Crow Country Review - Old School Horror

  • First Released May 9, 2024
  • PC

Crow Country pays loving homage to a golden age of survival horror while distinguishing itself with an enthralling story, excellent world design, and creative puzzles.

Crow Country is coated in a murky green veneer that gives the impression you're playing it on a grainy CRT TV in one of your friend's bedrooms back in 1996. The polygonal figure of its protagonist, Special Agent Mara Forest, with her visible joints and single block of purple hair, harks back to any number of PlayStation-era character designs. Similarly, Crow Country's environments look wonderfully pre-rendered, lavished in extra detail that sits in stark contrast to its simple, blocky characters. These aren't the static backgrounds of yesteryear, however, but fully interactive playgrounds that add a modern tinge to Crow Country's distinctly retro sensibilities.

This affectionate nostalgia is in service of a game that pays loving homage to landmark titles of the survival horror genre while also boldly standing on its own two feet. Resident Evil is Crow Country's most obvious influence, but traces of Silent Hill and Alone in the Dark also stalk the darkest corners of its '90s-inspired horror. It can be a tad too authentic at times, featuring unwieldy combat that's tempting to ignore completely, but this is still a true advert for the joys of retro-modern survival horror when executed well.

Set in 1990, your first taste of the titular Crow Country occurs when Mara pulls into its parking lot in a white facsimile of a Volkswagen Polo. Crow Country is a decrepit, abandoned theme park that's both dense and labyrinthine despite its small scale--as if designed by the same architect who worked on The Spencer Mansion and Racoon City Police Station. Mara is here following up on a missing person's report for the park's owner, Edward Crow, but it doesn't take long before she's unraveling the park's deepest secrets and most intriguing mysteries.

Crow Country
Crow Country

The story unravels out of chronological order as you discover notes left behind by employees, read old newspaper clippings, and interact with a small cast of relatable NPCs. It's expertly paced, with sharp writing that's self-aware and includes plenty of nods to both gaming and horror tropes without feeling corny. Discovering what happened in the two years since the park closed down propels the story forward, and it sticks the landing with a memorable ending. Crucially, Crow Country also doesn't follow a familiar pattern despite being a pastiche of genre classics in almost every other facet of its design. There's no zombie outbreak or missing wife, and the theme park setting is a refreshingly unfamiliar location, capturing the same kind of uncertainty that the first Resident Evil achieved in 1996.

There are monsters in the form of aberrant Cronenberg-esque designs that range from bipedal shamblers to amorphous blobs. Their origins are tragic, tracing back to human hubris and greed, but you can also play the entire game without them. Crow Country offers two modes of play: Survival and exploration. The latter removes any trace of the park's enemies so you can focus on exploration and puzzle solving, which gives you a good idea of where the game's priorities lie.

During survival mode, the park gradually fills with grotesque creatures as you delve further into the game's story. In true survival horror fashion, you can avoid most enemy encounters by simply running past them, conserving your limited supply of ammo in the process. This has the knock-on effect of populating the park with extra creatures, but the presence of more enemies never feels problematic, and I only bothered engaging in combat if they were directly impeding a puzzle.

This is partly because the survival aspect of Crow Country is relatively easy. Unless you're fighting absolutely every enemy or aren't thoroughly exploring, ammo is plentiful enough, and the same is true of med kits and antidotes. There also aren't a lot of genuine threats to your life. The small, skittish Pinochio-esque creatures are surprising at first because they're fast, and the rattle of bones that accompanies the strangely elongated skeletons might tempt you to nope the hell out, but both are rare and simple enough to breeze past that they never pose much danger. You won't find a pack of zombie dogs bursting through a window or encounter deadly frog-like creatures in tight corridors, so the sense of challenge is severely lacking. Inventory management--normally a staple of the genre--is also notable for its absence. Instead of having to carefully pick which items and weapons to take with you, you can go into the final boss fight with all four firearms fully stocked, further diminishing any sense of reward when it comes to the game's combat.

