The Painscreek Killings – When Walking Simulators Shine

The Painscreek Killings – When Walking Simulators Shine

Nothing pairs better than a walking simulator and grisly murder, truly the rice and beans of gaming!

True crime seems to be all the rage these days. From documentaries to podcasts, articles, movies, TV shows, even books, and graphic novels! It’s not like this is a new phenomenon, however. The most sinister members of society have always been of intrigue to the masses. All those grim and macabre tales about humanity at the peak of its cruelty, they’re the pinnacle of drama, how could they not sell like hotcakes! Fans of the genre often trace its genesis to the 1959 novel In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. Although, the fascination with the morbid has existed for far longer. Since before the days of Jack the Ripper even.

But for whatever reason, I’ve never been able to enjoy the category. No matter how many times I’ve tried to listen to a podcast or read a novel I just can’t seem to really get into it. And don’t get me wrong, I like a good old fashioned crime of passion just as much as the next guy. I mean murder is versatile, exciting, family-friendly, you can go at it solo or as a group if that’s your thing. And some of my favourite movies are the classic whodunnits like the original Scream and Seven. All the bells and whistles are there for me to love the genre, but I guess I just hadn’t found “the one”.

Welcome sign to the town of Painscreek, "population zero" written in spray paint across it

Unearthing Painscreek

Luckily enough, I recently discovered something that satiated my true-crime/whodunnit bloodlust. A few weeks ago I was playing some walking simulators for a review of the style when I stumbled upon a hidden marble, The Painscreek Killings. Now the story is fictionalized, so it doesn’t fit the ‘true’ portion of true-crime. But, it did help me realize my problem with the genre. I never felt immersed! I felt like I was listening to a story and not participating in it. What I erroneously wanted from true-crime was to feel like the detective, as if I was the one solving the mystery. Well, The Painscreek Killings gave me precisely that.

The Painscreek Killings is a 2017 release available on Steam for around 20 dollars. EQ Studios, Las Vegas-based indie developers and publishers, can be thanked for the title. They started with only three people back in 2006, originally as advertisers, but made the jump to gaming in 2012. The Painscreek Killings started development back in 2014. Director Fery Tomi helmed a team of 7 who produced the game. Upon release, it received very positive reviews, and to this day still holds favourable ratings.

Hunting cabin found in the outskirts of Painscreek

The Technical stuff

Let’s get the technical stuff out of way first, since, in this instance, it’s not all that important. How it runs and how it is graphically don’t affect the experience much. This shouldn’t be a hard title to run by any means. It was built on the Unity engine and the graphics are not exactly impressive, but due to the setting, it really only takes you out of it with the rare sighting of a character model. I experienced no crashing or game-breaking glitches. However, I did get some minor frame drops when entering new areas. Some loading screens overstayed their welcome by just a tad, although not enough to become frustrating and I often used the time to quickly review my notes.

The only glitch I encountered (aside from a couple of minor visual ones) was a pesky item that wouldn’t leave my screen after viewing in my inventory. But, a reset quickly fixed the issue, and I never re-encountered it. The game has an effect called Chromatic Aberration, meant to simulate looking through a late 90’s camera lens which can be annoying for motion-blur haters but can thankfully be turned off. Again this stuff doesn’t affect playability much so I wouldn’t worry about this section.

Picture of 3 tombstones in a graveyard

The Gameplay

The most interesting aspect of The Painscreek Killings is probably the gameplay. It’s a walking simulator first and foremost, but I wouldn’t hold that against it. As soon as you click new game you’ll be met with a paragraph that pretty much shouts “this game will not hold your hand whatsoever” and it ain’t lying. By design, it has no quest system, no waypoints, no indicators for clues, only some maps you find along the way. So it’s highly recommended that you take your own notes, I ended up with about 15 full pages. You do get to keep some documents, but I’d still take notes from them since it’s hard to keep track of exactly what’s in each one. You can also use your character’s camera to take pictures of whatever you believe might be useful, which you can review later on.

Each location has its own puzzles which tend to be relatively hard and can involve plenty of backtracking. A fair bit of walking is to be expected, the game is a walking simulator after all. Some people might find it excessive and tedious but I personally didn’t mind it, especially since connecting clues and locations always feels very rewarding. About 80% of the gameplay consists of reading, writing, and inferring clues, so patience is very much a virtue during a walkthrough. Also, this is a horror-mystery game, and while you won’t encounter jump-scares (except for maybe one) do expect some creepy imagery and sound design.

Corkboard used to investigate the painscreek killings

The Setting

The game takes place in Painscreek (duh), a semi-open world map with various sub-areas packed to the brim with details and quirks. It’s reminiscent of a small old British town with bricked roads and quaint little houses lining the streets. However, exploring Painscreek feels extremely melancholic and eerie. Because, despite the cozy and inviting ” rustic wedding in Vermont” aesthetic, the village is entirely deserted. As you roam about you can almost sense the ghostly memories of its residents.

An excellent score lends the game a horror/thriller vibe, which gives the player a chilling impression of constantly being watched and induces paranoia even in the dullest moments. There are many places to explore, from the town itself to a hospital, to a big mansion, each stop accompanied by its own lore, clues, music, and ambiance. You’ll also find a lot of visual storytelling walking through Painscreek. I won’t spoil it here but you’ll often find that small details in the world add to the story.

Still of annes courtyard, a hotel in painscreek

The Plot

I’ll keep this section plenty vague, as to not spoil even the most minute detail. But, if you want to go entirely blind into the game, just skip this section.

The game takes place in 1999, although most of the story is from years prior. You play as Janet Kelly, a journalist tasked with finding out the truth about the murder of Vivian Roberts, a successful businesswoman whose death put Painscreek on the path to its eventual abandonment. You start with nothing to go on apart from what the media has already reported. Nobody knows why Vivian was murdered, the killer was never identified, the murder weapon wasn’t found. Aside from a brief run-down of recent history, Janet received no leads and has to forge her own path through the turbulent past of Painscreek.

As you progress through the game you intimately get to know the previous residents of the desolate place through a series of diaries, and quickly find the dark secrets of the seemingly tranquil town. Diving into the psyche of the citizens slowly creates a web of interconnected stories which along with clues, newspaper articles, and documents reveal exactly what happened to Miss Roberts, and the why of the trauma in Painscreek. Given the nature of the gameplay, the story of the narrative-driven game is non-linear. And it’s up to the player to establish a timeline of events that dates back decades into the history of the town.

Framed portrait of the Roberts's family

A Walking Simulator Done Right

Trust me when I say that you’d be doing yourself a favour by playing The Painscreek Killings. It’s not only an excellent walking simulator, up there with the likes of What Remains of Edith Finch and Firewatch, it’s also the best detective game I’ve ever played. It’s incredibly immersive and has a beautiful mystical atmosphere, a sense of urgency that true crime often fails to deliver, and an engaging, smart, and fantastically well-written mystery that is constantly adding fuel to your investigation.

This is the type of game that sticks with you, it leaves you completely satisfied with its tight story and nail-biting resolution. My hat goes off to EQ Studios, who managed to create a true narrative masterpiece with their first-ever title. And, knowing the entire story, that could not have been an easy task to accomplish, especially in a non-chronological fashion. I can’t stress this enough if you’ve ever fantasized about being a detective trying to solve a cold case PLAY. THIS. GAME. And I, for one, will keep my fingers crossed for a follow up to this exceptional story.

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What’s your favourite detective game and why? Let us know in the comments section, and while you’re at it why not check out our ranking of The Best Resident Evil Save Rooms!

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