Your eyes open to blue skies streaked with pale, wispy clouds. Your fingers sink into black volcanic sand loosened by waves lashing up onto the beach, and a lonely gull crying in accompaniment to the water’s surge. The shore is littered with the broken husks of ships. Small things, for fishing, or a short trip down the coast, but there is no sign of the men that may have crewed such vessels. You are clearly without a companion, standing on this lonely speck of Shore…
…but you don’t feel alone.
What is it?
The Shore is a puzzle/horror game from the mind of indie greek developer Ares Dragonis. Who, on an unrelated note, consistently wins “Best Name Ever” awards wherever he goes. Immediately it’s worth noting that Dragonis very nearly made the whole game himself, from planning to execution. Dragonis wrote the story, modeled characters and environments, animated everything all while responsible for lighting, level design, concept art, voice work, and audio direction. Meaning he pretty much did the whole damn thing by himself.
Making a game, even a small one, is an impressive feat for teams of developers, let alone individuals. What Dragonis has been able to do resulted in a project with singular vision and intent, unmuddled by competing voices or ideas. If he’s half the developer he seems to be, he will have learned an incredible amount about the nuts and bolts of making a game. This could be the launch of a very successful career for Dragonis.
The Shore is set in the universe of H.P. Lovecraft, (i.e the world of Call of Cthulu, unknowable madness, and just objectively too many tentacles). Andrew, a fisherman driven to the island by the need to find his daughter Ellie, wakes up on the shore and mumbles “I must find her, I must find my Ellie.” and you’re set loose. From there you walk around this strange, distant place, uncovering mysteries, horrors, and monsters as you go while testing the limits of your humanity.
Lovecraft is one of the great writers in modern history (also pretty horrendously racist, but the ethics of separating an artist from their work is a bit too dense of a subject to get into inside a game review). His worries, anxieties and fears of a changing world brought him to create a unique style of horror that is massively influential. The subtle wrongness, the simple, deep mystery presented by The Shore drives the eeriness home, firmly placing it in the Lovecraft universe. I don’t have a great deal of experience with game design, but that strikes me as one of those things that’s way more difficult than it seems, and it’s something that Dragonis pulled off brilliantly.
The first point I want to make is that The Shore is very clearly not an action game. It burns slow, and it feels like it should be savoured, rather than blazed through. A glass of wine, not a shot of Jack. When you start up this game, dim the lights, take a breath, and enjoy the experience. I’ll also suggest turning the music volume up as far as it goes, (especially if you’re playing with headphones), and turn the Sfx and voice volumes down a touch. But that’s a personal decision.
Even in a vacuum, however, there is a lot to enjoy about The Shore. It looks beautiful, the models are expertly rendered, and the structure of the island is such that you can add detail to make it feel real and immersive, without being too complex so that it’s too taxing on your machine. It’s a relatively simple environment, but it doesn’t feel lacking. In fact, the simple, empty areas lend the game a strange, isolated feeling. It has the odd, forlorn feeling of a place that should be full, but isn’t. An empty school hallway; an abandoned amusement park. You walk through the evidence that dozens, maybe even hundreds of people have been where you are, yet you are utterly, frightfully, alone.
Conversely, the environments can be actively hostile, realms beyond our mortal plane, or inside the very guts of an ancient, eldritch being. The other side of this coin makes you feel as if you’re never alone. That every corner might hold another abomination. You’re a tiny, insignificant creature walking under the feet of giants.
Games are complicated and even experienced and talented developers struggle to make a seamless construction. By number, most of my issues are small things, more nitpicks, but there were a few more major issues.
Firstly, certain controls are locked off until they’re relevant to the story. Considering the controls are the absolute most basic for a 1st person game (jump, sprint, crouch, punch, interact), it’s simply confusing you’re not allowed to jump until twenty minutes into the game, or punch until you face the first enemy you can actually fight.
Mild Spoiler warning: Highlight to ruin
Speaking of fighting, the Artifact you acquire that lets you shoot eldritch lasers (which ends up being your only weapon against the monsters), is sluggish and unresponsive. I don’t know if it’s intentional, but it comes across as more irritating when its use is the difference between life and death. If it is intentional, then it would be good to have a more visual explanation to show me why it isn’t firing when I tell it to.
Some of the puzzles are confusing. It’s not that I couldn’t solve them, rather when I did, I had no idea how I’d done it. There’s also a rather tiresome reliance on a Chase puzzle mechanic. You need to move through an environment, usually running backwards, keeping the monsters at bay or just hauling ass and hope you take the right path. Which doesn’t always happen. It’s not a great feeling when you run away from a monster down a tight hallway it can’t fit down, (which feels like entirely the correct decision,) only to find that it’s a dead-end and you’ve trapped yourself with the monster waiting at the only entrance to eat you. I had to walk into the welcoming jaws of death and hard reset.
