There’s no place like home. That is, of course, unless your spouse has gone missing under supernatural circumstances and there’s weird noises coming from the television. Oh, and there’s also a portal to some spirit realm or something like it underneath the stairs.
Home Sweet Home, only just recently released on PS4 in Europe, is a first-person pacifist horror, which basically translates to you having almost no means with which to defend yourself from whatever’s hunting you down. Thanks to the likes of Amnesia and Outlast, it’s a form of horror gaming that’s been explored to death in recent years, and despite it being based on Thai folklore and boasting some early tension, Home Sweet Home’s rote and tiring gameplay doesn’t help it stand out from its many peers.
Gameplay in Home Sweet Home typically consists of playing hide and seek while finding keys — again, nothing too original to find here — to make progress through a school and your own home in alternating sequences. Your assailant for the majority of the game is a languid teenager with a box cutter, who would be terrifying if she weren’t so irritating. She lollops around laboriously with a cone of vision that feels inconsistent, resulting in a quick death unless you are able to dash your way towards a locker. You then have to wait patiently as she takes her sweet time to go away, and then try to not fall asleep during another attempt at the game’s rather basic stealth.
This is the main loop of the game, which really begins to grate when Home Sweet Home’s trial and error nature becomes more and more apparent. Having to retread the same ground continuously due to spotty checkpointing doesn’t help either, especially when the stealth is so slow-paced that it can be minutes of sitting behind a counter and creeping around corners before you are back to where you were. While the jumpscares are solid enough (at least early on), it’s the fear of having to redo large sections of stagnant and staggered gameplay that’s the real horror when it comes to Home Sweet Home.
Away from staring at the inside of a locker, Home Sweet Home breaks it up with a sequence featuring a looming monster who’s as big as a skyscraper. While it again boils down to a game of cat and mouse, this variety made me believe that it would be a case of a new “big bad” in each new sequence, but I was sorely mistaken, finding myself on the end of a box cutter again in no time. What’s most egregious (and something I wish horror games in general would stop doing) is that fatal encounters with Belle are sometimes unavoidable the first time around, so that the game can teach you not to do that the next time around. The recurring antagonist has nothing on Mr. X or The Sadist, who were always evolving and finding new ways of conjuring scares. “Belle” is just consistent — consistently annoying.
To Home Sweet Home’s credit, it does have a couple of aces up its sleeve. The Thai folklore aspect is fascinating, the game unfurling some of it for you as you discover collectibles dotted around (even if it seems a little too cumbersome with the analog sticks to actually pick stuff up most times), which provides some creepy insight into something that hasn’t been explored much in the West. Adding to that, Home Sweet Home has some devilishly ingenious puzzles, those that will leave you stroking your chin but not to the point where you have to constantly look them up online. I admittedly did have to research one puzzle featuring a safe combination, but I ended up with a smile on my face over how obvious in hindsight it ended up actually being.
For any good points Home Sweet Home has, however, there are another two bad points to counteract them. As well as being too trial and error for its own good, Home Sweet Home suffers from some lack of QA in translation with there being consistent typos in the subtitling and item descriptions. On top of that, the voicework leaves a lot to be desired: The actors seem to try far too hard as they seemingly screamed into the microphone at points during recording, resulting in peaky audio with overwrought delivery often. Other small bugs, such as noticeable pop-in and scripted moments setting off at the wrong times, add to the low-budget feel while also subtracting from the immersion.
Clocking in at roughly 3-4 hours long, Home Sweet Home is a concise game that still feels like it lingers a little too past its welcome, so much so that I had planned to do a separate run for PSVR but utterly could not find the willpower to do so after a traditional playthrough. There are collectibles to find for the completionists, but others may find the experience a little lacking to be compelled to do so, especially with such an abrupt ending that only serves as a sequel tease.
What Home Sweet Home represents is an admirable attempt at localising horror from a region of the world that we haven’t seen much in gaming. It has its bright spots, but Home Sweet Home is more like an Airbnb than the real deal.