[REVIEW] Devotion – An exquisite Taiwanese hallway horror

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Sometimes, people can accomplish a lot with very little resources. Creating a game with significant impact doesn’t necessarily require a huge team or a pile of cash to burn. The argument that a memorable single-player game needs to be at least eight hours long, stuffed to the max with unique and varied content, can also be easily rebutted. P.T. – Hideo Kojima’s playable teaser of his canceled game Silent Hills – is irrefutable evidence of that, even if it only was a demo. The Taiwanese horror game Devotion provides that same ironclad evidence, mainly because it follows the same recipe. A slightly altered recipe that even got it banned.

Similar to P.T., Devotion is a corridor experience, presenting nothing more than six adjacent rooms in which the entire story unfolds. All we do is walk around and collect snippets of documentation and evidence, telling us who we’re dealing with and – more importantly – what we’re dealing with. The premise of Devotion is clear as day. We mostly roam the scene as Feng Yu, a screenwriter and head to a family of three. His wife – Gong Li Fang – is a retires songstress who takes care of their daughter Du Mei Shin, a young prodigy who aspires to step in her mother’s footsteps.

It becomes quite obvious that the family has had better days. Feng Yu’s career is in a rut and Du Mei Shin is developing alarming symptoms of a disease. To get their financial affairs back on track, Gong Li Fang is considering picking up her career where she left off, to the great displeasure of Feng Yu, who believes that taking care of Mei Shin should be priority number one. The foundation of their marriage is crumbling and we – the player – are seated on the front row to experience the fallout.

This story – and especially the way it is presented by developer Red Candle – is one of the cornerstones of Devotion’s success. Even though the entire screenplay is told through pieces of paper, interactive objects, and Taiwanese voice-overs, it definitely knows how to push the player’s buttons and get the despair of the protagonist across. The desperation becomes even more tangible by the ever-changing state of Feng Yu’s apartment, adapting to the year he’s reminiscing about (respectivly 1980, 1985, and 1986) and the troubles the family is facing at that point in time.

The constantly changing appearance of the scenery – which again only consists out of a single corridor and a five-room apartment – is the second cornerstone of Devotion’s splendor. Utilizing the Unity Engine, Red Candle manages to present a seemingly dull lower-class apartment complex, and make it look absolutely eery by the way it shifts into beautiful surreal forms. It actually does such a good job that the overall vibe of Devotion gets under your skin, not making you fearsome of what you see, but of what you might see when you go around that corner that you’ve been going around for the last hour. Devotion doesn’t even need to rely on a barrage of jump scares and endless waves of gore to make you feel uneasy, although I have to admit that the first jump scare is presented relatively early on and pretty much sets the mood for the rest of the 2-hour experience.

Then again, Devotion needs its fair share of cliche ingredients to make the whole thing tick. A creepy ceramic doll with a huge part to play in the game’s gimmick, unsettling sounds of a groaning entity that lingers around your living room, mannequins that seem to be fixed on your position, and a totally redundant chase scene were added to nudge the player over the edge of discomfort, even if the latter feels weirdly out of place. Simple puzzles are also included in the experience to avoid that Devotion becomes too much of a boring walking sim, even though the puzzles are hardly a challenge.

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Overall, Devotion is absolutely a gem of a psychological horror experience, which unfortunately doesn’t wrap things up properly. For the most part, Devotion builds up the tension majestically, preparing the player for a climax that never comes. Instead, Devotion takes a hard turn at the end, going from being a psychological mindfuck to a sentimental story about a dad who makes weird calls to save his kid daughter the way he sees fit. Of course, it’s no problem to incorporate a certain level of morale into a game like this, but the sudden shift of pace and direction just makes it feel unnatural.

Lastly, Devotion might miss a few marks with Western society. With religion playing a part in the story, Christian players might have some trouble understanding a few of Devotion’s Buddhist statements, although that doesn’t really take away the essence of the message. The biggest issue that some might have is not being able to figure out what the Xi Jinping/Winnie the Pooh reference is, since – for us – it’s not that out in the open. I took quite some time to search for it, extending my gameplay a bit, just to figure out that it’s written on a pamphlet on the wall, which of course most of us can’t read. If you’re eager to find out what pamphlet that is, it’s in the carousel above, near the end. Talking about having the devotion to find it…

Taiwa-nice!
The Yays
Aesthetically pleasing
Great story telling
Accomplished a lot with very little
Really gets under your skin
The Nays
Loses the vibe near the end
The chase scene later on feels redundant
8.5