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Crow Country (XS)

Crow Country (XS) - Review

by Lee Mehr , posted on 11 June 2024 / 1,971 Views

Reviewer’s Note: Due to certain praises, it’s necessary to bring up SOME SPOILERS regarding Crow Country's narrative in this review.  Read on at your own risk.

As the indie retro-horror wave continues so too does the plurality of fresh voices wanting to make a splash.  SFB Games (formerly Super Flash Bros.), known for Tangle Tower and a plethora of brighter mobile-focused and flash games, decided to roll the dice on a different endeavor from its usual.  But that lack of storied pedigree is immediately brushed aside by Crow Country's moody main menu and opening: the current year is rewound back to 1990.  Only a year ahead of the survival-horror beginnings with Sweet Home (while 92's Alone in the Dark set the 3D template), and the signal towards the genre's inception is abundantly clear.

Less can be said about our protagonist, however.  After the clock winds back and the screen fades in to a rickety Ford Pinto scootering across some backroads, Special Agent Mara Forest ("That's my name. Don't forget it.") gives a seemingly 4th wall-breaking talk before arriving at her destination: the titular amusement park Crow Country.  It's been shuttered for two years and its owner, Edward Crow, has remained out of the public eye since.  Sent to find him and uncover what secrets lie hidden within this ramshackle funfair, Mara sets out to uncover the truth.


The first character Mara stumbles upon is also one of the best: the setting itself.  Sure, a haunted amusement park isn’t treading new ground, but there's a reason why this trope stays cemented in pop culture.  After busting open the front gate lock, you're greeted by slightly-distorted & upbeat park music whilst flanked by appropriately corvid-themed displays – from trash bins to ticket counters.  It captures that interesting middle ground between cutesy and atmospheric; like placing googly eyes over corroded animatronics.  Past all the crow paraphernalia, each portion of Crow Country's map plays with a theme that fuses bouncy and eerie in creative ways – be it fantasy, graveyard, and so on.

That tonal balance is mirrored elsewhere.  Emulating early 3D gameplay character models (original Final Fantasy VII or Resident Evil), Mara is like a purple-haired Jill Valentine as an adorable Playmobil toy. Unlike that comparison, the world itself is 3D instead of being a pre-rendered backdrop.  The cutesy characters and environments stick to that PS1-era aesthetic while using some tricks to clean up those hard 32-bit edges.  Like Crow Country itself, the nostalgic visual design evokes a special charm that's used as window dressing for the sinister dangers lurking in the dark.

It's only natural to prepare yourself for the worst, though.  SFB – smartly – subverts expectations with the first NPC interaction by avoiding the Resident Evil-esque "first zombie" money shot.  For those familiar with survival-horror, you know the script by now: a fusion of combat, puzzle-solving, and resource management.  Pitted against putrefying flesh monsters feels tenser when knowing you're whittled down to your last few bullets, after all.  


Country ranks among the best marriages of old and new genre personalities – even down to disparate control schemes emulating current and yesteryear sensibilities.  After finding a conveniently-placed handgun laser sight, shooting will feel reminiscent of Resident Evil 4's Leon Kennedy, but with a twist.  Instead of planting your feet with a tight over-the-shoulders perspective, the camera remains at a rotational 45-degree-angle isometric viewpoint.  The best term I can think of is "purposive clumsiness," which reinterprets the sensation of Resident Evil's fixed camera angles in a new light.  Sure, landing headshots from a modest distance can be done with enough practice, but the limited field of view and decreased bullet damage based on proximity encourages awkward close-quarters shooting.  There's just enough wonkiness within the underlying systems without it feeling unfair.

Even though the monsters (or "Guests," as Mr. Crow coined them) will sporadically replenish within most areas, engagements never feel stale thanks to the level design and variety.  Since fight-or-flight remains the default – with rare exceptions – navigating around these areas keeps you on your toes.  As the game goes on, new environmental traps are laid out that can be detrimental to either you or the guests.  The menagerie of revolting hostiles range from fleshy blobs gliding across the floor to beefy, spiky giants wielding metal pipes (which ties back to the story). They feel well-realized and have their own personalities.  They're also just great monsters by design; from the ghastly aesthetic of the flayed toddler to the tortured breathing of the lanky creep, each has so much quality put into its visual and audio design.

Equipoising these deadly bouts are a collection of engaging puzzles.  Similar to many of the genre's forerunners, you'll initially be inundated with places that are off-limits.  And whether by a special key or some other item, there's consistent feedback from Mara's observations, employee memos, and even a crow-themed clue system about all these places that you'll need to remember.  Absorbing the deluge of 90s-kitchy tips & tricks glued on many walls alongside those puzzle hints can feel overwhelming at first, but the memorable differences between parks and the measured tempo encourage you to heuristically scour for the next collectible.  And since so many have a unique identity, such as properly addressing a fairy to gain access, it's remarkably easy to juggle several brainteasers at once.


The flow of Country's level design goes a long way too.  Rather than relying on obtuse methods of dishing out hints, everything here feels contextually sensible.  It makes sense to see employee notes describe where they last saw a hand-crank stashed or the latest code that no one's altered since closing up shop.  The same can be said for the topographical map splices set at each quadrant which help itemize current puzzles and useful secrets, like high-powered weapons and passive buffs.  Many hints also serve as load-bearing collectibles by also containing more story background.  Both these and gameplay-oriented hints you've discovered are collected and saved at all of the safe zones too.  So many little details like this are what make this world so entrancing to explore.

