App Reviewed on: iPad Air 2
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I like a good spooky game, so when I saw that DISTRAINT: Pocket Pixel Horror had come out on the App Store, I was pretty excited. Upon playing it though, I'm not sure that words like “spooky” or “horror” are fitting for a game like DISTRAINT. While there are some jump scares and macabre imagery, DISTRAINT is more of a morality play masquerading as a scary adventure game. That's not a bad thing, but it certainly is unexpected.
A dark path
DISTRAINT puts you in control of a young man named Price who is trying to make a name for himself at the company he works for. In order to do that, he takes on the unenviable job of seizing people's properties when they are no longer able to pay for them. DISTRAINT begins just as the emotional toll of this job starts catching up with him.
What follows is a series of dark and surreal scenes of Price's struggles with his life decisions that you play out in the form of a 2-D adventure game. You wander between new properties by using virtual buttons and have to do some light puzzle-solving using items or talking to people you encounter along the way. To try and live up to the “horror” in the game's title, DISTRAINT shrouds its gameplay in darkness and adds some hallucinations, jump scares, musical stingers, and strange encounters to try and keep you on your toes.
When I say that DISTRAINT isn't very scary, that's partially because of how the game looks. Its pixel art style presents characters as goofy cartoons that wiggle across the screen as they walk, which prevents anything they do from feeling particularly threatening. In addition, DISTRAINT's writing doesn't necessarily reflect a tone that's appropriate for a horror game. There are moments where the game's writing sucks any sort of tension out of a scene by having a character deliver a joke in the middle of it.
It's a strange approach, for sure, but one that makes DISTRAINT almost more interesting than it would be if it was just a straightforward horror game. I wouldn't say that this approach makes DISTRAINT's story better than it might be otherwise (in fact, there are some big storytelling issues present in the game), but there's something about the game's schizophrenic mood shifts that makes you curious to see more of it.
A few dark spots
DISTRAINT is certainly a curious game, but its issues extend beyond its eccentric stylings. For starters, the game is extremely dark. It's hard to see just about anything on the screen without your brightness turned up. The game is also surrounded by gigantic black bars to frame its scenes, making for a game where only about a third of your screen is displaying the action.
Speaking of action, DISTRAINT's pixel art style seems to have a hard time running on mobile devices for some reason. There are times where the game slows down quite a bit, and it's hard to tell if it's because of a framerate issue or a control one. I also had the game's sound bug out on me a couple times when playing. None of these performance issues were particularly game-breaking, but they were noticeable and took me out of the experience when they occurred.
The bottom line
DISTRAINT is far from a perfect game, but some of its problems make it a memorable, and almost endearing, experience. The not-so-fun issues, while present, are minor enough that you can still make your way through the game just fine. As a result, DISTRAINT makes for a unique adventure experience that is more curious than it is scary.