Balancing action in a horror game is always a tricky prospect, but Mottle Island gets it better than most by combing two games that should be completely opposed to each other.
Made by Indonesian indie developer One Aperture, Motte Island puts you in the role of a criminal come to the titular island to save your sister after having a prophetic nightmare. Your prison bus crashes along a road, and you spend the first level killing your way to a dock. This quickly establishes you as a violent man, which in turn makes the intense violence of the game in general seem logical. It’s not a surprise you can handle yourself in a fight. Motte Island is immediately refreshing because it doesn’t try to make us sympathize with its protagonist, it allows him to be a violent man because that’s what the gameplay requires.
The quickest way to sum up Motte Island is to call it a combination of Silent Hill and Hotline Miami. It’s played from a top-down view, like Hotline Miami, and it controls similarly as well. You move with the WASD keys and use the mouse to aim at enemies. Combat is mostly done up close with blades and blunt weapons, but you’ll also find the occasional gun as well. However, you can only carry one weapon at a time, so even though a gun might be more powerful, once you’ve used up your three bullets it becomes weaker than a shiv. You know it’s a good horror game when a gun doesn’t make you feel safe.
The speed of Hotline Miami might seem like an awkward match for the slow burn horror of Silent Hill, but they actually complement each other well. Combat in Hotline Miami is fast, over in seconds. There are no prolonged battles, one mistake will get you killed, and things can quickly spiral out of control. That kind of combat is actually perfect for a horror game since it emphasizes danger. You’re never in a position of power, even when you’re beating a monster to death with a shovel. That victory doesn’t make you strong. It makes you breathless and paranoid and weaker for the next fight.
That knowledge of the dangers of combat makes exploration tense. We know we have to be ready to fight at a moment’s notice because one mistake can lead to death, but Motte Island is smart enough to not force you into combat at every opportunity. You’ll enter a pitch black room lit only by your flashlight, waiting for the inevitable jump scare, but it won’t come. The game knows how to build suspense through atmosphere, and then how to let that suspense build into tension.
It also smartly lets you avoid combat. To be perfectly honest, a good player could probably take on all the monsters and win.That’s inevitable when you have a combat system built around skill, but by letting us avoid most fights, our imagination is allowed to build up our enemies as stronger than they actually are. Our rational fear of them grows into an irrational fear, so that when they spot us our first instinct is to run, not to fight.
The monsters look unique thanks to some good art, but there’s also a consistency to their design that grounds the horror. These creatures are all mutated versions of something else. Humans crossed with insects, or harmless bugs like moths turned vicious. Your enemies look less like demons and more like victims of torture, which makes them sad as well as creepy. Some beg for death, while others embrace the strengths of their new form.
Motte Island does a lot of things well, but there are also plenty of flaws that belie its indie origins. There are a few awkward shooting sections that play like an arcade light-gun game and feel drastically out of place. There are also quite a few grammatical errors in the dialogue—not enough to confuse you about your objectives, but enough to suck the drama out of climactic moments. As a result, the story never reaches the same heights of horror that the gameplay does. Still, when Motte Island works, it works so well that its flaws are forgotten.