The one major hurdle to the aforementioned survival-horror trifecta stems back to near-nonexistent scarcity.  Besides a few exceptions, you're rarely wont for health items or ammo.  Whether it's some breakable wooden crates, weak glass jars, shakeable vending machines, or scattered items tucked away in the open, a little extra time and a few bullets spent are enough to carry a small arsenal in Mara's blouse; hell, her car's trunk can also replenish handgun ammo over time.  Granted, I do realize SFB's generosity is partially because of how Mara's weapon(s) are treated as tools (needing to shoot crates, a few select puzzles, and so on); still, it's disappointing how being a tightwad eventually felt irrelevant when that extra tension could've added to the spooky atmosphere.

Having said all that, this critique stems from finishing the standard Survival Horror mode.  Only a couple weeks after releasing to the public, an update added the aptly-named Murder of Crows mode, which accentuates resource management demands: you're lucky to get one bullet from the trash instead of an ammo box, all the vending machines are out of order, and Mara's car trunk doesn't replenish ammo.  Even the crow-themed fortune-telling machines are busted.  I'll admit that my 2nd ongoing playthrough in this mode goes a long way in selling that persistent resource tension.  One could argue how I should've started there – since I had the chance – but SFB was the one to label the normal mode as such.  Looking past the things hard mode ameliorates, there are still other universal critiques:

  • Something like Resident Evil's one-use ink ribbons to limit saves would've fit seamlessly here.
  • There's no engaging post-death dynamic a la Resident Evil Remake's Crimson Heads.  While enemy density will naturally increase, that doesn't compare to weighing the resources necessary to torch a body lest they return stronger than before.
  • There's no tension with inventory management.  Mara's pockets can be filled with every quest-specific item and still have room for a set number of bandages and disparate ammo types.
  • Combat bonus: the nettlesome camera can sometimes lead to obscuring the onscreen action at certain angles.  It would've been great if the walls turned semi-transparent whenever this happened a la Devil May Cry.

While it didn't have to tick every box, better resource-juggling could've been just as layered and exciting as its other mechanics.


Seeming to compensate for that is Adam Vian's layered script that harnesses the excitement of genre precursors but with better craftsmanship.  Sure, the setting can clue you in on it being a campy creature feature with several of those tropes in tow, but its succinct structure and pre-realized protagonist sell its greater mystery.  Let me explain.  Recall Mara's quote from earlier: "That’s my name.  Don’t forget it."  What initially seem like throwaway lines for the player eventually take on a new meaning.  She seems to know more about the park than she lets on, which sets up subdued points of conflict with a few side characters, like a stranger who keeps calling her through various payphones.  That secondary story thread is a great compliment to the park's grander mystery.

Mara and the supporting cast's dialogue bounce off of each other well – both in prose and tone.  Mara has the perfect blend of late-teenaged innocence and spunkiness that Marvel's current writers could learn from.  Sure, she'll roll out a few quips and chat with plushie toys on occasion, but there's a tangible difference in their quality and intent.  These monsters aren't interested in waiting for her to say "he's uh... right behind me, isn't he?"  It's 1990 and somehow even they're tired of those clichés!  Perhaps forgoing any voice acting, in favor of text-only dialogue bubbles, as an era-appropriate choice demanded more concise language while still giving each character enough personality.

It's hard not to risk spoiling too much because there's so much to appreciate.  Even environmental storytelling bits, like flavor text or cryptic messages, carry more heft because they're thoroughly set up and paid off.  The smeared bloody numbers "2106" initially seem random given how park keypads don't have 0 as an option until their meaning is clarified in the final act.  Granted, this won't rank among the deepest or most complex game narratives of the year, but it's hermetically sealed from top to bottom.  It's like if R.L. Stine wrote a new Goosebumps story aimed for an older audience – and I mean that in the best way possible.


Value is another boon, whether or not you're interested in several playthroughs.  On its face, $20 for approximately 7-8 hours (thorough completionist) is a solid bet; plus, the necessary backtracking never felt like filler because of how robust and interconnected this world feels.  Aside from the normal and hard modes, there's also a violence-free exploration mode with all of the Guests slain by someone else beforehand.  Because of how well each mode captures a different tone, I've already started (or completed) a run on all of them.  I'd argue it makes a more compelling argument for replays than some recent Resident Evil titles.

In the end, Crow Country's success feels like SFB Games continually stumbling upon one inspired idea after another.  You may have seen these nuances – be they mechanical, narrative, or visual – but never all together in one place; nostalgic in its bone marrow, yet still yearning to do more than recite the past.  The way combat, puzzle-solving, cute/spooky atmosphere, and deliberate storytelling all fuse together makes for something that could be called unique.  Sure, some resource management foibles prevent it from being a caw-some experience all around, but this ride sticks with you long after its inevitable stop.


Contractor by trade and writer by hobby, Lee's obnoxious criticisms have found a way to be featured across several gaming sites: N4G, VGChartz, Gaming Nexus, DarkStation, and TechRaptor! He started gaming in the mid-90s and has had the privilege in playing many games across a plethora of platforms. Reader warning: each click given to his articles only helps to inflate his Texas-sized ego. Proceed with caution.


VGChartz Verdict


8.5
Great

This review is based on a digital copy of Crow Country for the XS

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2 Comments
ireadtabloids (on 13 June 2024)

Excellent review. May was an excellent month for games from smaller studios.
I’m glad Crow Country was one that got a chance to leave its mark.

  • +5
coolbeans ireadtabloids (on 14 June 2024)

Appreciate it, tabloids.

True! I didn't expect to have so many sprout up that seemed like potential reviews back in April. Absolutely wild month.

  • +1