With over-the-top prose, a very, very distinctive visual style, and with the potential for real thrills, White Night is absolutely stacked full of promise. A relatively low-key release, the game takes place exclusively in black-and-white, with the darkness only pierced by the occasional electric light and the lead character's ability to make a match last a lot longer than it reasonably should.
Indeed, the darkness is – predictably – what makes White Night stand out from the crowd. After a night-time car accident where an apparition causes you to drive into a tree, you pretty much only have one place to go: an incredibly spooky mansion. You're alone for enough time for you to get to grips with your limited abilities and to get comfortable in the game's house, which only makes it even more harrowing when a ghost finally appears for a split-second, sending a genuine chill up your spine and making you jump out of your seat.
Initially, you don't know what that scream or the flash of blurry grey that whipped across the screen was. You don't know if it can kill you, how you're supposed to defend yourself, or whether or not it'll even return to pose any sort of threat. The house is quiet now. There's nothing here but you, and all you've got is a pocketful of matches. At this point, White Night starts to convince you that it's something truly special. You're constantly on tenterhooks, just waiting for something to happen as you investigate the mansion's rooms, uncovering secrets and finding out more about the heinous crimes that have clearly been committed here. But, despite your constant state of alertness, the game STILL manages to turn you as cold as ice with great aplomb, at irregular intervals. We can't stress enough that in the early going, the Blair Witch Project-style sense of unseen threats is enough to make you tremble.
The Resident Evil-like fixed camera angles sometimes introduce you to a room where you can't see anything other than a sea of darkness. These are the tensest situations, as you start to slowly make your way forward, not noticing the increasing volume of the incidental effects. What was that? A grey blur? No, that's a…that's a…oh…lord…it's horrendous. Not gory at all, but still somehow an incredible vision of terror. And it's heading your way. Quick! Run!
And that's – tragically sadly - where the entire thing falls over.
You run away and the fixed camera angle changes, so you run into a table. Then the ghost starts waving its arms at you, apparently able to travel through walls, yet still punch you, and you're instantly dead. You can't fight back or escape its clutches. If it gets near you, you're done for. And it'll get near you time and time again thanks to spongy controls whilst running and a camera system that fights against you at – literally - every turn. Not only that, but once you're dead, you'll more than likely have to restart from a point that occurred an age ago, thanks to the game's reliance on manual saves and checkpoints that are seemingly a thousand miles apart. You can save the game by slumping into a certain type of chair for a rest, but if you forget to do this (which you will) then you're out of luck. As encounters are pretty unpredictable, the only way to prevent having to trawl back through things you've already done is to manually save every time you reach a chair.
When we say that this is tragically sad, we mean it. White Night gets a lot of things very, very right. It provides a genuinely unsettling experience that the gore and blood-filled "horror" titles of recent years have tried for but been unable to match. The atmosphere provided is absolutely outstanding, but it only lasts for about an hour before the edges start to fray and tear, and eventually you become so frustrated with the entire package that it explodes in a cloud of wasted potential.
Up until that point, you could get around the fact that some of the dialogue is so over-the-top that it passes right through the upper echelons of entertainment and loops around into "awful" territory. You could ignore the fact that while you can find a matchbox that contains 40 matches, you – for some inexplicable reason – can only carry a matchbox that holds 12. You could skip past the times where you strike a match to throw light on a situation, and watch as it instantly splutters out. You could even get past the fact that through a million and one different notes, books, newspapers, and artefacts, the game expects you to remember the entire life story of forty different people.
But then a ghost gets you and kills off your last twenty minutes of gameplay because you somehow got stuck behind a door that you've walked past ten times without a problem. When that occurs and you finally put it down to the game not being polished enough, rather than your own lack of skill, all of those other minor problems are brought into sharp relief. Those who persist with the game will find that beyond the six hours or so of gameplay that the lone mode – the story - provides, there's nothing to encourage a second playthrough, barring unlocking a few achievements. We've said the words "tragic" and "sad" in this review a couple of times, and we won't apologise for using them again. It's tragically sad that White Night falls down in the ways that it does as up until the first stumble, it's one of the most compelling and gripping titles that we've seen in a number of years.
White Night is a great concept with a really nice art style. The atmosphere it provides is incredibly convincing and genuinely unsettling, right up until the time that the perceived threat becomes a reality and things take a nosedive. A tad more polish would have seen this become a real benchmark for the genre, but a number of missed steps mean that it will likely just fade into the darkness.