Horror, when done right, can be a truly wonderful thing to behold - especially in the interactive realm of video games. Find the right mechanics, marry them to a setup that sells its dark heart, and find a balance that doesn’t undersell or dilute its scares and building sense of dread. Uncanny Valley comes close in so many ways to nailing this formula, but its nightmarish potential is often undone by some odd design decisions.
Things start off well. Too well, perhaps. You’re Tom, a man looking to put a little distance between himself and his past. With the added need to gather some much-needed cash, Tom decides to kill two pixel art birds with one pixel art stone by taking a security job looking after the site of a robotics firm in the middle of nowhere. But Tom is haunted by some rather eldritch dreams, where he explores a seemingly empty city while being shadowed by creatures of pure shadow.
These dreams help break up Cowardly Creations’ two-to-three hour-long survival horror, and for the first half of the game, it comes together with a real sense of palpable fear. As a night watchman, you’ll explore the 8-bit-style floors of Melior, and with only a few condensed in-game hours to do so, it soon becomes clear there’s more to this job than meets the eye. Why did all the employees suddenly clear out? What lies beneath the facility in the sublevels? And how does it tie into your increasingly unhinged nightmares?
Uncanny Valley clearly wants to rekindle the purity of an old school survival horror, mixing in the occasional puzzle and moment of action. You can see the DNA of Clock Tower and the original Resident Evil here, but it never lets either of these genres dilute the simple pleasure of exploring the silent halls of a facility as something terrible slowly unfurls itself. However, while the game is careful to avoid over-egging its own pudding, it still manages to undo much of its own hard work as a result.
The first half of the game keeps you on your toes by limiting the amount of time you can explore your new workplace while on your rounds - and you’ll even pass out from exhaustion if you snoop for too long without returning to bed. But then, for seemingly no reason, Uncanny Valley drops the time restraints and just lets you explore untethered as it rushes to reveal the true nature of its story. That shift in parameters would have been a much bigger issue had this been a much longer game, but it’s an odd choice nonetheless.
That compact length does serve a purpose, though. Each decision you make in the game - from which floors you explore first to how long you engage in conversations with the handful of NPCs you encounter - all coalesce to lead you down various (and almost always grisly) narrative paths. Non-linear stories can often lead to some interesting and systemic moments, but Uncanny Valley’s sense of freedom (especially later on when you’re not limited by time) too often leads you to rapidly advance the plot, with large chunks of story left unresolved.
That sense of consequence does bring a thrilling sense of reality to an otherwise fantastical premise. As you push further and further into Melior’s secrets, there’s a good chance you’ll end up injuring yourself. These maladies will affect how fast you can move, and how mobile you can ultimately be. Hurt yourself too much and you’ll either die or find yourself unable to guide Tom to the next objective. It’s in these moments you’ll appreciate the relatively short run time of each playthrough.
The problem is it isn’t very hard to work out the mystery behind Uncanny Valley’s horror - with so many cassette tapes to collect and PC terminals to read, even the most lackadaisical of investigators can piece together what’s to come. When paired with the non-linear approach to connecting plot points, you’re left with a game that squanders much of the dread it tries so hard to build.
Uncanny Valley’s desire to hark back to the simpler days of survival horror is commendable, especially in those early moments where you’re flitting between abstract nightmares and a security job that feels increasingly isolated. However, the sheer openness of its non-linear plot means it’s all too easy to jump large sections of the story as you stumble on one of the game’s secrets too early on. Still, with a strict consequence-based system that rewards and punishes you in equal measure, Uncanny Valley has a lot of potential. It’s just a shame it doesn’t fully live up to it.