I never was a real fan of any of the horror games that came out, regardless of platform. I mean I can immerse myself completely on a lot of action shooters, MMOs, MOBAs, and the like, but you can’t have me sit down and play even a few minutes of Fatal Frame; heck even the old Resident Evil games were a no go for me for a while.
Sara is Missing, or SIM. is like a cautionary tale/story that you shouldn’t fiddle with other people’s phone. Most especially if said phone is broken and has a weird AI.
The game adopts the elements that you can find in most found footage stories where instead of finding a random VHS or CD that you watch, you instead find a broken phone. As you try to find out more about the previous owner of the phone, you will then get to realize that this “phone” you found is more than meets the eye.
Most of the gameplay systems in SIM revolve around browsing through the messages of SaraYoung, the missing person that you’re supposed to find. SIM’s interface feels just like a phone, with a lot of screen elements that you’d find in your everyday smartphone. SIM does limit your browsing capabilities by feigning that the phone is already broken and most of the data inside is either lost or corrupted, which is a good enough excuse and fits the game’s narrative.
Gameplay is mostly linear in SIM. You’re forced to browse around Sara’s phone but most of what you can do is focused on trying to find her.
Since SIM is a horror game on a phone, Kaigan Games, the designers, went for a creepy/scary design in the game’s overall look and feel. I love that they were able to make a usual smartphone layout design look creepy.
To add to the game’s creepiness factor, Kaigan Games efficiently used both “phone camera” quality audio and video features to bring in a more harrowing smartphone experience. SIM also uses jump scares, and some really dark/weird videos akin to what you see in scary movies like The Ring.
What SIM also does right is for us to really care for the aforementioned main character. You are given a brief glimpse into who Sara is as you go through her messages and as she interacts with the people around her. Making your character feel human is one of those things that is a hit or miss for Horror films and more often than not makes or breaks said movie. As for SIM, you really get to feel for her as a person. SIM allows you to see how much of a person’s character can be built on with just a few messages and e-mails here and there. And that humanization of the character who you cared so little about at the start of the game makes the whole deteriorating situation feel all the more real, and the conclusion making it feel a bit bleaker than what you’d normally experience from a video game.
However, though SIM is able to properly build all that atmosphere up, the game falls into the same pitfalls you’d expect from a horror game (on its later stages) and well, other found-footage movies. As the situation slowly degenerates in SIM, there were moments that the interactions and reactions of the people involved got sloppier. Some of the more fluid/natural interactions between me and the aforementioned involved people felt forced and takes you out of the setup. On a normal horror game setup, this wouldn’t be too much of a problem because there are still other gameplay elements that can take you back into the whole world you’re sucked into. But SIM, being a smartphone game, this is pretty fatal to the experience. I’m just glad that game moments like these are found in the latter part of the game, when it feels like things are really winding down.
For the most part, Sara is Missing is a game that truly encapsulates the potential that found phone games have for the genre. With a great team behind one, developing titles like these can result in some truly scary experiences. SIM was able to build up the creepy/scary vibe till the end, only stumbling once or twice towards the end. You really feel part of the experience because instead of being just an observer, you are part of the game, and the game was done well enough to make it feel like you’re interacting with it.
With that said though, the emphasis on world building and terror build-up kills the game’s replayability. After the initial playthrough, the terror that you’ve experienced from the start is definitely toned down if not zeroed out. However, that is not really a bad thing because SIM feels like a complete story on its own; SIM is hardly a forgettable game. And in a market that’s overstuffed with sequels, or reimaging of existing titles, SIM gives a refreshing look into the horror genre and hopefully brings out the actual mainstream attention.
SIM is a great example of a complete game that knows its identity as a found phone horror piece. It brought enough tension and sometimes terror (but I guess that’s just my cowardly self) to satisfy the horror cravings for anyone looking for their horror fix. With a few hiccups on the conversations here and there, Kaigan Games was able to bring a horror experience that’s both visceral and personal with SIM. Hopefully (not for me though, cause I have to play them) we get to see more titles from them of the same, or higher caliber than SIM.