Making a successful horror game requires a delicate balance of atmosphere and game design. Above all, though, it’s better when they’re scary. The Chant offers some surprisingly efficient game design and marries it to responsive combat that makes for an acceptably engaging adventure. However, the game isn’t scary, the narrative is silly, it’s quite short, and the protagonist is honestly ridiculously overpowered for this sort of game. You’ll likely have a decent enough time while the game lasts, but it definitely isn’t up there with the heavyweights of the genre, even if the protagonist fights like a heavyweight herself.
The Chant tells the story of an under characterized young woman named Jess. Jess is traumatized by the death of her sister years before, so her old friend Kim, who shares her trauma, invites her to a retreat for what is obviously a cult. Jess immediately seems to go, “hey, isn’t this a cult?” She doesn’t appear to be stupid, but it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for her to have gone on this retreat to begin with. The get together is held by a man named Tyler, who promises to heal people with the power of Prismic Science. Yup. It’s a cult.
At the start of the game, the group joins hands for a ritual. Kim freaks out and breaks the circle, only for something called the Gloom to force its way into the retreat. The only way to put things back how they were is to finish the ritual, and, for whatever reason, it’s up to Jess to make things right. The plot in The Chant doesn’t make a lot of sense. Tyler has apparently held a lot of these rituals yet this is the first time any of this has ever happened? Really? Not a single person has broken the circle before? The game primarily has Jess following other characters into linear areas to get their prism necklaces, which will allow her to explore other locations.
Not quite open
One of the most intriguing promises that The Chant offers is that you’ll have free access to explore the world and will be able to reach new areas as you go. This is technically true, as you can backtrack, and gaining access to new prisms will allow you to go through areas you couldn’t before. But these mainly create new pathways to places you’ve been. There’s also no map and the areas aren’t conducive to backtracking, so there’s not really any reason to attempt this. I tried and the game shut me down pretty hard.
Horror games tend to have frail protagonists that can’t stand toe-to-toe with their enemies. Foes here can be intimidating, with creepy humanoids, frog monsters, flying flower creatures, and the like. Early on, I did my best to escape from enemies in The Chant. But Jess is so nimble and capable that standing and fighting is generally perfectly acceptable. She has a dodge that, when pressed twice, allows her to fall on her butt and escape damn near any attack that comes her way. She looks like she’s clumsily stumbling, but in reality, it feels more like she’s nimbly evading any enemy attacks.
The iframes on this move are so generous that I rarely took damage. To hammer home that combat is supposed to be a last resort, Jess can only carry two or three of the items she finds. There are herbs for healing, crafting materials for weapons, and sub-weapons that she can throw and use for traps. But despite her inventory being so limited, I never found myself running low on anything, as there are always more items around the next corner.
Whack ’em with twine
Jess has three craftable melee weapons in The Chant – one that’s really only useful against an invincible swarm of flies that often chases her, burning twine that does more damage to physical enemies, and a weapon that does more damage to foes in the Gloom. The Gloom is basically colored fog that typically requires a prism of the same color to enter. Here, Jess’s sanity drops and she’ll often need to find a big flower enemy attached to a wall in order to destroy it and remove the fog. If Jess’s sanity reaches zero, she has a panic attack and loses her combat abilities until she calms down.
Sanity is called Mind, health is called Body, and magic power is known as Spirit. All three can be refilled by eating herbs. When Jess gets a new prism, she learns a new spirit ability, which includes the ability to stop time or hit her enemies with a wave of spikes. There are a number of attributes you can upgrade by finding jars of prismatic crystals, which will increase your three pools, give Jess more durability, have abilities cost less Spirit, and a variety of others.
All of this is strangely well thought-out, but the issue is that The Chant doesn’t need all this stuff. It feels torn between wanting to be a survival horror game and an action game, often falling into the latter. The combat is interesting, if somewhat basic, but I was never scared of anything. The level design is solid, however, as it has you navigate mostly linear areas looking to accomplish tasks. One has you arranging reflectors to shine beams on a lighthouse. Another sees you hunting down orbs to open a door. The game is mostly fine and I had a decent enough time playing it for the five-and-a-half hours it lasted me.
Evil Dead 2 flashbacks, and not in a good way
But the finale is truly weak. The final story beats are ridiculously contrived and come out of nowhere, leading to an obnoxious chase sequence where enemies and obstacles can one-hit kill you and the game is then concluded with a surprisingly typical out-of-place final boss battle that’s only annoying because there isn’t much health around and the one-hit kill obstacles return. There are three endings but they depend on whether your Mind, Body, or Spirit stats are higher. The last two require you to kill enemies, while the first goes up whenever you read lore. Guess which one you’re more likely to get?
In the end, I do mostly like The Chant, but it doesn’t successfully marry its ideas or make for a noteworthy horror game. It’s an extremely brief game with mismatched elements and a narrative that’s mostly laughable, even if most of the voice cast gives decent performances. Except for Tyler’s actor, who is clearly far less skilled than everyone else. But the best time I had with the game was when I was tearing it apart with a co-worker, so I can certainly recommend it to people who like to make fun of things with their friends yet don’t want to suffer through games that are actually bad.