After finishing the prologue of The Blackout Club, I got excited to jump into the full experience. As Isabella, you are being chased by a creepy, terrifying creature that you can only see when you close your eyes. It forces you to flee your home through your basement and into a path leading underground. Constantly in fear of this creature called The Shape catching you, Isabella decides to rendezvous with The Blackout Club, a group of teens who have also witnessed The Shape. But, before you are able to reach their Hideout in an abandoned train car, you are dragged away and the screen cuts.
This entire thirty-minute experience is full of tense, nail-biting stealth sequences and incredible sound design and audio effects. And to top it all off, Isabella is voiced by Ashly Burch (Horizon: Zero Dawn, Life is Strange) and her performance is incredible, selling the terror and shock Isabella is feeling. I was blown away and then an hour later I discovered that the rest of the game is nothing like this at all.
The Blackout Club is actually a rather frustrating, bland, hollow, and unrewarding experience that only partially shines when playing with four other people you can communicate with. Even then its problems seep through.
A Not So Terrifying World With Nothing Much To Do In It
When that prologue ends, you switch perspectives and create your own member of The Blackout Club using a (very) limited set of customisation options. You can choose your skin colour, gender, starting clothing, and that is about it. As your new character, you sleep and live in the train car hideout, which serves as your home base, before heading back out into Redacre and discovering more about The Shape, why you and the other members of The Blackout Club have blackouts at night, and just what is exactly going on.
But, this isn’t done through structured missions or any real story path. Instead, you choose an area of the map and get given a random objective to complete. The problem is, there are only a handful of mission types and within an hour I had already played each one that was available to me at the base level. Others do unlock as you level up (we will get to the issues with levelling later), but the mission will always follow the same core structure. You find something, place or activate it, sometimes do that again for a different object and then exit. Mission over.
The worst thing about these missions is that what you are doing never has any tangible effects on the world or The Shape because they are supposed to be replayed over and over. Therefore, your actions just feel pointless and ineffective. One mission even has you placing yard signs next to the front door of various houses for some reason. They don’t do anything special, they are just yard signs. The core loop of The Blackout Club involves you completing these dreadfully repetitious missions over and over again.
I expected some kind of core story path to keep my attention or maybe, you know, find Isabella and learn more about The Shape? But, after putting more than 10 hours into the game, I haven’t seen anything indicating a narrative exists beyond what was explored in the prologue.
Adding the cherry on top of this bland and uninteresting cake are the empty environments. The Blackout Club consists of the main town and then a large sprawling maze underneath the city. The layout of the town never changes, so the game does give you a good opportunity to learn pathways and shortcuts to certain houses or escape routes. However, there are only a couple of layouts to the houses, and even then, the variations are relatively minor. The town feels copy and pasted, making the experience even staler.
The Maze underneath the town serves as the hub of The Shape and all of those allied with it. It offers a nice contrast to the town, mostly consisting of industrial beams and crystal white rock. There is more variety here, as each room has its own layout, with purposeful and deliberate scenery. One time I entered The Maze from inside a house and the first room I entered was a large storeroom filled with old boxes and supplies, which made sense. The environment feels natural, rather than artificial.
But, once again, The Blackout Club feels like a concept only partially achieved, with all the environments feel uninteresting and barren, having nothing to collect outside of the supplies in clearly marked containers. The town doesn’t feel lived in. All the models of kitchen tables, couches, pantries look the same. The world just isn’t interesting.
The Threats Are Rarely An Actual Threat
Missions aren’t as easy as go to X and do Y. The town is filled with foes you will have to evade and sneak past. The main enemy type are Sleepers who are brainwashed adults walking around at night being forced to work by The Shape. They can’t see and will only hear your footsteps if they are close to you or you are running/walking. Crouching makes it incredibly easy to evade them and once you learn their behaviour and their scripted paths, they are no more than an object in your way.
Lucids are more annoying than interesting. They are able to see and have better hearing. But, with no indicator of where they are, almost every single encounter I had with one played out like this: Lucid hears me or sees me before I see or hear it, it chases me, I run away, I then wait for it to forget I ever existed. Not exactly exciting or tense. In fact, almost all the tension from the prologue evaporates in the actual game once you learn how to avoid enemies.
That tension returns somewhat when The Shape shows up; but, The Blackout Club fumbles another interesting concept. The Shape will only show up if you get caught enough by other enemies or security cameras and drones in The Maze. So, if you play the game as it is meant to be played, you will rarely ever even see it. Therefore, it just feels pointless and only serves as a punishment mechanic if you make enough mistakes rather than a living, breathing threat constantly hunting you down.
