"It was a dark and stormy night... Stop me if you've heard this one. "The creepy, old university building was deserted. What happened?" Sounds familiar. Wait, what's that? A maniacal voice is offering answers and urging me to inch forward through the darkened halls and abandoned rooms?
Despite what the moody screenshots and opening minutes of gameplay suggest, The Crow's Eye is not an Amnesia: The Dark Descent clone or really, a traditional horror game at all. There are some expected tropes to be sure: the setting of the aforementioned deserted or abandoned campus, the growing suspicion that something menacing and evil is waiting to be confronted, and the tension that comes from exploration and the infrequent (at least for this genre) jump scares. The Crow's Eye departs from the expected by adding puzzles and platforming. It's an interesting though not entirely successful recipe, but it's hard not to applaud the developers for trying something new.
Without preamble or ceremony, the player character awakens in a litter-strewn room in the University of Crowswood and proceeds to examine and collect objects. This exploration begins a long journey that takes the player deeper into both the depths of the school and the deepening mystery of what happened to its disappearing students. Piecing together newspaper clippings, letters, conveniently placed audio logs and other environmental clues is standard fare for horror and mystery games, and The Crow's Eye follows suit. While there is relatively little actual combat or violence, The Crow's Eye doesn't shy away from explicit descriptions or implications of grisly events, which certainly adds to the overall dark tenor of the game.
Although it doesn't come close to matching either the graphical richness of Everybody's Gone to the Rapture or the mutli-layered storytelling of the BioShock games, The Crow's Eye uses similar narrative devices and techniques to funnel the player along a relatively well-defined path through its mostly lifeless environments. Puzzles abound, and some of them are on a timer, which amps up the tension a bit. Save points are unfortunately relatively sparse and players can expect to replay a number of sections if they fail a puzzle or miss a platforming sequence along the way. Add the imprecise nature of first-person platforming and a camera that doesn't make the process easier, and frustration is the outcome.
As I guess befits an abandoned school, the environments are pretty empty of either detritus or textural detail, which is a fancy way of saying The Crow's Eye looks dated and suffers by comparison to big-budget brethren like Resident Evil 7. There are very few objects scattered about that are not germane to moving the story forward or solving a puzzle; many of the letters or clippings have an inauthentic, exposition-heavy and sometimes oddly written turn of phrase, like a letter early on in which a student refers to the "principal" of the University.
Much of the voice work is competent, though the antagonist's over-the-top performance contains more than a hint of Andrew Ryan's "madness below the calm" delivery. Musically, dissonant clusters of skittering strings remind us over and over that we should be tense and afraid.
Creating effective horror depends on powerful moments of the the unexpected juxtaposed with long stretches of calm and the mundane. In general, The Crow's Eye understands the basics of the genre, but frustrating puzzles and platforming both dispel the drive of the narrative and alienate the player. Kudos for looking at a somewhat tired format through a new lens, but points off for implementation. Suggestion: give the player control over save points, pare the platforming to a highly-tuned minimum, and don't repeat the puzzles. Despite these caveats, The Crow's Eye is still worth a look for fans of dread-inducing exploration.