Another zombie game, then. I’m so glad that the market for those wasn’t oversaturated over ten years ago. It’s about time someone resurrected this long-dead genre for VR! Hoho, of course, I’m joking. Zombies are now so overused and beyond cliché that even my making this intro point about them has been inducted into the videogame journalism hall of shame.
On the Quest alone we’ve already got a ridiculous amount of zombie-themed titles, some better than others. Where does Propagation: Paradise Hotel get off, thinking that it can just waltz in here talking tough and expecting to be heard above the crowd? Well…
AN EVIL INFLUENCE
The thing which is immediately apparent is that Propagation clearly takes its main cues from the original Resident Evil titles. The survival horror ones, you know, pre-RE4. The spooky hotel setting, full of locked doors, puzzles and shuffling undead twats, has all the trappings of a classic Resident Evil game. It’s not a background flavour either – from the use of the first aid spray to the save game room music channelling Resident Evil 2 pretty hard,
Propagation doesn’t so much wear its influences on its sleeve as much as wear an Umbrella onesie and prance around a mansion proclaiming itself the Master of Unlocking. This could of course be a foolhardy move, especially given that not only is the Quest swimming in zombie games, but also – an actual Resident Evil title, the sublime Quest version of RE4, is one of the very best games on the system already. Propagation has to be pretty bloody good to stand out, and I’m happy to report that, by and large, it hits the mark. With a few caveats, as ever.
THE DOOR WAS LOCKED
I’ll try hard to avoid spoilers. The basic premise is that you play Emily, one of two sisters working in a hotel, an already creepy old building which, at the outset of the game, is a few days into holding out against a zombie plague at the outset of the game.
When the game begins you’re holed up in the kitchen, running out of food, accompanied by another survivor, a security guard who kindly teaches you how to use a gun before asking for it back. (Who can guess what might happen to him after the prologue?) When Emily hears via the radio that her sister is alive and hoping for a military rescue, she heads out into the depths of the hotel to find her. And thus begins a classic survival horror scenario; key and keycards must be found, puzzled must be unpuzzled, drawers and cupboards must be raided for health, batteries and ammo, and the undead must be re-deaded.
AIM FOR THE HEAD
It’s nothing particularly ground-breaking or original, but you know there’s a lot to be said for some games which set out to make a decent, solid experience rather than change the world. And Propagation is a confident, largely solid attempt at a first-person horror game. The overall amount of polish is commendable for a Quest game. Interactions between hands, inventory objects and the world are pleasingly convincing, and certainly better than a lot of other, more expensive and more hyped titles. A lot of thought and work has gone into the way that things fit together, giving the player enough agency that it still feels like a VR game, but guiding and locking interactions enough so that it sidesteps a lot of the usual jank.
The three resources that have to be managed – health, ammo and batteries for the flashlight – are all dealt with by the same, context-aware system and it becomes second nature within minutes. Levers, switches, keys and number pads are lovely to use and it all just feels right, most of the time. The puzzles are great, and there’s one brilliant example which manages to blend text clues, the environment and even a zombie fight, and it’s pretty much a best-in-genre example of how to execute a puzzle in a game like this.
BY THE PRICKING OF MY THUMB
The game soon settles into a flow state of opening doors and creeping around, with flashlight and gun drawn. The combat isn’t particularly challenging, but the gunplay is very well realised and chunky; you’ll always feel a sense of dread when zombies lurch towards you, which is no mean feat in an overcrowded and familiar genre. There are some genuinely creepy and scary moments in here to keep your pants the wrong side of brown, even if the beats that it hits are well-worn. The sound design is truly excellent, from the creaking of the hotel to the groans of the undead bellends. There’s always something to unnerve in the gloomy halls of this old place, and that is how it should be.
The music is sublime. Like the rest of the game, the soundtrack dances with practically every trope of the genre but it does so with grace, poise, and the unashamed objective of creating dread and unease at every opportunity, either by its bombast or its absence.
I’ve very few complaints about the actual gameplay. For the most part, it’s one of the better story-based horror games in VR by some way. I’m not entirely happy about the fact that the core things are managed via physical interaction – guns on hip and back, resources in bumbag, torch on breast pocket – but the inventory is a button-press menu, one which clips through the scenery and is a bit of an immersion-breaker. This brings us to the main reason I’m not giving Propagation a higher score, even though I really like it.
ALMOST A JILL SANDWICH
The one bit of Resident Evil’s twisted, mutated DNA that I really, really wish that Propagation didn’t share is that it often fumbles moments of drama with poor scene-setting and awful acting. Two of the peripheral characters in the game sound so stilted and weird that I suspected for a while that they might have been generated by AI.
The player character, Emily, fares a little better with the performance but the direction is often way off, like the actor hasn’t been given any context for her lines at all. If she sounded like a desperate survivor dealing with unimaginable amounts of shit because she wants to find her sister, it would be far stronger than what we mostly have here. She often sounds smug and quippy when she really shouldn’t, and I’m sure that isn’t the intention. Even worse, there are a couple of occasions in which the scene is completely ruined by the timing of the dialogue – early on when one of her friends dies after a battle with something horrible, Emily starts talking about them being dead as she is standing over them before they’ve even expired, and it jars to the point of making her appear truly heartless. This is one aspect of the game that appears unpolished and unfinished, and it’s a shame. It’s not hokey enough to be good for comedy value, as with the earlier Resident Evil titles; it’s just a bit shit. The story is slight but otherwise well-told, and it deserves better realisation than this. With better cues and actors this could really be elevated to being a solid 9. I could certainly put Wanadev in touch with some decent voice-over artists cough
YOU TALK TOO MUCH
Propagation: Paradise Hotel is a well-made tribute to classic survival horror, with neat gunplay, solid mechanics, some great puzzles and magnificent amounts of atmosphere. Its running time will put some off, at around three hours, but at the very decent price of 15 quid, it provides pretty good value for what it is. There are longer (and more expensive) zombie narrative experiences out there, but Propagation will not leave you feeling short-changed, and there’s so much entertainment here that it’s a recommendation for sure. Just don’t let those bad voices and pacing issues put you off.