If you do happen to get caught you can shake an enemy off or you will start to get dragged away. When you are being dragged you can escape by picking up an item from a trash pile as you pass it and hitting the enemy with it, promptly bolting it and losing their attention.
Although, as I mentioned above, that doesn’t really happen until you reach a higher level. At those higher levels, the map just becomes littered with enemies and traps to the point where it feels as clustered as a crowd outside a shop on Black Friday. It isn’t fun, it feels like you aren’t able to breathe, and the situation is surprisingly deadly.
The environment is packed with supplies in containers that perform a range of functions from medical items to heal, utility items to break a fall or weapons that can be used to take out an enemy in your path. They all have their own uses and are worthwhile to keep in your weapon wheel.
However, because most enemies are easy to avoid, the only items I really used were bandages and the Grappling Hook. The latter was necessary for reaching some areas to find more supplies. The Foam Grenade which will create a safe landing spot from a large height was also a common item I pulled out. But I certainly wasn’t making use of all the items I had.
Completing these missions and learning how to avoid the threats in Redacre ties into a progression system that is torturously grindy and not at all rewarding. XP is earned after every mission and for finding pieces of “additional evidence” throughout the town, which are just objects that shimmer to clearly tell you they are the additional pieces of evidence.
None of the evidence ties into any larger narrative and they feel like pointless collectables, which grant you only a crumb’s worth of XP; as a result, it is often quicker to level up by just finishing the mission and starting another one rather than spending another half an hour scouring the town for the pieces of evidence.
Missions aren’t much help either. I am not kidding when I say that it took me more than an hour to get from level three to level four. And, the later levels are much worse. Even when playing with four people, the multiplier only goes to 1.5X which is shockingly low, not nearly enough of a bonus and should be 3 or 4x.
You can purchase abilities as you level up as well. Minor Powers act as passive buffs that grant you typical bonuses you would find in any other game or allow you to start a mission with a particular item. Major Powers act as skills that add another tool to your arsenal. These can be upgraded to become more powerful. I particularly grew fond of the skill that allowed me to distract a Sleeper by ringing their phone, which when upgraded would disable security cameras.
Those abilities are all well and good, but to upgrade them a lot and become noticeably more powerful you are gonna need to play a lot (far too many) of the repetitive and dull missions. Oh, and there are also cosmetic items and emotes which can be purchased using Snacks, which you gain as you complete levels. Most of them are uninspired and not worth chasing after.
In fact, nothing in The Blackout Club is worth chasing after because it feels like no one tested the progression systems to see if they were balanced. It’s as if all the sliders behind the scenes are turned to the “Make everything take as long as possible to earn” setting. The Blackout Club is a game that doesn’t reward your time and asks far too much for very little in return.
There’s A Glimmer Of Enjoyment In This Gloomy Town
All of the issues above can be alleviated somewhat when you are playing in co-op with three other players and communicating. Being able to communicate allows you to plan out a strategy, split up to complete two objectives at once, and assist each other in combat and stealth situations, distributing the work more evenly, rather than it all being placed on your shoulders. Without that communication, the co-op loses its appeal. It is possible to work together without it, as the game has text chat. But, it isn’t nearly as interesting or enjoyable.
In co-op, the other issues take a backseat as you are focused on spending as much time chatting and planning out with your friends. This makes The Blackout Club a little more enjoyable. However, eventually, you are going to get tired of doing the same thing over and over and as mentioned earlier, the game isn’t rewarding you for playing with friends. Hopping in with friends every week or so for a few missions could make for some enjoyment but The Blackout Club isn’t going to become your new core live service game, that’s for sure.
A Live Service Title Devoid Of Reasons To Play It
The Blackout Club is what happens when an interesting premise is rushed out, poorly implemented, and seemingly made in a vacuum. The game feels like it was made without any consideration or thought given to the player’s experience and enjoyment. An endless grind for rewards and a lack of meaningful content that fails to capitalise on the amazing prologue leaves me bemused as to why anyone would want to spend more than a couple hours in Redacre.
The Blackout Club is positioned as a live service with endless replayability and rewards to chase. But, it appears that the team behind The Blackout Club doesn’t understand that this requires a delicate balancing of an entire ecosystem of progression and rewards to ensure that players are being rewarded for the time they are spending in your world.
With countless other live-service games out there today and more polished and finely tuned horror experiences, The Blackout Club really feels like a game that should have been released five years ago. In 2014 a title like this would have been a rarity, something completely fresh, but in 2019 its just unpolished, lacking in a number of modern features, and almost entirely a waste of time unless you and your friends love horror and will play anything in the genre.
The Blackout Club is available now on PS4.
Review code provided by publisher.