Another reason you might avoid combat entirely is that it isn't particularly engaging. Crow Country is played from an intimate isometric viewpoint with free camera movement, immediately making it more palatable than the games it's inspired by. That said, aiming and shooting with an isometric camera feels deliberately awkward and clunky, especially because you're aiming both horizontally and vertically. You're locked in place when doing so, which at least makes you vulnerable and adds an element of tension as you fiddle with your laser pointer, but taking down enemies is still straightforward even when the controls are fighting against you. There's a natural progression of weapon unlocks as you start with Mara's service pistol before acquiring a shotgun, magnum, and flamethrower. Apart from some weapons dealing more damage than others, however, there isn't a palpable difference in feel between each one, so their impact is largely dulled.

Despite these shortcomings, Crow Country still manages to establish a creepy atmosphere as you navigate the park's various nooks and crannies. It might be an ominous low hum or the comforting--yet somehow still offputting--music playing in every save room, but the game's score does an excellent job of building tension with music reminiscent of the era. The dilapidated theme park setting is also a significant part of the game's overall charm, whether you're exploring the aquatic zone with its imported sand and fake starfish, rushing past the fairy forest's abundance of giant mushrooms, or skulking through the haunted town to reach a spooky mansion and underground crypt. The janky animatronics and pervasive crow-theming would be eerie even before introducing monsters, broken glass, and ominous blood spatter to the equation.

Each zone is distinct and memorable enough that navigating the park is a breeze. It also helps that the entire map's layout is incredibly intuitive. After walking up a miniature version of Disneyland's Main Street, you come to an open square that acts as the park's centerpiece, with doorways splitting off into all three zones. The map is open-ended, encouraging you to slowly expand your access to different areas by venturing back and forth to find all sorts of clues and items. Interconnected shortcuts through staff rooms and back offices remove the tedium of backtracking, and the park gradually begins to fold back in on itself, revealing a hidden depth that belies its relatively small scale. It's inherently satisfying to unearth a new doorway leading to a previous area where you now have the items needed to solve a puzzle and make even more progress, and Crow Country is teeming with rewarding moments like this.

The puzzles themselves are fun to solve, too, expertly toeing the line between befuddling and condescendingly easy. Employee notes and company memos sometimes provide hints, but most solutions derive from logic and common sense--even if the former is a distinct flavor of survival horror logic. The map's smaller scale works in its favor here as well, with many of the puzzles being quite self-contained. The items you need to solve a particular conundrum are often nearby, and even if you have to venture further afield, it never takes too long to get back. The puzzle designs are also delightfully varied, tasking you with playing specific notes on a piano to open hidden compartments, uncover a key by melting an animatronic's head with acid, and solve a riddle using the names on various gravestones while a skeletal arm waves a shotgun in your face.

Crow Country pays homage to a golden era of survivor horror without relying on simple mimicry. It's simultaneously familiar and yet unfamiliar, touching on tropes and genre trappings while utilizing modern techniques to enhance the experience and make it more approachable for newcomers. It's not a particularly challenging game, and combat is dull and unwieldy, but this aspect of the game is easy enough to ignore, especially when there's an enticing theme park full of secrets and rewarding puzzles to delve into. The story is also surprisingly rich, telling a captivating tale with smart writing and a memorable ending. Crow Country is clearly lovingly crafted, resulting in a nostalgic throwback that manages to avoid feeling derivative. It does justice to the games that inspired it, but it's also a fantastic game in its own right.

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The Good

  • Its visual style lovingly harkens back to the '90s
  • An intriguing story that sticks the landing
  • The world design is intuitive and rewards exploration
  • Puzzles are inventive and fun to solve

The Bad

  • Combat is clunky and lacks any sort of challenge
  • The absence of resource management is too forgiving

About the Author

Richard finished Crow Country in five hours, discovering all 15 hidden secrets and achieving a final A rank. Review code was provided by the publisher.