A terror lurks in The Blackout Club, and it’s not what you’d expect. In a game about a tormented Virginian town, plagued by supernatural powers and godlike puppet masters, I discovered a greater evil. Take care lurking by a nearby residence, as it reaches for you with gnarled, hardened limbs. It grabs hold and stays your feet, leaving you to ponder your fate for eternity (or until you quit a session). Oh, what a twisted reality in which a creature that should express calm and natural goodwill can exhibit such horror.
No, I’m not referring to the game’s assortment of subjugated parents ready to turn you against your friends. I speak of the trees.
Revenge of the Lorax
Indeed, the trees, as they often represent one of many technical failings in The Blackout Club. It has been some time since I last crept through the sleepy town of Redacre, the Virginian suburb in which the game’s story takes place. However, I don’t recall my time in the beta build to be nearly as tricky as this post-early access release.
Funnily enough, I ran into issues almost right out the gate this time around. At the very start of one of my earliest missions, I and my group of three others stumbled through a grove of trees on a mission to pick up yard signs. One of my allies somehow clipped right into a tree, and no amount of jumping or mouse throttling was enough to release himself from his branchy tomb. We tried to push him out at first, only for myself and another player to get stuck alongside. We had no choice but to enlist the aid from a random enemy NPC, who yanked two of us out. When it was the third player’s turn to be liberated, both he and the NPC clipped through the ground and tumbled into the void below.
Getting stuck in a tree was, unfortunately, only a taste of the game’s continued instability. The trees are a constant threat, however; just the act of passing by one is enough to tempt it into claiming another victim, causing your screen to rattle as if to mimic your sudden fear of getting swallowed up. I’ve also found myself stuck in between a fence and an invisible wall, forcing a restart. Animations are janky; player movements seem to skip frames at times, and picking up an unconscious enemy can cause its body to flail comically. Limbs can clip through walls, the audio glitches out, and environmental pop-in is prevalent. The issues are not constant, but they do cause mounting frustration — it all attests to a game lacking in some sorely-needed polish.
Something strange in your neighborhood
When not stuck in various objects, The Blackout Club is playable more often than not. The game is a first-person co-op game for up to four players. You, as a teenage sleuth, utilize stealth and various equipment and powers to sneak around and complete objectives at the behest of the eponymous Blackout Club. Moving covertly is a must, as the town of Redacre is crawling with enemies to dodge or subdue. But, for an important reason, there is no killing allowed. Your enemies in The Blackout Club are innocent parents and adults, patrolling houses and streets at the bidding of an unseen god. They meander through the world, mumbling in eerie, cult-like chants.
Clearly, something has gone terribly wrong, and you have to find out why. As a member of the club, your job is to investigate and collect evidence of all the shady happenings of your town. You receive orders through a smartphone, which you can also use as a flashlight or to take pictures of clues.
It’s all objective
Objectives are randomized with each mission. You may be asked to pickpocket evidence bags off a roaming enemy or search for a missing club member. Once all your objectives for the mission are complete, you and your team must beat it to the exit point — barring all your members haven’t been captured. There are also hidden objectives throughout the world. Bonus evidence found and photographed adds to the amount of experience points gained at the end of the mission.
Not all objectives make a lot of sense, however. Searching for a missing club member is a noble cause for action. But what reason dictates hanging posters of cats with misspelled names? I couldn’t figure that one out. Nor was I able to find the logic behind planting yard signs for a mayoral campaign. The game insists it’s all for a good cause, such as member recruitment. But it’s hard to shake the feeling that you’re just doing a job for someone who really misses their cat.
Additionally, it won’t take long for objectives to start getting too familiar. Repetition was a concern I had when I played the beta last year. Sadly, it still plagues The Blackout Club. After just a handful of hours, I found myself faced with the same objectives over and over again. My fellow players were also having more than their fill. Our voice chat was tinged with sighs at the start of many matches.
Completing missions doesn’t come easy. Various enemies prowl about, looking to capture some meddling kids (and their cat, too!). There are different foes to watch out for. The most basic would be the sleepwalkers, adults who wander about in their pajamas and blindfolds. There is also a different form of a sleepwalker, one who has gone full cult status with white and red uniforms. Both, however, behave similarly. Sleepwalkers are blind and can only hear you if you make a noise nearby. To avoid them, you must either keep your distance while crouching around or sneak over grass or carpet to muffle your footsteps.
As you progress through the game, you stumble onto worse threats. Enemies such as the lucids, for example, are gifted with eyesight and a flashlight, and these sprint after you like a bull with its tail on fire. Some areas are littered with nonlethal mines that can either send out a shrill alarm or shock and leave you temporarily paralyzed. Security cameras and flying drones cut the air with a green beam of light that briefly changes to red and cries in alarm if it catches you snooping. In short, you have a lot of worries on your hands.
