Crow Country Review – Fright Nights At Eddie’s

Left of the murder.

Like Tinseltown, trends in gaming are starting to emerge as somewhat cyclical. What’s old is new all over again, and recent years have produced a swathe of retro-inspired titles that capitalise on the nostalgia we all share for the classics from our youth. Signalis springs to mind, along with Dave Oshry’s burgeoning warehouse of boomer shooters. 

The latest to follow the curve is Crow Country, a conventional survival horror game that riffs on all of the tropes popularised by Resident Evil, Silent Hill, and their lesser-evangelised contemporaries. Made in large part by a couple of seemingly tormented souls, what’s evident is that Crow Country cares most about being a love letter to all of the things people love about the genre. That said, it doesn’t shirk its responsibility to deliver an experience that’s true and honest to its nostalgic roots, no matter how hasty it is or how eager the developer is to spell out and spoil his craftiness.

On the surface, the game’s story is a relatively basic premise. It’s 1990 and Crow Country, the once-heaving theme park after which the game is named, has been closed for two years after a sudden and unexpected shutdown. The biggest mystery at the heart of the game is the whereabouts of Edward Crow, the park’s elusive owner and it’s with the goal of finding him that leads Mara Forest to break into the abandoned park in hopes of finding answers. One thing I don’t mention is how the park is overrun with twisted, occasionally humanoid, aberrations that appear to wear their inners on their outer—and that’s not because it’s too spooky to call attention to, it’s because Crow Country can be played as either a traditional survival horror game where danger is an ever-present fact of life, or as an adventure game where solving the mystery is Mara’s one focus. 

While one could easily find value in opting for a more exploratory mode in Crow Country, I threw caution to the wind and approached the squirmy, writhing hell beasts head-on. Being a game clearly rooted in classic ideals, Crow Country does feature the dreaded tank controls—a scheme I have always disliked. Fortunately, in a show of forward thinking, the game also lets you control Mara with more modern controls. In fact, by choosing either the d-pad, which houses the tank controls, or the control stick, you can swap on the fly with great freedom. Unlike older games of this ilk which offer a fixed camera perspective, you maintain full control over the camera here which proves helpful within what is effectively a cramped monster closet. The same cannot be said for the game’s gunplay which can be similarly toggled between classic and modern styles, but is an option confined to the game’s settings. 

I wouldn’t say the differences in the aim styles are staggering, but it’s quite incredible how a simple rebind of keys, such as making the left trigger the gun’s sights, can create a more modern, familiar feel. Whichever the case, Crow Country’s combat rewards close proximity to your target, and that, combined with a stop and prop brand of aiming lead to some very tense close-quarters fights. 

Crow Country itself feels like the perfect little world to create nightmarish traumas. Even taking the monsters lurking around each corner out of the equation, I found it to be atmospheric and unsettling. The park itself is divided into attractions, including Haunted Hilltop with its gloomy crypt and ghostly manor, and Fairytale Town which comes complete with a motorised pond ride driven by decapitated, animatronic swans. What’s beautiful about its positively labyrinthian corridors is how interconnected all of the zones feel, especially once your keen-eyed exploration opens up new routes through the park. 

While it’s incredible that so much of Crow Country is the work of two people, I think that’s made relatively clear at certain points throughout the game. The game reminds me a lot of Ravenlok, which I believe did for action-adventure what Crow Country is aiming to do for survival horror in that its challenges skew on the simpler side in a likely attempt to capture more of an audience. Older gamers like me will adore the nostalgia, while the young adult crowd will revel in the game’s often simple, heavily signposted puzzles. While the memos left behind by the park’s staff do nudge and point you in the right direction a lot of the time, certain solutions are spelled out blatantly with almost fourth-wall-shattering brutality. 

RELATED:  Mullet Mad Jack Review – Blade Run 'N Gunner

I do wonder if play testing at one point indicated some of the problems were too obtuse and a lack of resources led to what’s in the game. I personally can’t imagine anyone considering these riddles to be Monkey Island-obscure, but there’s no denying that immersion was broken more than once here. 

What I do love about Crow Country is the clear reverence it has for the genre. Despite its modernised offerings, the fact it delivers such an authentic 90s experience is a credit to its team and their attention to detail. The singular moment that sealed it for me came literally after the credits when a clear screen appeared and went on to detail my rank and what I’d unlocked for my trouble. It’s not a new or even outdated idea in terms of survival horror, but it’s an integral part to the experience that felt like the cherry on top. Even how it handles being a 90s game is masterful, with so many subtle nods to the time and place but none more clever than the arcade’s trivia machine that relies on some outdated data, such as a time before Pluto’s status as a planet was revoked or when the planet had just five billion inhabitants, to succeed. 

From its title screen, Crow Country drips with retro chic and it has all of the low-resolution, ugly polygons you’d expect from the PlayStation era of video games. Almost as if it was pulled out of a time capsule, Crow Country exists in a time before the minute detail of characters could be portrayed. Outside of Mara’s purple-dyed hair and white dress, there’s not a lot that separates her from any of the other women who frequent the theme park. There’s a lot of character in the world and creature design, though, and everything is beautifully lit no matter if it’s the spot lighting of the moody, gloomy cardboard standee woods or the refracted light from the aquarium-inspired Seven Seas arm of the park. 

Crow Country’s sound design also takes plenty of inspiration from classic horror games from almost thirty years ago. It’ll come as no surprise that the muddy lo-fi gunfire and creature groans don’t “age” as well as the visuals might, but there’s a definite charm to the game’s score which makes the most of its theme park setting with a creepy, bell-driven suite of themes that resemble a music box. Whether they’re considered source or not isn’t clear, but to think of these tunes droning out over speakers in a long abandoned park gives me the willies. 

If there exists a soft spot in your heart for the early years of survival horror, and the equally-nostalgic Signalis is either too grave or serious, Crow Country is more than worth your time. It makes a special effort to cater to both purists and those with more modern tastes, however, the challenge presented by its puzzles is next to nothing. 

Crow Country is a quaint compilation of survival horror’s many time-tested tropes, from its tank controls to its labyrinthian network of corridors. For all it loads into a relatively small package, it pays homage to its roots within an irresistible framework from the antiquated era once befitting the original PlayStation.
Cool PlayStation-era aesthetic
Choice between tank and modernised controls is a great move
Feels angled at a younger audience
Some solutions are spelled out blatantly which shatters immersion
Sound design doesn't age as well as the visuals seem to