Facing Our Fears in Fobia: St. Dinfna Hotel – A Review
Developer: Pulsatrix Studios Publisher: Maximum Games Format: PC (Reviewed), PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X, and Series S Released: 28th of June, 2022 Time Played: 14 hours, 5 minutes. Game purchased at full price for £23.79
Back in 2017 when Resident Evil 7 first came out, I was excited for a multitude of reasons. Chief amongst them, of course, was my undying love for the Resident Evil franchise and my eagerness to see it taken off of Capcom’s back burner. It had already been five years since the last mainline entry in the series, and although Resident Evil: Revelations 2 had been an excellent spin-off to tide me over, The extremely unpopular release of Umbrella Corps had left me worried about the franchise’s future.
By that point, I’d played through countless other first-person horror games of the ‘hide and seek’ variety in order to fill the void, as Outlast had kickstarted a new wave of love towards the sub-genre back in 2013. First-person horror games with a combat focus, on the other hand, had been left by the wayside over the years. By that point, they scarcely existed besides an occasional outlier in the form of Condemned: Criminal Origins, Bioshock, Left 4 Dead, and Dead Island, The majority of which emphasized their action far more than their horror inspirations.
As such, Resident Evil 7 felt like it had a chance to finally revitalize the genre. I was so excited to see developers across the world experience a new rush of inspiration and get to work on expanding upon the concept throughout the indie horror community. Yet as the years went on, first-person horror games with combat mechanics continued to be a rarity…
There was “The Origin: Blind Maid”, but with a large variety of bugs and design flaws to contend with, I found it to be very lacking in quality. There’s also “Sker Ritual”, which was released into Early access just a few days ago, but its survival co-op concept means it will likely feel very different from its horror-oriented yet combat-free predecessor: Maid of Sker. Besides those two, the RE7 style of survival horror has remained relatively untouched in recent years.
Indie horror game developers have continued to produce countless high-quality products during this time, but almost all of them revolve around some form of combat-free exploration, With a heavy narrative focus and a penchant for hiding yourself in closets or tucking yourself underneath beds. Not a bad thing by any means; just not exactly what I’ve been looking for.
So imagine the exhilaration I felt when I first learned of Fobia – St. Dinfna Hotel, a first-person horror game directly inspired by RE7, complete with weapon upgrades, secrets, puzzles, and an extremely claustrophobic setting. It felt like a dream come true, so I bought it and jumped in without a moment’s hesitation. I’d been waiting with bated breath for far too long, but the experience I’d been hoping for had finally arrived, and I wasn’t willing to wait even a second longer. But did it manage to live up to my expectations? Well, we’ll just have to talk about it and find out…
As an immediate parallel to Resident Evil 7, Fobia front-loads a lot of its horror whilst retaining a large amount of vagueness in regard to its story. After a contextless tutorial section that introduces elements of the atmosphere and puzzle mechanics, you take on the role of an investigative journalist by the name of Roberto Leite Lopes. Chasing after a tip from Stephanie (a fellow user on a forum he frequents), Roberto journeys to the titular St. Dinfna Hotel to probe a series of rumours.
Allegedly, a number of mysterious disappearances and paranormal occurrences have recently taken place within the region of Treze Trilhas, home of the hotel. A week passes without any leads, and as Roberto hasn’t had any contact from Stephanie to speak of: He’s about ready to pack his bags and head on home… When suddenly, everything changes.
A young girl wearing a shabby old gas mask, a teleporting black hole the size of a bowling ball, and visions of a glowing sphere made entirely out of metal… Roberto encounters so many inexplicable things during the last planned night of his stay, and as he collapses into unconsciousness, it’s clear that he won’t be leaving St. Dinfna anytime soon. Waking up to his room completely ransacked and the hotel partially destroyed, he begins his search for an explanation, any fellow survivors, and above all else: A way out.
With this setup in place, the story doesn’t develop much further until the final act of the game. The bulk of the experience simply finds Roberto placed on a lengthy cat-and-mouse chase. From one phone call to another, he is guided to various key locations throughout the hotel, only to receive further blind instructions on where to go next, with no straight answers in sight…
That’s not to say that the story isn’t compelling at times, as you’ll find numerous well-written documents in your exploration that allude to the experiences of several other survivors and the mystery at large. You’ll certainly find more concrete answers by the end of your journey through St. Dinfna, but the central narrative holds its secrets quite close to its chest for the most part, sacrificing a lot of its narrative immersion in the process.