Another problem is the writing. It isn’t bad, but I wish there’d been 50% more overall. You don’t get a lot of backstory for Andrew, (part of this may be intentional, which I’ll go into in a more spoilerific section) but it’s difficult to place Andrew as a character, or the world outside the island. A little bit more voice over, more of Andrew’s thoughts or perspective, would let us be in Andrew’s shoes more and would go a long way in improving immersion. Andrew, in general, could use just a little more characterization. The initial simplicity of his mission, “Find Ellie,” is great. But then the shadow voice from beyond the pale tells you to “Get in the pit.”
I can’t imagine why I would do that, and at the time, I hadn’t seen any evidence to show that Andrew would act against his self-preservation (the obvious answer, of course, is that Andrew is batshit crazy). A little later Andrew mentions how he feels apathetic, and barely human since losing Ellie. Which explains everything, but it needs to be earlier, in the beginning. Open with that so I know why I don’t care about jumping into the giant murderpit, it would help maintain my Suspension of Disbelief™.
Now there’s the pacing. The game starts to feel a little rushed at the end. When I think back at all my favourite parts of the game, they’re almost all at the beginning. The game doesn’t get worse, that’s not quite accurate, but it’s a little less interesting. All the really cool stuff is at the beginning.
The best parts are in the beginning. There’s this great series of soft objectives. One location naturally leads you to the next, but only by the fact that something really interesting happens there and you need to go over to check it out. The ending of the game is a little less impressive. A few sections are a series of puzzles connected by portals. It seems like a classic case of “Oh shit I’ve been working on this for over 2 years, I should probably finish soon.” *cough* CDPR *cough* and so the later sections didn’t get the same care and attention that the beginning did. Those first parts are genuinely good, though, great even. Ares has a talent, skill and passion for game design and development that should be rewarded.
Spoiler warning 2- Electric boogaloo
Probably my biggest problem with the game. The story is, in a literal sense, about two-thirds done, and the ending is the weakest part of the game. Without getting into too much writing theory, every story has a somewhat similar structure. The one I’ll use as a reference is the Three Act Structure. The story of the game is actually very similar to Bioshock (2007); You wake up in a strange and fantastical environment. You’re shepherd around the place, doing the bidding of a disembodied voice with an accent until you find out that you’re not who you think you are and your actions were not truly your own. You were only there for the means of those above you.
This moment is called the “All is Lost”, when the protagonist feels as far as possible from victory and it’s meant to drive the protagonist forward towards the climax of the story. This is also the point where The Shore and Bioshock diverge sharply from one another. In Bioshock, you’re forced off the beaten trail and to hunt down your once-ally, and in The Shore, the game ends. You’re a creation of the voice commanding you, for its entertainment, and then you die or bring your fake daughter to life. It’s a little unclear. The problem is that the story doesn’t resolve. You don’t have a choice to fight the voice, but neither do you learn if you get to see Ellie. The ending feels… pointless. Andrew didn’t grow or change and nothing we could do feels like it would have changed anything.
Again, I come to the conclusion that the beginning of the game is engaging, frightening, and fascinating, but the second half is rushed, less thoughtful, and just not as interesting. I know the stress of having a project looming and the desire to get it done and deliver as fast as possible, but the story needs to take precedence, especially in a game like this. The Shore can’t rely on a powerful gameplay hook to keep you engaged, it’s that mystery that keeps you wanting more, driving you forward. In the beginning, at least, it delivered.
End of Spoilers, I promise.
The only other issues I had with the game were nitpicks, which I don’t feel merit pulling apart considering the one-man-band of the development. Yeah, sure, some of these would be nice to be fixed, but it doesn’t affect the playability of the game, and it would have delayed the release of the game far longer than it’s worth. So I am honestly happy to ignore them entirely.
Should you buy this game? Well, that depends on what you want to get out of your game. If you’re looking for a high-intensity game, or you’re looking for Triple-A polish, you’ll be a little disappointed. If you want to support indie developers, then you’ll likely be pleased with it. As far as I’m aware, The Shore is Dragonis’ first commercially available game, and it’s a hell of a start. If you’re looking for an atmospheric horror experience, then you’re definitely in the right place.
The Shore is an ambitious project that has its premise only a little muddled and lost inside itself and despite my lengthy discussion on its shortcomings, I believe largely delivers on its promise. Considering the impressively small team involved and the sheer number of hats and amount of work Dragonis put into making this game what it is, I give it an 8 out of 10. (Well, in all honestly, I gave it a 7.8, the last two points are for the name. I mean, c’mon. ARES. DRAGONIS.)
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The Shore - 8/10
An ambitious and impressive creation by solo developer Ares Dragonis. The Shore starts off as a fascinating and engaging, but flags slightly though the run. Nevertheless, the beautiful renderings and clear love of the original subject matter make for an overall interesting experience.