Like many people, I’ve been caught up in a Stranger Things fever over the past three years. Not only does the Netflix series exists as a font of childhood nostalgia, it brought to mind memories of when I was the same age as Will, Mike, Lucas, and Dustin, and saw the world as a place meant to be explored with my close-knit circle of friends. There were always adventures to be hand, even if they rarely went further than the neighborhood cul de sacs or school grounds, and it was the joy of discovery and the suggestion that the adults were always up to something made the thrill of being out and about - especially during the summer - all the more memorable. Like Stranger Things, The Blackout Club aims to recreate childhood jaunts and exploration but with a much more sinister edge. The town of Redacre is a lot like Hawkins, Indiana, except that it’s occupied by a force more terrifying and dangerous than the Upside Down.
An exclusively multiplayer game, The Blackout Club draws immediate comparisons to Valve’s Left 4 Dead, except instead of working together to shoot through hordes of zombies, you play as a teen whose hometown has been overrun by a terrible secret that is responsible for a string of disappearances and increasingly odd behavior by the adults. When one of their own disappears, the kids who form the titular Blackout Club take it upon themselves to risk their lives trying to uncover a grand plot involving a secret underground maze and an entity called The Shape which can only been seen when one’s eyes are closed. The story of the game is established by the prologue tutorial in which you play as Bells, a member of the Blackout Club who comes closer to the source of the odd happenstances than anyone else. Just before she can make it to the hideout, Bells is captured by The Shape, never to be seen again. Bells’ disappearance is enough to spring the rest of the Blackout Club into action.
That mystery, however, doesn’t really get solved. Kinda. The game proper consists of playing through an unending series of missions set in and around the neighborhood in an overarching attempt to combat mind controlled adults, uncovering bits of lore tucked away in random places. Like Left 4 Dead, you’re not really here for the plot but to be challenged with up to three other people to successfully complete multi-tiered objectives while avoiding detection at all costs. Stealth and the thrill of the hunt are the names of The Blackout Club’s game.
The game begins and ends in the Blackout Club’s secret hideout, an old disused boxcar. This staging area doubles as an in-game lobby where you can customize your appearance, switch out powers, select a hero weapon, and choose from a growing list of missions spread out across the different areas of town. Powers are helpful boosts designed to give you a leg up when sneaking around and they are unlocked using points earned by leveling up. Major powers are spread across different playstyles that can grant timed immunity to damage, trigger distractions, and perform certain feats of strength. Minor powers are passive abilities that boost health and stamina and also allow you to start a mission with a special item (there’s even one that will make two items available in supply caches instead of one). Hero weapons are unique gear designed to help you fight off enemies or move about without attracting attention. A grappling hook can get you to out of reach places, a stun gun will drop enemies during a grapple, and there’s even a can of shaving cream that can be used to break long falls.
With your gear and powers equipped, it’s time to head outside. The missions you can choose pretty much involve sneaking around to collect certain items or perform a task, like collecting posters and putting them up on specially marked areas. Finishing a task begets another and often you’ll find yourself running from one side of town to the other to accomplish missions. In most cases, you’ll sneak into people’s homes and backyards or navigate parts of the Maze, a bizarre, man-made underground labyrinth that is often more dangerous and difficult to travel than the topside areas. It can be a little hard sometimes knowing exactly where to go and what to do, especially when everyone splits up and goes off to do their own thing. Closing your eyes is an interesting mechanic that can show you where to go via a trail of footsteps leading to the nearest objective at the expense of not being able to see if the enemy has wandered nearby. When all tasks have been completed, all players must reach the exit area safely in order for the mission to be a success. On top of experience points, snacks (the in-game currency) are awarded based on your performance, each character’s behavior (more on that in a bit), and completing bonus objectives like taking photographic evidence of certain marked objects with your camera phone.
What stands between you and a mission accomplished is an interesting roster of enemies that do a great job of shaking up the group dynamic by introducing chaos. The most basic and common enemy is the Sleeper, an adult that enter a hypnotic trance every night and wander about the town, minding their own business - mostly. Sleepers are blind but react to sounds like breaking doors, heavy footsteps, and alarms and will investigate the last known location of the disturbance if they are in the range to hear it. Players should always give Sleepers a wide berth but if they are alerted to your shenanigans and catch you, you’ll sustain some damage until you push them off which leaves them stunned long enough for you to run away. If you’ve taken too much damage and are unable to heal by using snacks and bandages, the Sleeper drags you across the map into the waiting arms of The Shape. This is your chance at a second wind, of sorts, because the Sleeper will always drag you along a course where you can snag an item from trash piles and use them to stun the Sleeper into letting you go. You can avoid this whole process by avoiding the Sleepers altogether but if you absolutely, positively have to engage them, sneaking behind them lets you knock them out for a little while.
