There’s a very special kind of fear that permeates your gut in a VR horror game. When you’re playing a horror game on a PC monitor or TV screen, it’s easy to remind yourself that it’s not real. You can shut your eyes, look away, or leave the room — but in VR, you feel trapped. Even if you close your eyes, you’re still there in that house, or stranded in that forest. Turning your head might work for a moment, but it just delays the inevitable of when you must look at something horrific or you must physically walk into the room that you know holds something dark and twisted.
In short, VR horror games are special because therein lies the difference between watching a scary story play out on a screen and experiencing the nightmares for yourself. And that suffocating tension is at the heart of what makes Paranormal Activity: The Lost Soul work well.
A clever mechanic developer VRWERX uses here is that, instead of a traditional main menu screen, you are instead located in an attic with a television in front of you that’s used to make choices. Once you decide your difficulty setting, a door behind you creaks open, beckoning you to walk into the darkness. And once you step across the threshold, you’re suddenly in a forest and the game immediately begins.
I love (and hate) that.
Further adding to the excellent sense of presence you’ll find in VR horror games, Paranormal Activity features a flashlight that reflects and bounces off of surfaces very believably. As opposed to a non-VR game, in which the flashlight just follows your character’s view, in VR it’s in your actual hand and requires you to manually aim it to illuminate hallways and passages as you explore. It adds yet another layer of complexity that makes every moment all the more intense and stressful.
Similar to the film franchise, you’ll explore a home here that’s being ravaged by otherworldly entities. It’s clear from the moment you walk into the home and the jump scares start. Slamming doors, creepy sounds, and shadowy figures running by in the dark all start to happen before long and it’s apparent that you’re not welcome. I’ve been around areas in real life that are considered to be “haunted,” and I can say that they’ve absolutely nailed the ambience and tension in the air here.
In VR it’s so important to craft a setting that feels authentic and, especially when it comes to a haunted house, an area that appears lived in. Many of the objects you see in Paranormal Activity: The Lost Soul can be picked up, thrown, carried, and moved around, so you know the world isn’t bolted down around you. In fact, you might even find some of those objects could end up terrifying you later on.
To really amplify that sense of being in a real home that’s actually been haunted, I highly recommend exploring at your own pace and taking your time. Pick up notes and read them to get a more robust sense of what’s happening and who lived here previously. The extra lore details help flesh out the story a lot.
Two specific design decisions really help to elevate Paranormal Activity: The Lost Soul to help make it fun for anyone who plays and even make it enjoyable to watch or play multiple times. The first is the fact that it’s a relatively open-ended game with a large, explorable house that doesn’t restrict your movement in a linear way. From the outset, you’re more or less free to roam, find items, and gradually make your way through the house at your own pace, so it’s rare to have individual experiences that are identical across playthroughs.
In addition to that, there’s a Scare Randomizer at work in Paranormal Activity that will randomly trigger jump scare scenes, sounds, and move objects at different points for each player. This means that a picture could rattle on a wall or I could hear a sound behind a door as I walk by that you never encounter during your time in the game. The system works behind the scenes to gauge your particular location and sentiment so that it’s always doing its best to make sure you’re on your toes and scared. And it absolutely adapts well.
As a father to a four-year-old boy, the children’s toys and bedroom were particularly unsettling. This series has never shied away from involving children in terms of possessions and spiritual manipulation, so seeing those types of things implied and even displayed in a VR setting was extremely unsettling. It’ll be a while before I can look at my son’s teddy bears and toys the same way again.