to be featured across several gaming sites: N4G, VGChartz, Gaming Nexus, DarkStation, and TechRaptor! He started gaming in the mid-90s and has had the privilege in playing many games across a plethora of platforms. Reader warning: each click given to his articles only helps to inflate his Texas-sized ego. Proceed with caution.
This review is based on a digital copy of Slender: The Arrival for the XS