Often in games, the best evocation of fear is in subtle nuance. That is exactly the kind of sweaty-palm terror evoked by The Coma: Cutting Class, a side-scrolling survival horror game from Devespresso Games. Tapping into the horrors that come along with every education system, Coma tells the story of Youngho’s descent into a nightmare world when he falls asleep during a test. The fear of not studying doesn’t really seem to match up with the terror of a demonized version of his teacher Mrs. Song (aptly re-named ‘The Killer’) creeping up on him as he attempts to escape however. Simplicity is really key to this title, tapping into the fears of students everywhere through a tightly rehearsed orchestra of sound, game mechanics, and the uncanny vulnerability that comes with being at school after hours.
This aptitude for subtlety is apparent from the get-go, even in the characters you meet on your way to school. The dialogue is witty and feels natural rather than forced. Characters are given room to speak in a realistic manner and without a plot-driving agenda statically dictating their words. When combined with expressive and lovingly detailed artwork, the resulting engagement with the events of the game is magnified. Though unfortunately this character depth dwindles significantly once we get into the meat of the game, the background information it offers at the start manages somewhat to flesh out the bare-bones plot.
Coma relies just as much on the player’s imagination as it does actual on-screen scare factor. In doing away with the puzzles that often come with survival horror games, the player is forced to explore the labyrinth that is Youngho’s school in order to escape. Armed with a map only slightly more useful than a doodle, the claustrophobia of the identical corridors creates a panic within itself as the blood stained walls close in and you hear the tap-tap of Mrs. Song’s heels echoing through the darkness.
In a strange twist, it’s the mechanics of the evil teacher that both sell and slightly hinder the effect of this game. This teacher does not give up. Now, I don’t mean that in an “oh she’s such an inspiring and dedicated educator of our offspring” way. No. She will relentlessly roam these halls and creep up on you whenever she damn well feels like it. The first time she tries to murder you, the experience will leave you gaping at the “Dead” screen trying to stop your heart from failing. After that, you’re an eternal nervous wreck, dreading the moment that red flash and shriek turns your blood to acid as it pummels through your veins.
What makes this encounter all the more terrifying is the fact that Devespresso thought it would be funny to dangle you before this monster completely defenseless. With the only option being to run and hide from your enemy, you better be nimble on those arrow keys. It’s this constant vulnerability that forces you to approach every step of every corridor with the shaky attentiveness of tip-toeing around Clickers in The Last of Us or escaping the workshop of the chainsaw guy in The Evil Within. However this is both a blessing and a hindrance.
While fun for the beginning of the game, the mechanics of continuously running and hiding become tiresome and repetitive. Spending most of your time hiding in a toilet cubicle makes for a realistic high school experience, but not a very dynamic video game. Having to dash to the bathroom whenever you hear footsteps means progression can become sluggish, despite the terrifying experience it produces. Quite often the psychological effect of the game will even leave you sprinting for the dark respite of a cubicle without any requirement for it – you don’t want to wait around and see if you really did hear footsteps, why take that chance?
Though the plot is a basic escape based affair, if you choose to collect the notes around campus you will begin to piece together individual stories that massively pad out the storyline. Collecting the notes becomes a grimly compulsive addiction as the meager main story becomes more and more skeletal as the game progresses. Similarly, if the player doesn’t interact fully with the side-quests offered by the extra figures you meet along the way, there’s little character development to be enjoyed. Still, Coma makes use of the current decision-based gameplay trend in its employment of various different endings based on your actions throughout the game. These opportunities for decision are fairly sparse however, and they’re effects are not always apparent throughout the gameplay.
Coma makes up for its lack of plot in its presentation of visuals and audio. It is rare to find a platform game this clear and detailed in its artwork. The wit and realism of Youngho’s internal dialogue throughout serves to highlight the vibrancy and surprising verisimilitude of the backgrounds as he reacts to objects in the classrooms and corridors. The effect this has on immersion is infinite, and the 2-D set up here makes for extremely smooth gameplay. Frustratingly, the music is sometimes off putting and detracts from the terrifyingly atmospheric sound effects. It sometimes misses the mark by about three octaves, with high pitched synth sounds ricocheting around the school corridors causing your headphones to bleed. When the music is stripped down however, it creates a much more impressive atmosphere. This, combined with the creaks, drips, and echoes of an abandoned school mixed with the approaching tap of Mrs. Song’s heels, ensures that the full effect of this stereo audio is felt.
The subtlety of certain details collude to create a fantastically unique play environment. The visual enactment of Youngho’s descent into sleep during his test consists of an increasingly fuzzy screen and the gradual lowering of eyelids as your vision is enveloped with a little more darkness at every blink. What really shines through about this game is the feeling and emotion that these subtle nuances create within the player. You panic as you feel yourself losing control while Youngho drifts off and dread what’s to come as a result. Even the act of writing your name on the blackboard to save carries a tone of creepiness as the etching of your last known position becomes sinister and desperate.
Overall, Coma is an experience rather than a story. With its subtly overwhelming tension built through sheer defenselessness, penetrating sound effects, and unpredictable threat, Devespresso are the conductors standing before a grand orchestra of shimmering, hushed vibrato. However, the crescendo is truly magnificent and will leave you smashing your arrow buttons until they form a groove in your desk. Despite it’s shortcomings in repetition and plot, The Coma: Cutting Class offers a sweaty, palpitation-full experience of deep set anxieties and terror. It’s just a shame that the orchestra analogy works so well with a game whose musical accompaniment is so detracting.
Your teachers have got nothing on this psycho maniac
Gameplay - 7/10
Plot - 4/10
Design - 8/10
While more an experience than a fully fledged story, it's an experience worth having. School will never look the same once you've encountered Mrs Song a few times in this chilling side-scrolling survival horror. Though gameplay is often repetitive, and the music a little off, the sheer fear factor will keep bringing you back to this popular PC title.