Them and Us by TendoGames pays loving homage to the golden age of survival horror titles such as Resident Evil and Alone in the Dark. A singular hero finds themselves trapped in a haunted house full of locked doors, endless hallways and no shortage of horrifying creatures eager to feast on their flesh.
Upon starting the game, you are treated to a compelling comic book-style cutscene. You get introduced to Alicia, a disturbed, former paramedic on death row for unknown reasons, yet she is driven by a compulsion to find her missing daughter. After a catastrophic uprising on a prison bus, she awakens in a locked room in an old mansion on a mysterious island with no recollection of her whereabouts, and begins her quest to escape.
Back to the basics
In an interesting twist, you’re given the choice of two camera options from the get-go: tank controls with fixed camera angles, or an over-the-shoulder perspective a la Resident Evil 4. (There is a third option, should one feel inclined to pay for DLC, of a first-person perspective.) Alicia starts with a small inventory that can be accessed at any time, which also contains special folders for found documents and personal notes (or “memories”). Constant planning is necessary to manage what you will carry and what you will leave behind.
Navigating the environment is simple enough. As one would expect from the genre, areas in the mansion and its grounds are locked behind any number of doors and simple tasks that require exploration and careful attention to detail. Levers, crests, books, tools, and other objects must be acquired in order to progress. Puzzles range from the obvious to the obtuse, but all the clues you need are provided if you take the time to look for them and practice the necessary patience.
Combat is what it is: the main enemy you will encounter are the shambling dead, which behave about as you would expect. Dealing with one is straightforward enough, but two or three forces you to weigh your options. Besides mindlessly beelining toward you with arms outstretched, they are capable of occasional bouts of sporadic behavior to keep you on your toes, especially if you choose to engage them in close-range combat with your trusty knife to conserve ammo.
There are a handful of firearms (some only available on subsequent playthroughs), and ammo is wisely distributed throughout the various zones in such a fashion that you will never feel completely safe. This becomes apparent later on as the game starts throwing more and more unique enemy types your way, often without warning, forcing you to switch tactics on the fly. Healing items are sparse but fairly distributed, and some can even be combined to create more powerful agents. Although health item crafting is only surface level, and not explored as deeply as it could have been.
Sound design is especially important in the survival horror genre, and Them and Us gets its oppressive atmosphere just about perfect. The music in particular is especially brooding and well conceived, particularly when paired with the outstanding ambiance.
I also appreciated some of the minor aesthetic flourishes. The game contains small, but impactful touches, like fog lingering on the ground in outdoor areas, fireflies swarming around lamp posts, and the way blood gradually pools outward from a fallen zombie. The movement of their jaws and mouths matches their groans, making them feel like a natural extension of the ominous horror-scape that surrounds them. I was also impressed with their fairly wide variety of shapes, sizes, and wardrobes.
Unfortunately, Them and Us falls short on a technical level. Even after reducing the graphics to “Very Low” I was rarely able to achieve more than 20-30 fps. After sharing my woes in the community forums, I was informed by others, including one of the developers, that this often occurred when the application defaulted to the PC’s integrated graphics rather than the system’s higher-power GPU (in my case an RTX 3060 Ti). However, even after forcing the game to favor my card in the Nvidia control panel, the problem persisted. Other suggested remedies, such as deleting and reacquiring config files and even renaming the executable, were of no use.
I am not a programmer by any means, but it is likely much of this comes from the fact that Them and Us was created using the aging Unreal Engine 3. The end result was an extremely choppy gameplay experience with ugly visuals and long loading times. I shuddered with fear — not from the creepy crawlies thirsting for my blood, but from my framerate dropping to single digits any time I approached an open flame.
Besides mediocre graphical fidelity, Them and Us has other issues as well. Early in the game an enemy type is introduced that can only be damaged by first splashing it with holy water. However, doing so requires you to perform a one-second animation before regaining control of your weapons, leaving you helpless for what seems like an eternity. The enemy can still attack you during this time. Zombies like to “play dead” (is that possible?) and provide you with a limited window to run up and do some damage before they become “aware.”
However, there are points where, no matter how much you hack and slash, they remain stationary until “activated” by a triggering event, like the player picking up a specific item. Many of the story items found throughout the game contain poorly written text riddled with errors, though this might be attributed to an imperfect translation. Some of these qualms might not seem very troublesome at first, but become more apparent the further into the game one delves.
Still, Them and Us has its heart in the right place. The atmosphere and constant sense of dread will keep you on your toes, as will your dwindling ammo and the growing bestiary of enemy types that stand between you and freedom. Its story and tone clearly take inspiration from Amnesia: The Dark Descent, which is a good thing. However, technical shortfalls on a system that is more than capable of handling the load neutered the entire experience for me. Buyer beware: you’re in for a scare, just not the one you were hoping for.