In the meantime, however, hunting down and solving the wide variety of optional puzzles that the hotel has to offer, thankfully, leads to a lot of additional exposition. Whilst the majority of these tangents do reward the player with upgrade materials and resources —more on those later— most of the more complicated puzzles also reward you with the additional background to the core mystery in the form of secret documents that expand upon the lore.
It’s an interesting concept that makes going the extra mile with your exploration feel more worthwhile. Unfortunately, if you’re the type of gamer who isn’t fond of puzzle-solving, then you’re not going to feel particularly satisfied by the time the end-credits roll. There are some genuinely quite difficult puzzles here that redefine what would have otherwise been a fairly straightforward corridor shooter. Missing them or deliberately avoiding them means missing out on several story-significant documents that are absolutely integral to Fobia’s plot, which in turn will leave you confused throughout the latter half of the game.
All in all, Fobia’s story feels interesting and well-fleshed out, but only if you’re willing to meet it halfway and put in a lot of extra legwork. Some of the most grandiose story beats are hidden behind hours of extra problem solving, and that certainly isn’t going to appeal to everyone, so I’d recommend extreme caution here if puzzles simply aren’t your thing. We’ll talk more about the ins and outs of these conundrums in a second, but let’s tackle some of the more moment to moment gameplay first.
Fobia – St. Dinfna Hotel functions very similarly to Resident Evil 7 on a fundamental level. The hotel itself is a very dense and highly detailed environment for you to explore, filled to the brim with classic progress-unlocking items that lend the game a strong sense of nostalgia despite it being a fresh experience. Some examples include keys, elevator buttons, gears, bolt-cutters, and passcodes. Key items that are required for progression are one of the core defining features of the survival horror genre, and their implementation here has been handled with a lot of authenticities.
Each area is designed with backtracking and environmental exploration in mind, as Fobia is eager to reward any eagle-eyed players with a hefty amount of resources. Unfortunately, despite this classic emphasis on backtracking, there are a handful of moments where the level design falters… Several of the game’s chase sequences create permanent obstructions on various paths behind you, meaning you’ll have to take repeated lengthy detours if you ever want to return to those areas again for the sake of their optional content.
More modern Resident Evil inspirations can be spotted in Fobia’s inventory system, which allows you to gradually increase your carrying capacity by collecting side packs and hip pouches. This gives you more room to hold essential items such as weapons, ammunition, healing supplies, crafting resources, and puzzle objects. Personally, I’ve always preferred the more in-depth inventory systems of RE4 and RE: Village, but the UI here is extremely well crafted and is more reminiscent of the RE2 and RE3 remakes above all else. In addition: Each safe room is accompanied by an iconic item box for you to drop off your surplus equipment if you ever run out of space.
Combat functions exactly how you’d expect: Primarily through close-quarters gunplay on account of the tightly designed environments. Each gun feels satisfying to use and the overall arsenal (though admittedly only four weapons strong), feels varied enough for Fobia’s 8 to 14-hour-long campaign. Furthermore, each weapon can be upgraded multiple times through the use of upgrade artifacts found within the hotel. You won’t be able to upgrade everything within a single playthrough, but this feature certainly allows each gun to feel a little bit more versatile when taking on your enemies.
Sadly, this is where another issue arises, as St. Dinfna Hotel has a distinct lack of enemy variety. I can honestly only recall two separate enemy types appearing throughout the entire game, meaning that combat encounters started to feel very predictable by the start of the second act. There are a handful of bosses to vary things up further —three, to be exact— but it doesn’t matter how entertaining they are to fight if they’re also accompanied by a large number of bugs… The first boss, in particular, seemed to clip through numerous aspects of the environment and took way longer than intended to re-emerge from its hiding places between each of its phases.
One redeeming factor when it comes to enemies is found in the form of a pursuer; A powerful and unbeatable boss who follows you from area to area in certain sections of the game. Pursuers have been a small part of horror gaming for a number of years now: Mr. X in RE2, Nemesis in RE3, SCP-137 in SCP: Containment Breach, and the Gatherers in Amnesia: The Dark Descent, just to name a few.
