Good horror, as we’ve previously talked about on The MoeGamer Podcast, is about more than just spooky scary skeletons and gallons of gore. And good modern horror games tend to be a natural evolution of the narrative-centric adventure game genre.
A good example of this is The Coma from Korean developer Devespresso games, which originally released for PC in 2015 before getting a “Recut” version for PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch two years later. This is a game that challenges players to solve a seemingly supernatural mystery while on the run from a ruthless killer — and without any means of fighting back.
At the same time, there’s some interesting narrative content designed to get you thinking, too. It’s a fine use of your time this spooky season — so let’s take a closer look.
In The Coma, you take on the role of a freshman named Youngho Choi, who attends a South Korean high school named Sehwa High. As the story opens, it’s finals season, and the student body is anxious about what the exams will mean for their future — and matters aren’t helped by the fact a student seemingly attempted to commit suicide the previous evening.
Youngho arrives just as the student in question is being carted off by an ambulance, and discovers that he appears to have dropped a strange pendant. Apparently having not watched enough horror movies to know that picking up a mysterious pendant usually leads to peculiar things happening, Youngho claims the pendant and, upon examining it, recognises it as belonging to his teacher Ms. Song.
In a stark commentary on the amount of pressure the school system places on young people — not just in South Korea, but all over the world — the exams aren’t delayed by the attempted suicide, and soon enough Youngho and his peers find themselves facing down the dread pieces of paper. Having pulled an all-nighter in an attempt to cram as much knowledge as possible into his short-term memory — and realising shortly after seeing the exam paper in front of him that this was a fruitless endeavour — Youngho finds himself passing out in the classroom, only to awaken in what initially appears to be the school after hours, but which over time gradually reveals itself to be a strange, dark other world.
This is “The Coma”, a bleak reflection of the dark side of humanity in which familiar environments are infested with eldritch tentacles, the innermost thoughts of people are scrawled on numerous notes all over the walls — and where a really, really mad Shade appears to very much have it out for Youngho for some reason.
What unfolds is a side-scrolling adventure in which Youngho must explore the three large areas of his school, locating useful items and uncovering information about the strange situation in which he has found himself. What is The Coma really? Why is he there? Why is an increasingly monstrous killer that resembles his teacher Ms. Song relentlessly pursuing him? And, most importantly, how the hell can he get back to reality?
The majority of the gameplay in The Coma involves moving between the rooms and corridors of the school, looking out for interactive hotspots that highlight when Youngho passes near them. These have context-sensitive icons that indicate if they are something that can be examined — which is usually purely for flavour and background information — or something that can be collected or used. Collectible items include consumables that Youngho can use to restore his health or stamina as well as cure status afflictions, plus key items that are used as triggers for various events and solutions to puzzles around the place.
The game as a whole is essentially one big navigation puzzle. Often you’ll know where you need to go next to progress the story, but not necessarily how to get there; The Coma’s recreation of Sehwa High inevitably blocks off the most direct route to your destination with eldritch tentacles, collapsed ceilings or inconvenient construction work. This means you’ll need to figure out ways around — or, on occasion, make use of strange portals that appear to have been burrowed through the back of lockers and cupboards — in order to get where you’re going.
As you progress, you’ll uncover a number of interesting side narratives, primarily told by the notes left around the school. Interestingly, unlike a lot of games that provide lore dumps via collectible items, there’s actually a narrative context for the presence of these notes, too — and there are some fascinating threads to pull at along the way. Very few of them are “horrific” in the traditional sense, either; the game as a whole very much acts as a scathing commentary on how modern educational systems around the world struggle to balance their needs as businesses with the wellbeing of their students — and how the former aspect in particular can lead to some morally reprehensible behaviour from those who are supposed to act as society’s role models.
The game can also be seen as a manifestation of Youngho’s own anxiety over his performance at school, and what this might mean for his future. This would offer one explanation of why the otherwise nameless killer takes the form of an increasingly monstrous version of Ms. Song as the game progresses — and also why a significant (but optional) part of the game involves Youngho completing various events around the school that seemingly improve his “grades” in the other world. Indeed, getting the “best” ending in the game — which is still pretty bleak, as you’ll know if you’ve played the sequel — is dependent on Youngho accepting and understanding his own weaknesses and providing some sort of evidence that he’s willing to do something about them.
The narrative of the game is pretty fascinating, and compelling enough to make playing the whole thing through in one (5-6 hour long) sitting a feasible and perhaps even desirable option. The gameplay itself is relatively straightforward, with the main “horror” aspect involving fleeing from the killer when she puts in an appearance. This can be accomplished either by putting enough distance between you and her — a pretty challenging prospect, unless one of those strange “portals” happens to be nearby — or by hiding yourself until she goes away.
The hiding mechanics are quite fun. As you move from corridor to room or room to room while being chased, you’ll have a brief window of opportunity to tuck yourself away somewhere before the killer figures out where you are. Hiding in a cupboard, locker or toilet cubicle is a fairly reliable means of staying out of sight, but if all else fails you can just hold your breath and attempt to blend into the background. In this case, you’ll need to hope Youngho’s stamina holds out long enough for the killer to give up their pursuit; if you’ve been running before attempting to hide in this way, you’ll likely want to chug a stamina-restoring bottle of water or down a can of coffee — which temporarily provides unlimited stamina — if you don’t want to find yourself with pointy things invading your squishy parts.
The game does suffer a little from slightly clunky controls on occasion; every so often it seems to take a few presses of the “action” button to actually get something to happen, and while this isn’t an issue for much of the adventure, if you’re attempting to do something like unlock a door or get into a hiding place while being chased, it can sometimes feel like the controls are fighting against you. There is, of course, an argument to be made that horror games often have deliberately cumbersome controls to add to the tension, but that doesn’t really apply here; this is the controls outright not working properly sometimes rather than them being deliberately designed to be cumbersome.
Ultimately it’s a small issue, though; The Coma is a fascinating horror game that, on a surface level, offers an atmospheric and spooky “escape from a killer” scenario while simultaneously having a lot of much deeper, more meaningful and scathingly critical things to say about modern society. It’s a great example of intelligent horror — and a great addition to your library if you’re looking for something spooky to enjoy.
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