Aiding the Sleepers are various security systems that alert nearby foes to your actions. Security cameras keep an eye on sensitive areas while drones regularly patrol the streets and if you’re caught in their line of sight, you’ll have a few precious moments to escape before they go into alert mode and send in Sleepers to pursue their target. Another enemy type that appears after you’ve gained a few character levels are the Lucids, who are a step above Sleepers in that they can actually see and prove to be a lot more tenacious in their hunt. Sleepers and Lucids can be stressful to deal with but they pale in comparison to The Shape. The Shape is connected to the game’s most fascinating mechanic: the tracking of player behavior. Sins are a type of infraction that are tabulated each time the player is caught doing them by a Sleeper or Lucid. Basically, the players earn penalties if they do something “bad”, like being spotted, breaking free of a grapple, knocking enemies out, kicking doors open (as opposed to using lockpicks), and making noise. Incur enough of these penalties and The Shape is summoned to the map and actively hunts down players. The Shape cannot be killed nor can it be seen unless you close your eyes, it’s presence is marked as a tall, orange-colored humanoid that stalks the map looking for a victim. If the player is caught by The Shape, they lose control of their character and must hope that another player will find them and snap them out of their state. Players under the influence of the Shape will randomly run away or shout when other players are near which is more than enough to alert nearby Sleepers. If the player is captured by The Shape three times, they are killed and removed from play.
I really love the philosophy behind The Shape as a game mechanic. In Left 4 Dead, the Tank was a creature designed to shake things up against a group already having enough trouble trying to stay alive from regular zombies. That’s pretty much how The Shape functions here. Seeing the onscreen alert pop-up is enough to send everyone running in different directions to avoid the invisible creature while trying to avoid cameras and enemies. It’s really one of the more stressful moments of the game and has the ability to completely and utterly ruin any run. As such, here comes the obligatory PSA: “The Blackout Club is one of those online games that you should probably play with close friends.” You can communicate with each other through in-game chat but the game also has a fun feature where it is able to listen to your voice and react accordingly. In other words, if you’re running party chat and talking with a Sleeper nearby, it’ll hear you. The game has been blessed with a healthy player base so there’s always a game to be found if you don’t have your own group but you almost always join when the other players are knee deep in the mission, forcing you to play a surprisingly hard round of catch-up, especially when they are a long distance away from the start point (and in no position to rescue you if you get into trouble). I once got taken out pretty quickly in a situation like this and ended up just quitting the session because I knew it would take the team a whole hell of a lot of work to drop what they’re doing and save me.
There’s one more enemy worth talking about and it appears only after you’ve interacted with it during a session. It’s the Stalker, a teen who has sided with the adults by recording the player’s behavior and snitching to The Shape. Stalkers can really mess up your game but if players sneak up and knock them out, that player is kicked from the session. You can be the Stalker yourself by acquiring a special Stalker Dossier during play, either as a random gift or by taking the Stalker out yourself. As this character, your job is to sow discord in the group of players by recording their various sins that will eventually call on The Shape. Because they are pretty much a griefer class, there is the option to play without Stalkers invading your game. However, if you decide to play as this third party, your account will forever allow Stalkers to invade your games in the future.
The Blackout Club is a test of endurance, patience, and risk versus reward. It’s also kind of awesome. I normally don’t truck with pure stealth games because I’m a very impatient person and I get stressed out easily, but there’s something to this Stranger Things-esque experience. It isn’t in the most polished state at the moment because of various bugs and glitches (I got lucky once and completely avoided The Shape because it was stuck on the environment) but the scrolling news ticker that appears in the hideout makes me feel assured that the developers are frequently tweaking the game based on player feedback, which is pretty great. If you love the thrill and tension of stealth-based gameplay and going up against ever-increasing threats the longer you stay engaged, I think you’re really going to like what The Blackout Club has to offer. It took me a bit of time to warm up to the game and when it all eventually clicked, I started thinking that this might be the sleeper hit of the year.
Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.