Sometimes simple stories can be the most effective, and Stigmatized Property, one of Chilla’s Art’s earlier titles, is a good example of this. It tells a relatively predictable tale, but is nonetheless effective by virtue of how well that tale is delivered — and, as with their other games, what an immersive experience being in the midst of that tale is.
In Stigmatized Property, we play the role of a girl who has been invited over to a friend’s apartment. She’s not entirely sure why and doesn’t appear to be making any sort of inappropriate assumptions about the nature of said visit — this isn’t an anime-styled visual novel, after all — but has nonetheless decided to make the slow trudge through the film grain-filled darkness of her home town’s back alleys and see what’s up.
Upon arrival, she finds that there is no-one home and, smelling a mystery, decides to find a way in to the apartment. From hereon, it’s your job to piece together exactly what happened here — primarily through discovering seven scattered diary pages that have all inconveniently been secured behind some adventure game-style puzzles.
Interestingly, Stigmatized Property plays its “horror” hand quite early by revealing a note from the apartment complex’s landlord seemingly explaining exactly what is going on. Of course, given the nature of what has been written — and the fact that many horror games aren’t necessarily literal in the themes they explore — one might have reasonable cause to doubt the landlord’s story. You’ll just have to solve the mystery for yourself to see if there’s any truth to it, won’t you?
Thematically, the game is based on the popular modern Japanese folklore of “haunted apartments” — the idea that certain apartments are seemingly wonderful places to live with surprisingly cheap rent, but that there is a sinister reason behind their apparent accessibility to youngsters looking for a place to live. It’s an effective theme that is relatable to both eastern and western audiences — everyone wants a nice place to live, after all, and wouldn’t you be at least a little bit suspicious if you were presented with an affordable opportunity to live somewhere that was seemingly beyond your means?
Gameplay-wise, Stigmatized Property will be familiar to anyone who has played one of Chilla’s Art’s adventure-style horror games before. You explore the environment from a first-person perspective, you click on things with convenient glowy markers above them, you try and open doors and if they don’t open, you come back and try again later.
There are actually some interesting puzzles in this one, and the fact the game doesn’t necessarily make things explicit for you makes them all the more satisfying to solve. At one point, for example, you stumble across a key that has been discarded, and it’s not immediately apparent what the key is for; a bit of logical thinking about similar keys you might have seen in real life will soon make the answer to this question painfully obvious, but the nice thing is that the game happily waits for you to figure that out for yourself rather than impatiently telling you what to do if you take too long.
Likewise, the route to the “good” ending of the game makes perfect sense and is extremely obvious if you think about it, but it does require you to go a bit out of your way in order to explore the environment fully if you actually want to follow through on it. The game does at least make it relatively clear when you’ve fulfilled the conditions for the good ending before proceeding; it’s not that cruel, although each playthrough will only take you 30-45 minutes anyway, so it’s not too much of an inconvenience to run through the whole thing again.
While predictable, the story is interesting and well-paced, and the way in which things about the characters involved are gradually revealed over the course of your investigations is excellently done. In a similar manner to what Missing Children does over the course of its narrative, Stigmatized Property allows you to make mental connections between narrative elements in your head at your own pace — and inevitably at some point you’ll find yourself going “ohhh, right” as everything suddenly starts to make a bit more sense. Only a bit, mind; this is still a horror game, after all.
Speaking of horror, like many of Chilla’s Art’s more recent titles, Stigmatized Property places an emphasis on subtle psychological horror through a sense of dread and easily missed changes to the environment over time. There are a couple of minor jump scares over the course of the narrative, but in both cases they have a very obvious lead-up to them so you can prepare yourself somewhat. Elsewhere, the horror comes from the way in which things seem “out of place” — sometimes this is obvious, but at others, there are things that can easily be missed, such as details on the floor texture.
Presentation-wise, it will doubtless come as no surprise to hear that Stigmatized Property adopts the PS2 horror game-style aesthetic that appears to be Chilla’s Art’s favourite way of doing things. The film grain and VHS blurring is heavy on this one, which can make it quite difficult to see at times, but as always the option is there to turn it off — and it’s worth noting that even with it turned on, nothing critical to progressing through the game is hidden somewhere that it would be completely invisible beneath the darkness and the film grain. If you can’t find something you need, you probably need to do something first.
And once again, Stigmatized Property demonstrates Chilla’s Art’s absolute mastery over atmospheric sound design. Ambient noise is used to brilliant effect to highlight the fact that this peculiar story is unfolding in the middle of a perfectly normal town. Off in the distance you can hear cars passing by, people walking and all the other sounds you’d expect to hear in a city at night-time, but up close you’ll hear the buzzing of fluorescent lights, the rustling of vegetation and your lonely footsteps on the concrete floor. The only slight niggle with regard to sound is that the game’s “door closing” sound doesn’t sync up with the animation of doors closing, but this is very much a minor nitpick.
Once again, it’s important to go into Stigmatized Property with appropriate expectations. This is an interactive short story, not a horror game epic; it will take you less than an hour for your first playthrough and a second run if you want to get the other ending (or an achievement that it’s not possible to get on your first run) you’ll doubtless be even quicker. While you’re having that experience, it’s absolutely, completely, delightfully immersive — and like any other short story, it’s something you can easily return to in the future if you just feel like enjoying that tale again.
And, again, it’s a couple of quid. Can’t even buy a magazine for that these days!
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