The Park – A deeply unsettling experience, let down by uneven pacing and a lackluster narrative


Reviewed July 25, 2016 on Xbox One

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Disclosure: An Xbox One download code was provided by the publisher for this review

The amusement park; the perfect setting for a family day out...
The Park is a fairly brief, but generally effective, horror story. Though I found the narrative to be somewhat lacking, The Park manages to create a sense of dread and foreboding without relying on cheap jump scares.
When I first started The Park, I was oddly reminded of Firewatch. At a basic level, there are some obvious similarities - both are first-person, narrative driven games - but a similar style and setting made me feel instantly at home. The inviting nature of the world quickly drops away, and as I entered the park for the first time it, without warning, became night and the park was suddenly abandoned. I was initially concerned that the walking pace in the game was painfully slow, but the addition of a sprint at this time made that a non-issue.
This strong opening sequence exemplifies The Park's strengths. Neither the setting (an abandoned amusement park) and premise (a mother trying to find her son) are particularly new or interesting, but the contrast between the world outside the park and the state of the park's interior instantly made me feel uneasy. It may be something of a cliché to do this, but that didn't make it any less effective.
This sense of general unease was amplified by the design of areas inside the park. An overgrown amusement park is not particularly unsettling by itself, but good use of limited lighting meant I couldn't quite shake the feeling that there was something weird about the area. Walking around and examining the various items such as newspaper clippings made the world feel free-form and expansive, but the careful use of lighting made even open areas feel claustrophobic and unpleasant. The level design is also very good at guiding the player from area to area without the game feeling excessively linear.

...On second thoughts, maybe not
I mentioned earlier that The Park doesn't rely on cheap jump scares; this isn't to say it doesn't have its fair share of them, but it never felt that The Park was using them as a substitute for good design. The general sense of dread and unease is generated by the world as a whole, and the jump scares merely amplify that feeling.
Mechanically, the game is rather simple, and comes from the same stock as games like Gone Home and Firewatch. Interactions are limited to walking around areas, inspecting various objects placed in the world, and occasionally interacting with switches and the like. There is also a shouting mechanics - pressing B at any point making the main character shout out to her child, and produces a subtle visual effect indicating nearby story objects.
Unfortunately, those limited mechanics are not backed up by a particularly strong narrative. It is certainly exploring some interesting ideas, and a PT-esque segment towards the end of the game is well-implemented, but the story as a whole feels ambiguous and poorly paced. As The Park is set in a location from Funcom's The Secret World MMO, I have to wonder if knowledge of that game would make The Park more effective, but as a standalone piece it isn't particularly fulfilling.
My biggest issue with the game is one of pacing. Throughout the park, there are various rides that form part of the main story, leaving the player with just camera control as a scene plays out. I can overlook the fact that riding a park ride whilst looking for a child is strange (each ride fits surprisingly well despite this), but most went on for far longer than necessary. The biggest offender is perhaps the first, a Hansel and Gretel themed boat ride. It has strong moments, but most of its purpose in the game is fulfilled within the first minute or so. The ride then continues, without the player being able to leave, for another five or six minutes, and doesn't add much more to the story. The sense of unease that the rest of the game had earnt was lost, because these segments dragged and felt dull.

The pacing issues are exacerbated as the ending of the game feels rushed and leaves the question of what really happened open. The aforementioned PT-esque section was over much quicker than I anticipated, and the more supernatural elements of the tale are not directly addressed. From what I have read, these elements are more prominent in The Secret World, so I suspect players of that game would interpreting the ending differently.
Despite that, I must say that the narrative of the game presents some interesting ideas, and the ambiguity towards the end of the game is not entirely without merit. It is just that the pacing issues, and the fact that items within the world do not allow the player to piece together the true version of events, make it unsatisfying. It is difficult to explain why this is the case further without spoiling large portions of the game, so I shall refrain from doing so here.
Overall, The Park is an interesting experience, and one I feel glad to have had. Somewhere within it, there is an extremely good horror experience, and with some narrative changes it could be a truly excellent game. However, The Park fails to reach these expectations, which is a shame given how good some aspects of it are.