So much of Perception relies on its core premise of a blind protagonist. The environments, enemies and tools the player encounters are all designed towards this end. It’s disappointing then that the game undermines itself at almost every turn, making you blind but giving you the tools to see, offering exploration while also giving you a magic ability to see the next objective through walls. It’s this refusal to fully commit which ends up being Perception’s main downfall. Luckily though, interesting storytelling and a truly terrifying atmosphere redeem it somewhat.
In Perception you take on the role of Cassie. In the opening minutes of the game you’re given an option to choose between her being chatty or quiet, something which made me question how likeable she would end up being. Despite being blind, Cassie can use echolocation to essentially see her surroundings and make out objects. This superhuman ability is introduced via a short piece of dialogue which doesn’t really go far enough to explain exactly why this blind girl can see a desk fan 20 feet away from her just by tapping her cane on the ground. It’s this echolocation which allows the player to navigate the environments, painting the immediate area in a ghostly blue mist. I love the art direction behind this feature but find myself wondering whether it undermines the core premise of the game. By tapping the cane on the ground, you can essentially see better than you would with a flashlight in other horror games. For a game which centres around a blind girl, it shows you an awful lot.
There is a penalty for over-using this cane-tapping superpower however. Make too much noise and an enemy called the Presence will start stalking you. Honestly, this mechanic seems like more of a means to an end rather than an interesting addition to the gameplay as it mostly just discourages you from cheating the game. If you are found and killed by this ghostly creature you are placed back in the foyer of the house. Due to the environments being mostly darkness it can be pretty difficult finding your way back to where you died. The addition of patrolling enemies later on in the game only solidify this difficulty further.
The sound-design is one area in which Perception really shines. From the sound of Cassie’s cane tapping against each surface, to the modulated voice of The Presence, the game relies on sound to set it’s atmosphere. They say that when you lose one sense your others get heightened and perhaps this is the case here. Due to the environments being so dark and difficult to navigate, the sounds of footsteps on snow and doors creaking overhead demand a lot more of your attention. Old radios emit a blanket of gentle light as they crackle away, lighting up the environments ever so slightly. It’s the small details which really struck me in Perception, the way the wind moves through the mansion, lighting up all in it’s path or the way a grandfather clock sways and shakes in the distance. There’s a quiet beauty to the whole thing which makes the game all the more unsettling.
Perception was created by ex-Bioshock developers and it’s pretty clear to see. There’s a heavy emphasis on audio diaries and the now iconic use of vintage music to set a creepy tone. The characters too, wouldn’t be out of place in Rapture with their over-the-top desires and eccentric nature.
The game plays out within an abandoned mansion and the story is mostly told through memory sequences triggered by certain objects. The narrative is broken up into a series of vignettes which all have the common thread of the house piecing them together. Some stories are more effective than others but they are all unique and interesting in their own way. Finding out what happened to the previous inhabitants is the sole motivation for pushing on so it’s good that the storytelling is strong throughout.
Objectives mostly involve moving through the mansion, opening doors, collecting objects and pressing switches. It’s pretty uninspiring stuff but is given some charm by the use of blind-specific tools which help Cassie make sense of certain objects. For one, there’s a text-to-speech app which you can use to scan specific items. There’s also an app which allows Cassie to send a picture to a service which will describe what they are seeing to her. These are situational tools mind, you can’t interact with the majority of the house’s contents.
As a main character, Cassie is pretty likeable, though her initial reactions to the swath of paranormal events happening right before her eyes are a little reserved. She seems genuinely concerned about what happened to the previous inhabitants, perhaps even dangerously so. The aforementioned inhabitants are wonderfully zany and unique, each one adding character and depth to the mansion by adding their own personal touches to it. Perception hops across multiple time periods but never goes all in on the setting. The game instead opts for a more reserved approach by swapping out a few objects each time the time period changes. This is largely due to the echolocation-view not providing a huge amount of colour and detail.
Perception is one of those games which is so much better on paper. The act of exploring a mansion when you’re sight is extremely limited is a bold idea to try to make interesting and I commend the developers for trying. Unfortunately Perception’s unwillingness to fully commit to the mechanics it puts so front and centre leads it to fail in what it is trying to achieve. An overabundance in hand-holding, the ease of puzzles and the little motivation the game gives to exploration of its environments make it a very difficult game to persevere with. But persevere you should, as Perception’s story and characters are what gives the game life and heart in spite of the unfriendly game play.