Have you ever wanted to be a private investigator, or an eager journalist hunting down that big scoop? On paper, The Painscreek Killings appears to provide players with an opportunity to do just that.
Centring on the mystery around Vivian Roberts’s death, you play as a reporter exploring the long since abandoned village of Painscreek. The game takes place around the village, along with frequent visits to its surprisingly extensive medical centre, as well as the imposing mansion at the other end. For an urban location abandoned for many years, everything is remarkably well preserved, giving the impression that everyone left in a hurry. This has the strange effect of making you feel you’re exploring a village subjected to some kind of viral outbreak, rather than merely the site of an unsolved murder.
The Painscreek Killings stresses that its gameplay “mimics real-world investigation”, and whilst that may be true, it isn’t necessarily a good thing. Providing gameplay that is “realistic” doesn’t automatically make it good, and that becomes painfully apparent after playing for a couple of hours. The story is minimal and spread across Painscreek for you to find in any order you wish. This will often be in the form of someone’s written diary, a note, or coming across a room where something important has occurred.
Your editor has assigned you with the task of finally solving the mystery of the village, and finding these written pieces is what builds your case. By game’s end you need to provide the name of whom you believe to be the killer, what the murder weapon was, and a photograph for the front page. To help you with this task you are equipped with a notebook that will collect bits of information, and your camera, to capture that important front-page photo.
The biggest obstacle between you and the truth is Painscreek itself. The village holds all the secrets and often those secrets are behind locked doors, with the corresponding key hiding at some seemingly random place elsewhere. The village simultaneously provides the game with its greatest strength and weakness. It’s been carefully crafted and feels like a real village with winding streets emerging over time as more buildings are revealed. It’s a fine display of what can be achieved with the Unity engine.
However, it is because of this impressive detail that the performance is dragged down. Since release, Painscreek has received multiple patches addressing performance, but I still had to turn the detail right down to get some semblance of stability. It’s a shame, since the detail lavished on the village is fantastic.
Painscreek’s commitment to “realistic” detective work mostly sees you schlepping back and forth through the village, searching for written clues. This slow pace can become especially painful if you’re fighting against frame rates to do it. The latter part of the game attempts to mix things up with some new elements, but this can feel out of place with the rest of the experience on offer.
However, the game largely ends when you want it to; a blessed relief if you’re not the sort of detective who favours a long, drawn-out denouement.
Once you feel you have enough evidence to make an informed decision, you can make your way to the village exit. Upon leaving, you can identify who you think the killer is, what their murder weapon was, and select an accompanying photograph. After doing so the game will then grade you based on how close you were to identifying the truth. If of course, you are far from the correct answer, you can load up the last save and resume investigating some more, there is no punishment for failure here.
Those wanting a pure detective challenge will certainly find that here (providing their computer can run it), but The Painscreek Killings is definitely not a game for most fans of detective games. This is a game that abandons you as soon as you enter Painscreek leaving you only with your own initiative to solve the mystery. Whilst this can be ultimately gratifying, the journey and your own patience will be your strongest foes during your time in Painscreek.