The 90s were truly a magical time. The world breathed a collective sigh of relief in the West when the Berlin Wall came down. A lot of media was created in this relatively peaceful era. People who grew up in that decade often look back fondly on that era of entertainment, especially with technology exploding, like the TV. Television programs gradually became popular over time, and technology grew along with it. Back then, technical limitations would often disturb your viewing experience. For instance, getting any disturbance might cause some static on your screen. Boreal Tenebrae takes this concept and turns it into a plot point, using it to create a short but enticing mystery story.
The story takes place in a small, peaceful town, with a mill as its main industry. Aside from the animal people living there, it’s an ordinary quiet town, that is, until weird static blocks start appearing all over. Not long after, people start disappearing, including a girl called Sarah. Her sister Bree launches an investigation to try to find out what happened to her and the rest of the townsfolk. Players will also play as other characters, like Nicole and her boyfriend Chad. The goal is to find the horrors hidden in the town and find out the truth about Sarah.
Discussing the story, it doesn’t have a lot going on when considering the gameplay and atmosphere. Does that make the story bad? Absolutely not, it’s still gripping and enticing, but we’ll discuss the rest of the story later. For now, one thing should be known: the ending is bad. The reason why will be understood upon reaching the end, but the Steam page for the game does say it’s Act I, so we can look forward to more content soon. This doesn’t save the game’s ending; as a result, the story is quite incomplete overall.
As a mystery game, the gameplay isn’t complicated. Expect to walk around the town, trying to find clues to what’s really going on. Players will explore many locations, from a regular gas station or factory to distorted, creepy landscapes, each time from different perspectives, observing the area, finding clues and objects to aid in the investigation. The game is short, only 2-3 hours of playtime, so boredom is unlikely.
Exploration and Puzzles
The game makes players run to various locations around the warped town, along the way, talking to NPC’s and gathering items. Using these items at the right time will be important to progress. All the playable characters share the same inventory. A lot of trial and error is involved with item selection, and items that aren’t useful anymore stay in the inventory, clogging up space.
One of the first items received is the Old Mirror, it allows players to warp back to Bree’s home at almost any time. Bree’s home serves as a hub world. At home, players can listen to cassette tapes or talk to Bree’s sleep talking dad. He gives handy hints on what to do to progress. Lastly, the TV allows warping to previously visited levels. It can be used to replay certain scenes or find anything that was missed. Overall, Bree’s house makes for a great quality of life addition that prevents her search from becoming frustrating.
Players can stumble upon cassettes to play back recordings at home. Players can also get access to a Walkman later in the game, allowing the protagonist to listen while on the go, but the main collectables in Boreal Tenebrae are memories. When able to access a camera, start looking for strange patterns on the ground, while standing on these spots, a prompt will show up to use the camera, afterwards, look around to find a symbol in the area. Take a picture of one to obtain a memory. Expect to re-equip the camera constantly when misaligned, which may become quite annoying. When you do get the picture of the symbol, you can go to the pawn shop to view the associated cutscene.
When booting up the game, the art style is the thing that sticks out the most. It’s inspired by 90s television to homage that era of entertainment, with a creepy twist to make the game stand out. There’s a reason why it won the prize for Best Art Direction at the Canadian Game Awards in 2021.
Cutscenes and Story Structure
Most of the story is told through non-voiced text boxes, with a sprite accompanying the character talking, the exceptions to this being the recorded tapes and memories. The former are mostly recordings of Bree, telling about her search for Sarah. Sarah’s memories are fully voiced cutscenes carrying the game’s visual style. All the voice actors do a pretty good job with their performances.
These are the main ways the game explains the events before the main story. The way it tells the present isn’t as conventional. The plot constantly switches perspectives, and not always in the right order. As such, putting together a timeline is impossible. While it helps the game’s mysterious atmosphere, it makes the story chaotic. As a whole, the messy narrative requires you to fill in the blanks with your imagination, which might not be everyone’s cup of tea. It does help the mysterious aspect of the game, which is undoubtedly its main strength. It uses its vague plot to an advantage to create an unnerving atmosphere that perfectly engrosses players in its world. This aspect is only aided by its score and visuals.
Visuals, Performance, and Music
The game is filled to the brim with imagery that references good ol’ nineties TV, like time codes for instance. Boreal Tenebrae is sure to send players back to the past. The models and environments are varied and nice looking, aside from the grotesqueries which are quite disturbing looking. They will surely keep the eyes of players occupied at all times. The background tunes aren’t lacking either, as they’re perfect for setting the scene for both calm moments and ominous events, cassettes can be quite loud, with no option to change the volume configuration.
Unfortunately, the game does have a handful of glitches. This is mainly the UI breaking apart, from the screen going black, or not being able to select options in the menu, these were quite irritating. I had to fix them by either pressing every button on the controller or restarting the game. Not being able to use the D-pad in the menus is also annoying. Aside from that, the game performed quite well.
Boreal Tenebrae has an outstanding visual presence that makes the experience worthwhile. From start to finish, it’s an aesthetically pleasing and euphonious experience. The mysterious vibes it gives carries its story, making it an awesome, yet creepy, experience. Unfortunately, Boreal Tenebrae is held back slightly by its unoriginal gameplay, incomplete story, and inconsistent performance, but it’s still worth a try. The game is cheap and takes around two and a half hours to beat, but it’s worth checking out.
Boreal Tenebrae gets a 7.5/10.