Adventure gamers looking for something off the beaten path get more than they bargain for in Outcry. This point-and-click exercise in the surreal from Russian developer Phantomery Interactive is certainly a step removed from the norm, but it's also so relentlessly strange and impenetrable that it's nearly impossible to play. Style has been elevated over substance in every aspect of the design, resulting in a trippy game that's appealing only for its bizarre atmosphere, philosophical pretensions, and striking visuals.
Even the basic storyline is tough to figure out, because you're given little to go on. The game begins with the anonymous protagonist (you have to check the manual to find out that you're a "middle-aged writer") receiving a letter from his estranged brother. Apparently your brother is a scientist working on a "paramount experiment that unlocks new horizons of human cognition" and involves getting "in precise sync with inner frequencies." The letter he sends you is tangled and nonsensical, and it hurls you into the game knowing precisely zip about what you're supposed to be doing. Getting the news that your brother has disappeared is the only part of the game's opening that is the slightest bit understandable. Various documents and recordings left around his abandoned residence seem to indicate that his experiment involved ancient megaliths, time travel, checking out alternate dimensions, separating human consciousness from the body, coming up with a recipe for really great salsa...that sort of thing. You eventually uncover a grab bag of goofiness about ancient secrets and the nature of reality. Still, none of it really connects. Either something was lost in the translation from the original Russian, or the storyline was just too New Agey in the first place.
What the game loses in lucidity it gains in an inspired presentation. Outcry's visuals are downright hallucinogenic. Every scene is overlaid with an aging filter loaded with dark sepia tones, skips, a main light source that dims and shines like a strobe effect, and other film flaws that make it seem as though you're viewing a long-lost movie reel. Some scenes are even in black and white. Because this layer is placed between your first-person perspective and the backdrops of the adventure, everything seems like a dream or an old memory. Nothing establishes a particular time or place, either. Everything around you is decrepit--one of the first things you see in your brother's house is an old gramophone--but it's hard to say for sure what year it is despite references to the early 20th century, such as notes mentioning Sigmund Freud's "new" theories. The rooms are so dingy and the machinery is so rusted that they appear to have been abandoned centuries ago. It could be yesterday, it could be 1920, or it could be who knows when, which is an unsettling notion that goes hand in hand with the surreal story to keep you off-kilter throughout the game.
Poorly presented puzzles also keep you off balance, though not in a good way. The game mixes traditional adventure puzzles involving collecting and combining items with set-piece logic brain-twisters where you twirl valves, pull levers, and crack codes, but there is zero feedback provided for your efforts. It's nearly impossible to determine if you're on the right track, because the protagonist never says a word and the interface doesn't offer up any information about your surroundings. There's no indication that you've solved a puzzle, and when you click valves or levers into the right position you never receive "You've done it!" triggers like green flashing lights or the noise of a door opening in the distance. Instead, to check on your progress, you have to run off to see if the door has opened, the water has been turned on, the stairs have moved into place, and so forth. Not fun.
Interacting with objects is just as frustrating. Items that can be picked up look exactly the same as those that form part of the immobile scenery. Pixel hunts are necessary in every location you visit, and it's extra tedious here because those stylish, old-timey visuals make everything so dark and grimy that it's almost impossible to spot everything during your first run-through. You constantly find yourself backtracking to pick up objects that you have overlooked. Even worse, many items cause the cursor to change to indicate that they can be interacted with in some way, but they don't actually do anything. In the usual adventure game, such situations often provoke a quip from the hero indicating what you need to do to use the object in question. Here, though, nothing happens at all. There are no comments from the mute protagonist and no text tips from the game itself.
One example of this can be found early in the second chapter when you're trying to assemble the scattered pieces of a key. The last piece is right in front of you in one scene, and it looks like you can simply reach out and grab it. But when you try to do so, nothing happens. There is no note that you can't quite reach the component and no suggestion that you need a little help. So good luck determining that you need to take an apparently unrelated item from elsewhere in the level, lock it in a vise, bend it with a hammer into the shape of a hook, and then use this impromptu tool to grab the key part. You're always left to muddle through on your own, which is often impossible without help from a walk-through or a gang of similarly befuddled adventure gamers on a forum.
Clues are present, although they tend to be buried in the text-heavy diaries, random scraps of paper, and academic textbooks that your brother left scattered all over the place. This forces you to wade through a ton of dull science-speak about everything from botany to ancient megaliths. Just about everything is written in an awkward style, and the diary entries are accompanied by stilted spoken dialogue read phonetically by someone whose sole experience with English seems to have been watching Simpsons reruns on Moscow Channel 4. These sections are so annoying that they distract you from reading the lines on your own. Thankfully, you can ditch them by turning off the sound effects (you lose everything this way, not just the vocals, although this isn't much of a sacrifice since the game is almost silent) and just leaving on the moody, piano-heavy musical score.
Outcry is weird with a capital "W," as thick with atmosphere as a snowy night in St. Petersburg, deeply pretentious, and mind-bogglingly incomprehensible. Like a piece in one of its own puzzles, you can pick Outcry up, but good luck figuring out what to do with it.