This psychological horror game is close to home.
Some horror games offer little more than cheap jump-scares and buckets of gore, but Devotion is the kind of psychological horror with the potential to keep you thinking for weeks after you’ve beaten it. It’s expertly-paced and doesn’t stick around long enough for its mechanical simplicity to overstay its welcome, but in that three hours delivers a powerfully unsettling story. And it does it all without ever having a single fully animated character on screen for more than a few seconds.
In Devotion, you take on the role of screenwriter Du Feng Yu as he experiences a surreal journey through the past in order to unravel the threads of what happened to his wife and daughter. Similar to other first-person horror games, like P.T., Devotion mostly takes place in the family’s modest apartment home. It’s a choice of setting that makes room for excellent character development as you discover mementos and items across multiple years within the home, effectively telling the family’s story.
Devotion’s story is so good and full of so much powerful imagery that it’s easy to overlook its claustrophobic environment and simple design. The designers at Red Candle Games have a fine understanding of not only pacing but the importance of keeping horror elements measured and deliberate. There is only one section where you can actually lose, so most of the horror is less about trying not to die and being forced to replay sections and more about twisted imagery, defiled innocence, and profoundly sad moments. Watching a small girl sob before turning into a possessed doll or seeing blood drip from eyeballs dangling from the ceiling is the stuff of nightmares, and it’s conveyed with a potent creepiness thanks to noticeably passionate voice acting and great use of both ominously atmospheric sounds and low, rumbling background noises.
The family home is established as not only a physical place to explore, but also as a metaphor for Du Feng Yu and his family as a whole. As the years progress and you get deeper into Devotion, elements of the apartment become far more troublesome and sinister. The once cleanly organized living room becomes disheveled with religious altars erected and ominous lights hanging from the ceiling. The daughter’s adorable bedroom morphs into a storage place for piles of books. The photos of the wife suddenly have her eyes gouged out.
There is zero wasted space here.
There is so much nuance here that the apartment never really feels like the same location between the different time periods you visit. If anything, noticing the subtle changes in the environment and how it helps tell the story in a more poignant way is a huge part of why Devotion is so effective. Every interactable item, puzzle, horrific scene, and piece of dialogue is directly tied back into the plot to further the story or add to a character’s background. There is zero wasted space here. For example, a blurry photograph might seem trivial when you first come across it, but paying attention to details like this one is crucial in solving puzzles from different eras. I found myself digging into the menus to re-read notes, scribbles on photographs, and other clues to figure out puzzles. From poems and love letters to depressing diary entries, there is a surprising amount of exposition delivered through items in the game world.
For all the clever ways it keeps you engaged with Devotion’s environmental storytelling, emotional flashbacks, and powerful anecdotes, the actual mechanical act of playing is relatively unimpressive and boring. You basically just walk into a room, inspect anything that has a dot on it in your UI, and move on. Like in an old-school point-and-click adventure, if an item is added to your inventory then you know it’s needed to solve a puzzle somewhere else, like having to play a record in a record player.
Likewise, the somewhat-obtuse puzzles combined with an often agonizingly slow walking speed (there’s no run button) made Devotion feel a lot longer than it actually was – but maybe that was part of the point. Since almost nothing is actually as simple as it seems, everything from the way it’s played to the long corridors and lethargic movement feed back into the metaphor of a slow mental decay. However, it caused a bit of actual mental anguish in that even though you can freely move between time periods you’ve already been to, to do so you have to leave the apartment, wait at a loading screen, go back to the lobby, and enter the correct era’s apartment.
In a lot of ways, Devotion is less of a horror game and more of a detective story.
In a lot of ways, Devotion is less of a horror game and more of a detective story. Not until the very end do all the pieces really fall into place of exactly what’s going on and, if you’re anything like me, you’ll probably have a few satisfying “A-ha!” moments along the way. My best word of advice would be to pay attention to every detail and hopefully remember where things are located and in which time period. I got stuck a couple times and it was usually just because I couldn’t remember if an item was in 1980, 1985, or 1986 and spent a lot of time retracing my steps.
There are only a handful of jump scares throughout Devotion, but when they do hit they usually hit very hard thanks to their intensity and the suffocating silence that precedes and follows each of them. And the select few instances of gore are so subdued, yet effective, it made me feel squeamish in ways that the overused ultra-violence of a game like Agony never could.