‘Devotion:’ alright Taiwanese horror game

February 12, 2021

Perhaps I had unreasonably high expectations for “Devotion.” Made by Red Candle Games, it’s a first-person, 3D horror game and the spiritual successor of “Detention,” another Taiwanese horror game I really enjoyed and reviewed for The Brandeis Hoot. But alas, I’m disappointed to report that Devotion is only an alright, not so scary horror game with tired tropes. Though the game is still worth a play for its art direction alone.

Before I begin, I must talk about the obvious inspiration behind “Devotion”: “P.T.” This is a playable teaser for the now cancelled game “Silent Hills” that features looping hallways, obscure puzzles and a spooky ghost lady that stalks the player. Despite being only a teaser, “P.T.” was an instant classic, inspiring countless other games that attempt to emulate its success. These knock-offs always copy the most superficial aspects, like the family tragedy (the husband does something horrible due to mental illness or some other reason and now his dead wife haunts him in his own personal hell).

Devotion is similarly iterative and falls into many of these design pitfalls, though it is by no means just another uninspired “P.T.” clone. In fact, it’s probably the best game in this subgenre. Rather than using the cliche family tragedy as a set for scary spectacles, “Devotion” cares deeply about its story. This thoughtfulness is to a fault, as disturbing visual storytelling often crowds out the actual scares. The game does succeed at making you care about the story and its characters. However, no matter how nicely told the story is, it’s still the same archetypal family tragedy. The game can’t help but show its hand about midway through, and the plot becomes quite predictable from there.

Another complaint I have is that the setting—1980s Taiwan—isn’t utilized well. In the developer’s previous game “Detention,” the story is specific to its setting. It can only happen during that time, so it made sense why that period was chosen. In “Devotion,” you find out that the cause of the tragedy is rather generic. The plot could probably be set anywhere else and it would still make sense. There’s a missed opportunity here. The developers could have used something specific to Taiwan in the 80s as their inciting incident, so that not only would the story be more exciting, but it would also serve as a valuable history lesson like the one we got in “Detention.” 

Also, for a horror game, “Devotion” suffers from a lack of engaging horror gameplay due to its (over) emphasis on storytelling. The experience is like a shallow, artificial haunted house ride: you go to a place, wait for something spooky to happen, solve a simple puzzle or two—finding relevant objects and putting them in the right places to trigger the next event—and then move on to the next place. Rinse and repeat. The levels don’t possess a lot of variety either, with most of them being composed of looping rooms changing in small details as the story moves along. And there is only the facade of danger throughout the game as the ghost only comes after you in a couple of places. For the most part, you’re perfectly safe, which is something I realized pretty quickly and lost all sense of dread as a result. There needs to be a balanced inclusion of real danger and downtime for storytelling. As it stands, “Devotion” is just not that scary, though this wouldn’t have been such an issue if the story was more compelling.

Thankfully, the game is carried by its uniquely Taiwanese aesthetic. The developer does a great job rendering these elements as corrupted by time and tragedy, so that the setting feels run-down yet almost alive, as if it’s possessed by some malignant force—its culture and civilization turning on the people who created them. The most striking image I have to offer as an example is probably that of the old apartment door, which is illuminated by a single dim tube, surrounded by wooden bars, plastered with red papers of Chinese symbols and images and accompanied by a dusty green mailbox on the side. To the eastern crowd, these elements appear as a perversion of their memory of that distant past, which makes the game so unsettling. But for the western audience, I’d imagine it would be the unfamiliarity that’s so frightening and thus such a breath of fresh air. That’s why I think you should still play “Devotion” despite its flaws. It’s an aesthetic experience that just can’t be found elsewhere.

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