"But, Gabriel, you are the most scared person that I know, how did you play AND LOVE a survival horror game?" Yeah, everyone said that to me the past week. I always loved the work of the team at SFB Games since I played Tangle Tower, and when I've seen their next game would be Crow Country, a PS1-inspired survival horror game, I got mixed feelings... On the one hand, it seemed very well made, but at the same time, so far from the kind of things I like to play. I love being able to sleep at night, you know?

It's because this is a survival horror game that doesn't have to be a survival horror game — if you don't want it. I explain: Crow Country has an amazing feature called the Exploration Mode, that disables enemy attacks and turns the experience into a "puzzle adventure game". The moment I saw this, I knew that Crow Country was my opportunity to experience a little bit of a genre that I always was too scared to try. And, as a designer, I was curious to see how the thing would work without half of its premise!?

This review is all based on my experience of the game in the Exploration Mode being a person that never played survival horror games before, but well-versed on puzzle solving. And as you may already assume by the scoring, Crow Country is a great puzzle adventure game, even if you don't kill any monster along the way.

Always an abandoned theme park

In the first scene we are presented to our protagonist Mara Forest, a policewoman going into Crow Country, this small abandoned theme park that was closed two years ago. Its owner, Edward Crow, has been missing since then, as well as more information about the incidents that resulted in the place being forgotten. Mara's quest isn't only discover more about the park and its secrets, but she is determined to find Edward and the truth.

Crow Country

The atmosphere created by the team is truly amazing and exactly what I was expecting since the first trailer. The park seem to be scary even in its better days, with big crow statues and trash cans, and its thematic areas going from bizarre fantastic forests to straight-forward haunted mansions. But the abandoned state of the place, with trash all over the floor and blood messages in the walls of narrow corridors, really make me intrigued for what was going on.

To be fair, I think that was the first impact I had on my game because of Exploration Mode. This option doesn't only remove the combat, but also all the monsters, traps, jumpscares and everything that can hurt Mara, essentially. Besides the "friendly" NPCs, Crow Country is completely empty and it felt almost like a liminal space. A place that should be full of kids laughing and running was a decorated void and this fact created one more layer of mystery to me, actually. Specially when you realize that, instead of killing the monsters, their bodies just appear dead in the rooms but by someone that isn't you.

Crow Country

I know that I had an non-canon guarantee that no creature would kill my character and it probably helped me to feel more safe, but I wasn't really scared of exploring Crow Country. The plot that you start to unroll in the first minutes has confusing elements, that keep expanding and connecting in themselves during the game. It felt like I was on the aftermath of a tragedy and my job was to collect the pieces and give some peace to anyone who survived the catastrophe.

In this process, I also discovered that I don't hate horror the way I imagined, because the atmosphere of the game is still very "spooky" even in Exploration Mode. You will still see dead creatures in the floor, enter creepy buildings and find disgusting things. If those things are not interesting (or, at least, intriguing) to you, so removing the jumpscares and the combat won't be enough, and that's fine, Crow Country is still a horror game after all.

Visually, the team at SFB Games nailed the early 3D game aesthetic in the perfect way possible. I don't think that a PlayStation or a Nintendo 64 could render any of the game's scenes like they were presented, but Crow Country is exactly how your inside child remembers those games to be. The scenarios are detailed enough so you can see items to collect or even clues for some puzzles easily, even on the "low resolution" style. I'm still impressed.

Solving the Crow's mysteries

The atmosphere is top notch, but how Crow Country plays when you remove combat? It can be shocking, but... it feels like a puzzle adventure game! You explore the place, find secrets, collect items, solve puzzles and advance the plot until you finish it and understand what's going on, in a linear (but well made) progression. You still have a gun — and some puzzles are only solved with a good shot — and you still can collect med kits and antidotes, but there's almost no use for them, given that Mara can't be harmed in any way during this mode.

Crow Country

Puzzles on Crow Country are inspired by different types of games: some of them are more like point-and-click games (where you collect items and use them in a different place), others are more like escape room games (where you can use the surroundings as clues to find a code). They aren't that much complicated and this isn't a problem, but the amount of pointers that you have for each one is.

A common source of information in the game are notes left by park staff in the walls, and sometimes you have 2 or 3 different ones just talking the same thing about the same puzzle. I imagine that in the original survival horror mode, your exploration radius would be smaller and you couldn't find all of those repeated tips, but in my playthrough, it felt too much guided. This doesn't get in the way of feeling great when solving the interesting puzzles available, but advanced players can be a little bit annoyed.

Crow Country

The inventory also works a bit differently of what I was expecting. Instead of being consumable objects, all the items you find are permanent tools that will be used multiple times (besides ammo and med kits, obviously). For example, if you find a key, you can bet that you have at least two doors to open with it. I personally liked this approach and helped me to understand the map more like a Zelda dungeon, where each new item can expand your ways to interact with the world, instead of being just a one-use thing.

At the end, I'm still impressed that I didn't miss the horror aspect of the game when opting to the Exploration Mode. After beating the story, I've watched some gameplay videos of the "original experience", and I didn't think that I missed a lot (for my personal taste). If you like shooting monsters and scarce resources, you definitely should go for the Survival Horror Mode, but Crow Country is an amazing puzzle adventure game even without it.

Playing Crow Country was liberating for me, because it was essentially my proper first "horror" game, but it was also an irrefutable argument of how good game design can help a game to find a new audience. Yes, the Exploration Mode can miss some of the shooting fun, but the intriguing mystery, the cool characters and the interesting puzzles were enough to not only create a good experience, but stick me to the screen for some nights. Maybe those changes aren't enough for you to get less scared, but it was enough to me, and I'm glad I tried.

The team behind this game sent me a press key so I could play it and write my review. Thanks for the trust!