Crow Country is a darkly meditative callback to survival horror’s past

Crow Country is a darkly meditative callback to survival horror’s past

Is it blasphemous to call a survival horror game “cozy”? Maybe so, but while thinking back on my playthrough of Crow Country, the word popped into my mind more than a few times.

From the jump, there’s no question about Crow Country’s PlayStation 1 influences, which its creators at SFB Games have been upfront about: it is very intentionally the creepy-cute child of Resident Evil, Silent Hill and Final Fantasy VII. The game, which was released on Steam, PlayStation 5 and Xbox X/S on May 9, just about checks all the boxes for survival horror, but it takes a gentler approach to the genre, making it feel more like a test of mental endurance against some all-consuming bleakness than a constant fight for your life. (A Hard Mode, however, is apparently on the way).

You play as Mara Forest, who must painstakingly make her way through an abandoned amusement park in the year 1990 to find its elusive and evidently corrupt owner, Edward Crow. Resources, like ammo and health kits, must be scavenged. Skinless monstrosities may emerge from the shadows at any turn to grab at you and puzzles of varying complexity promise to stall your progress. There is an ensemble of characters who — including the protagonist — each seem to have questionable motives.

It’s a familiar formula paired with a familiar style of character design paired with a familiar unsettling atmosphere, yet Crow Country manages not to feel like it’s being propped up by nods to its predecessors. With more of an emphasis on mood and mystery than violence (and some humor sprinkled throughout), it’s just unique enough to stand on its own as a distinct work. The entire experience has this air of reflectiveness to it, and I think the developers describe it perfectly in their own synopsis of what Crow Country offers: “a beautiful, uncanny blend of tension and tranquility.”

The nostalgia did indeed hit me like a truck as I took my cautious first steps around the eponymous Crow Country theme park as Mara. Naturally, she walks at a snail’s pace and comes to a full stop whenever firing a weapon. Her running speed is fine, though, and you have 360-degree control of the camera angle, so it doesn’t weigh you down entirely with PS1-era limitations (a blessing).

I was prepared to be frustrated for the duration of the game by the stop-to-shoot bit, but I got over it once I realized the monsters are also slow as hell. Well, most of them. You can run right by them in almost every situation if you want to. That made killing a choice rather than a necessity, and immediately dialed down the sense of urgency I’d gone into my first enemy encounter with. This is not at all a bad thing. With the stakes lowered, I treated those fleshy monstrosities like target practice and picked them off mostly for the fun of it. That, along with the gradual realization that there weren’t going to be jumpscares every 5 seconds, sucked me into a much cozier experience than I was expecting.

Without anxiety fueling my every decision, I was able to take my time to pick through all the nooks and crannies of the amusement park, making sure to stop and read every notebook or piece of paper and examine every object on the ground or hanging on the walls. I could focus completely on the puzzles before me, some of which were really challenging. I even had to bust out a pen and paper at one point. It also wasn’t very difficult to stay stocked up on necessities like ammunition, health kits and poison antidotes, which could be found randomly all over the park and at vending machines, where they’d sometimes regenerate so I could return for more later.

The soundtrack by Ockeroid (which just got its own separate digital release) is eerily soothing, and helped to create an atmosphere that fully engrossed me. Crow Country’s save mechanism leans fully into the game’s contemplative ambiance, too: you can find respite at different sources of fire, which Mara will stare into before reciting a wistful thought about hope and dread in the face of uncertainty. I played Crow Country on a Steam Deck, snuggled up with my cats on a gray, stormy day, and I can’t think of a better way to take it all in.

SFB Games

In typical survival horror form, the environment gets increasingly hostile as you advance in the game; creatures start showing up in heavier numbers, a faster one joins the mix, it starts raining, it gets darker, someone shoots at you from the shadows. But any real heaviness in Crow County is balanced by just the right amount of playfulness. The characters are often so unserious, going back and forth with irreverent dialogue. And you cannot ignore the goofy crow-themed objects that are all over the place — you rely on some of them for resources and insight.

Initially, Crow Country hints that there’s more to Mara than we’re being told but makes no explanation as to who she is or why she’s really in this abandoned theme park. Nor does it explain early on why that park is filled with writhing abominations and conspicuously prevalent references to the number 2106. Those mysteries served to hook me, and keep me progressing deeper as things unfolded. The ending tied everything together in a way that felt really satisfying.

It’s short but not too short, taking in the ballpark of 5 to 10 hours to complete depending how thorough (or slow to figure out puzzles) you are, and has a lot of replay value. This game is full of secrets that aren’t vital to the plot but can make your life a little easier — there is even a map showing you where they are, if you can find it — and these add another layer of challenge to the overall scavenger hunt. The upcoming Hard Mode could also make revisiting it even more interesting. The game currently gives you the option to play in Survival Horror mode (the version I played), or Exploration Mode, in which “you will not be attacked.”

I missed a couple secrets on my first playthrough, so my main goals for the next run are to find the rest of those and hit 100 percent of the achievements. I’m also curious to find out how different choices in my interactions with other characters could affect how the story plays out. In the end, I found myself moved by Crow Country for reasons that had almost nothing to do with nostalgia.

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