You do get some help during missions, however. Hidden in the world are supply crates with items such as bandages, ammo, candy bars to replenish stamina, traps, or firecrackers for a nice, noisy distraction. There are also flash bangs to stun enemies, allowing you to run by unharmed or break its grasp if it has you in its clutches.
The Shape of things to come
However, there is no danger in The Blackout Club more worrisome than the Shape. As you play through the game, any action that reveals your presence causes you to accumulate “sins.” These actions include breaking down doors, getting caught, or knocking out enemies. Once you commit enough of these sins, a creature called the Shape bursts through red doors or hatches to give pursuit.
It chases down the player with the most sins, turning them against allies. Once recruited, your character wanders around, calling out other players who wander too close. You can turn your google-eyed allies back to the light, but it takes some planning. The Shape continues to track down players with sins until either all transgressors have been taken or you manage to escape.
Dodging the Shape is not straightforward, especially when it’s hankerin’ for a spankerin’. It’s completely invisible, and can only be seen by holding a key close to your eyes. The Shape appears as a bright-orange, humanoid silhouette against the reddish black of your closed lids. It can jog and climb, leaving you few places to hide and fewer chances to recover some precious stamina. Of course, thanks to the game’s current state, the Shape can, on rare occasions, grab you through walls or other solid matter, which is just dandy. What’s worse, if you avoid the Shape for long enough, it transforms, growing a pair of wings and elevating its aggressive hunt.
Regular enemies who manage to capture you will drag you toward the red doors that house the Shape. Luckily, you’re not completely screwed. If players are unable to stop the enemy, random assortments of trash you get dragged past may have items you can use to liberate yourself.
The game rewards you if you manage to avoid capture and complete a mission. Experience points go toward increasing your level, which unlocks new areas and more missions. Leveling also ups the challenge, unlocking new enemy types and threats. You gain a power point with each level, which you can spend on acquiring or strengthening abilities.
There are major and minor powers to equip. These can include the ability to prank call an enemy, leaving them temporarily frozen and deaf to your footsteps. You can also equip an ability to give yourself more stamina, or one that grants you items at the start of the quest. One ability lets you remote pilot a drone that can snap survey the area or snap photos of evidence. You also earn snacks as in-game currency following a mission. Snacks can be spent on fly new clothes or hairstyles for your character. But there are better ways to spend your sugary booty than on another pair of torn jeans or pink hair. Snacks can also be used to purchase items from dispensers or supply drops. The additional surplus helps to keep things from getting too dicey.
The boxcar children
The boxcars near Redacre that the Blackout Club calls home is your base between missions. Here, you can purchase or upgrade abilities, customize your character, load up a new quest, or grab equipment. The base stores several weapons, one of which can be equipped prior to a mission. You get the choice of a stun gun to paralyze enemies, a grappling hook with a rope to reach high areas, or a crossbow that fires a tranquilizer dart. The dart can also be used separately if you’d rather sneak up on an enemy and jam it into their neck.
That aside, the majority of the weapons are kind of useless. The grappling hook doesn’t have much purpose, as you can easily clamber onto roofs without needing special equipment. Stun guns that immobilize enemies also feel unnecessary, especially since you can equip abilities that achieve the same purpose. I ran through the game using the crossbow almost exclusively, as it’s far more prudent to have something that can drop enemies at any distance.
As above, so below
The game world is broken up between above- and below-ground sections. Redacre is home to common, residential homes. But down below is the Maze, a series of twisting tunnels and rooms full of unusual equipment and other oddities. Sleepwalkers and lucids prowl the Maze, toying with equipment or plucking metal cables to create an eerie symphony.
The bizarre underworld plays a role in the game’s story. Your impetus as a fresh member of the club is to find a missing friend. However, there is more going on. There is an overarching mystery to solve, one that features gods vying for control. Sacrificing ritual items at the altar in the base and using your mic can award more clues. The game’s community has been a driving force behind solving the enigma, which certainly seems interesting.
In the dark
However, as interesting as this game sounds, it’s not enough to keep me intrigued enough to know more. As a fan of stealth games, I did find The Blackout Club more enjoyable than some of my fellows. Many of them often filled the chat window with colorful language bemoaning the game’s clunky nature. But any enjoyment to be had is too often overshadowed by tedium and nagging issues. The problems pile up quickly, leading to frustration and boredom. There is a chance that The Blackout Club can shine someday, but for now, it can only dwell in shadows.