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Thursday, April 25, 2024

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Faith: The Unholy Trinity is the scariest 8-bit game I've played

This could be a scene from a Japanese horror film, except it looks like a scene from an old adventure game. It's painted in two colours, one a kind of brown for the environment, and one in purple showing a hunched over girl holding the end of a bed, hair obscuring her face. She is out to get you.

It doesnt seem like Faith: The Unholy Trinity should be able to do this, to scare us, because it looks like something I played decades ago on a BBC Micro. Its got squiggly MS Paint lines for graphics, there are maybe two frames of animation, the sound garbles anything it plays, and you can even hear system beeps. And yet, somehow, Faith manages it – manages to be unsettling, manages to make me jump, manages to scare me. Had I played this as a kid, I would never have slept again.

The theme is exorcism, and Faith begins with you, a priest, driving along a road and parking by a forest, then getting out and walking into the trees. Youre going to finish what you started, with or without the Vaticans permission, youre told, and thats really all you know. Faith is a game that doesnt tell you much because working out what youre doing is part of it.

Mechanically, though, you cant do much: you can walk around and hold up a cross. And holding up the cross near certain objects seems to exorcise souls from them, and doing so produces a note. And notes are important. They are what fill in the story around you, detailing who you are, what youre doing, what youre looking for and why. And theyll give you clues about what youll find when you get there, too, the answer to that one nearly always being “demons”.

So, you walk. You trudge through a forest one screen after another as you try to work out where to go. And every so often, you hold up your cross to reveal another note. And the immediate feeling is this all feels very slow, almost soporific, with the garbled classical music – the sort youd listen to while relaxing in the bath – in your ear.

Creepy, isnt it?

But then, screech! A four-legged horror that looks like a deranged piece of spaghetti darts out from a corner of the screen and tries to get at you. It moves much more quickly than you and crashes in with a discordant scraping sound, making you panic, but instinctively you hold up your cross and it is gone. The effect is complete: now, youre on edge. Now you know the game has teeth.

This is Faith in a nutshell: stillness and nothing, then screech! and something coming at you, and quick. And its effective – more effective because theres nothing else going on. Why didnt more games do this in the 80s (did they? I might have been too young to know)? I suspect the answer is partly because they couldnt. Faith, you see, is sneaky.

Every so often it will mix in other surprises you dont expect, things like much more richly animated 3D sequences, albeit done with simple line drawings, that show some of the horrors youre running from up close, or some of the main characters. And they shake the player around a bit more. Theres a wonderful moment where you see the stereotypical image of a longhaired girl from a Japanese horror film emerge in front of you, then the game announces “Shes here” and a chase begins. One presentation works really well to reinforce the other.

Whether any of this is technically 8-bit, I dont know. But I expect whats more important is the feeling of it being a game from your childhood so it can play around with your expectations from there. You dont expect a game to be able to do this, but it can.

A very simple screen showing an outlined, top-down room, drawn in one colour against a black background. Theres a blue blob thats the character, and then theres a dialogue box that reads, "Shes here.
She is here. And shes not friendly. This is a chilling moment, which you dont think it will be. It isnt to look at.

A creepy image. The outline of a humanoid creature with red eyes and blood dripping from its mouth, turning to the viewer. It is on its hands and knees eating a body. An eyeball sits on the floor nearby.

One of these is you, one isnt – can you guess which it is?

This feeling of the game being capable of more than you thought builds as you progress through its three chapters, each of which are a couple of hours long, depending on how long youre held up by certain puzzles, or note searching, or enemy encounters, which can be very annoying – theres a lot of dying and trying again as you try to figure them out. That plus some tiresome traipsing around are my main drawbacks in the game. But save points are usually close so you dont have to redo much progress.

Soon, youll realise its all connected, the story and characters. They even overlap as you go back in time and witness the beginning of events youve already seen pass. And then youll finish a chapter and the game will announce that youve seen ending one of five and youll go, “Oh, thats smart,” and consider playing it through again, because maybe you didnt have to kill the girl, and what will happen if you dont?

Thats Faith: smarter than it looks, deeper than it looks, scarier than it looks. Its a game that deliberately uses a little to achieve a lot, and disarms you.

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