Every so often, a little-known game with much smaller expectations than its AAA counterparts will come along and completely knock your socks off. Celeste managed it last month with its intricate 2D platforming, and no less than a month later, another crowning achievement has made its way onto the Nintendo eShop. Detention, from developer Red Candle Games, is a 2D horror game that manages to terrify with supernatural spookings, and yet still remains grounded in a lot of reality.
Set in 1960’s Taiwan, the country is under martial law. The game opens in a school, with Wei, one of the main characters, falling asleep in class. Eventually he awakens to find the school deserted due to an impending typhoon, and so it’s time to get himself out too. After bumping into a fellow pupil called Ray, the two head for the bridge that leads into town, only for them to discover that it has been destroyed. With the river below them running red with blood, they head back to the school grounds to find shelter and hope this all blows over.
Of course, things don’t go the way they want, and it’s this that lends itself so well to the message behind the plot. Detention isn't afraid to shine a light on the social struggles of the time, it challenges the free will of the main character, and it isn’t afraid to incorporate the atrocities committed at the time into its horrific themes and scares. All of this is viewed through the eyes of a child, which in a sense makes the entire ordeal even more saddening, as decisions made at the top of the food chain come home to roost in a surprising and sombre fashion. The plot pulls no punches, as it strikes at the gut of what makes us human.
Played out on a 2D plain, the experience largely consists of solving fairly simple puzzles within the environment and navigating the school and the surrounding grounds. Interactable items can be placed in your inventory for use at a later date, while you’ll learn more about the school, its characters, and the state of martial law through text bubbles when an object of interest comes into view. But this is only one side of the coin, as ghosts patrol the hallways in search of their next meal.
Known as Lingereds, these ghostly beings will suck the life out of you with just a few hits, but only if they know you’re there. There’s no combat whatsoever and thus they can never be killed, instead you must avoid or manoeuvre around them by holding your breath. You’re no longer detectable in this state, but obviously you can only hold it for so long. Because of this, you must time your breathing correctly to make sure you get by unscathed. But sometimes there simply isn’t a way to get around a Lingered, and this is where food offerings come into play. Placing one of these nearby will give a ghost something to chew on for a certain period of time, allowing you to sneak past while they’re distracted.
The gameplay is fairly simple, but it works. Save for a few late-game puzzles, the brain teasers are relatively easy to figure out, meaning you’re unlikely to ever be stumped by something. Every object has a purpose, and you won’t have to go far to find its use. Avoiding the Lingereds is never too difficult either, as even when they are alerted to your presence, they’re very easy to run away from, and it takes three swipes from them before you’re killed.
The main draw of Detention is its horror themes and scares, and the game absolutely does not let up in this department. Rather than opting for continuously recycling jump scares, the game builds its tension and terror through some graphic and alarming imagery, terrifying enemy design, and a soundtrack that we wouldn’t really even describe as music at all. This is perhaps the scariest element of all, as the audio design revolves around shrill screams, sounds reminiscent of scratches on a chalkboard, and ominous tones in the background that heighten the foreboding tension. When it comes to just setting atmosphere, Detention is perhaps the very best in its field.
And to cap it all off, the entire experience looks incredible. The art style can twist and change at a moment’s notice as it intertwines with the scares it’s presenting. Hand-drawn sprites gracefully navigate the classrooms, the edgy and twisted out houses are a sight to behold, and the enemies themselves are frighteningly detailed as they wander the hallways in search of you. It’s beautiful to just look at, and clocking in at around three hours, none of it outstays its welcome.
Hot off the heels of Layers of Fear: Legacy, Detention is yet another horror classic that deserves a place on your Nintendo Switch. Its story has an important message behind it as it introduces themes that seem almost unfair when viewed through the eyes of a child, but that only helps to escalate the horror. Through a terrifying atmosphere, chilling ghouls, and a soundtrack that will sink its teeth into you, Detention is a suitably horrifying title that needs to be experienced first-hand.