St. Dinfna Hotel is no exception, featuring a pursuer of sorts who chases you after several key moments throughout the campaign. These sections are fleeting and are quite heavily scripted, meaning they exclusively occur at predetermined moments with a fairly linear path upon which the chase occurs. Despite this, nothing quite beats the fear and tension that a player experiences when a pursuer chase begins.
No matter how scripted they may appear in hindsight, there’s something very special that causes your heart to race when a pursuer is following your every step. You’ll find your thoughts rushing, desperately trying to map out the quickest way back to a safe room, yet unable to stop and take in your surroundings. These are some of the most deeply satisfying aspects of Fobia, which definitely help vary the gameplay amidst the combat, exploration, and puzzles.
Speaking of puzzles, the ones Dinfna Hotel has to offer are surprisingly complex, as previously mentioned. Fobia offers a wide variety of both logic and mechanical puzzles through which to challenge your intellect but grants little in the way of hints. Some of these puzzles can be as simple as using the correct key item in the right location, whilst others come in the form of using pianos, bookcases, ciphers, and a reality-bending camera to solve more literal conundrums.
The majority of these are entirely optional, rewarding you with upgrade materials and additional lore, as I mentioned within the story section. Nevertheless, they’re all deeply enjoyable despite their difficulty and will add a lot to the experience for any players willing to go for 100% completion.
Graphics and Sound Design
Much less significant but still somewhat noteworthy is the quality of Fobia’s looks. You may anticipate that a game based around a hotel is somewhat short on visual variety, but in this case, you’d be wrong. There are a number of locations besides the hotel itself that you’ll also be visiting throughout the course of the story, but even the main building has a surprising amount of variety. There are cluttered hallways, elegant foyers, destroyed and burning rooms, flooded and caved-in areas, and locations strewn with gore and viscera.
Whichever environment you’re exploring, Fobia – St. Dinfna Hotel nails its atmosphere at every turn. There are times when it manages to be legitimately unsettling, Combining scarce resources, restricted sightlines, and subtle scares to keep you perpetually on your toes. A huge aspect of this comes from the graphics, from great asset detail in every single room to several eye-catching special effects such as gently floating dust particles and a plentiful amount of eerie lighting.
Enemy animations may not be top-notch —particularly when it comes to the aforementioned bosses— but it remains consistently immersive on account of its visual fidelity. Meanwhile, the sound design also helps establish the game’s tone. There may not be many memorable songs besides the dulcet tones that wash over you each time you enter a safe room, but the background ambiance is absolutely exceptional.
Grotesque sounds gurgling from nearby monsters, the echoes emanating from each isolated footstep, and the piercing explosion of bullets being fired. Each sound effect comes together (alongside some decent quality voice acting) to create an enthralling tone that is sure to keep you engrossed from start to finish.
Whilst the issues I’ve brought up do paint a sour picture of Fobia – St. Dinfna Hotel, there is at least one pro for every con you encounter. The combat does feel good despite the lack of enemy variety and the somewhat buggy bosses. The levels are incredibly well-designed and interesting, despite the number of obstacles that slow you down when backtracking for side content. And the inventory system and overall game feel scratch an itch that RE7 and RE: Village has left desperately sore.
The sound design and visuals are of very high quality for an indie title, and the puzzles and overall style will certainly satiate any player’s yearning for a classic, somewhat nostalgic horror experience. A lot of the story is indeed locked behind optional lore documents, yet the framework here is definitely satisfying enough to keep players interested, even if they won’t end up fully invested in the narrative from this setup alone.
All in all, Fobia is a deeply solid experience despite the flaws in its design. It’s an easy game to recommend if you’ve been searching for this specific type of horror experience like I have been for quite some time. Nevertheless, if this isn’t the type of horror you’re after, it may still be worth your time if you manage to pick it up in a steep enough sale, though its length when going for 100% completion does warrant the price of entry regardless.
Hopefully, Pulsatrix Studios will learn from this experience and seek to expand upon their ideas within a sequel or spiritual successor. If there’s one thing Fobia has above anything else: It’s potential. As such, seeing the developers give the horror genre another shot by expanding upon these mechanics with a little bit more polish could lead to great things, indeed. No matter what, though: I hope it’s just the first of many games within the newly reinvigorated FPS survival horror subgenre, whether Pulsatrix continues onwards or not.