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Home > The Black Within (2024): A Review

The Black Within (2024): A Review

Terrifying and atmospheric, ‘The Black Within’ is a debut indie game that delivers on the promised scares. | Image courtesy of Wadeezo and Steam

A Promising Start That Drips With Ambience

The debut game of Netherlands-based Yemeni indie game developer Waleedzo, The Black Within transports both its protagonist and its player into a viscerally unsettling world. The game follows the struggling musician, Laila Rose, as she enters into a contract with dark forces, hoping that fame lies at the end of her journey. Though the writing can be a little strange in places, the ambiance more than makes up for it, creating a game that has players constantly on the edge of their seats, holding their breath for fear of what might come next.

Laila’s Home

The Black Within is split into three areas: Laila’s home, Arne’s home, and a cabin in a strange liminal area. Looking at Waleedzo’s Instagram, he has a clear focus on the creation of atmosphere, and that shines here, each spot dripping with its atmosphere. Though players can’t backtrack to an area they’ve already left within the game, certain savepoints can be reloaded from the menu, so it’s easy to revisit a spot if they feel like they haven’t pried all the secrets from it.

Laila’s home is oppressive, dingy, and gray. Looking at the horizon, there are only other boxy, soviet-looking buildings with a highway running above, stretching on until it’s lost in the smog. As players explore her home, there are rats in the public bathroom, and dogs running loose in the halls. A person can understand why she would sign a deal with the devil to escape it. The plot itself doesn’t necessitate players staying there long, but there’s content they can interact with if they so desire, and they’re rewarded with a few jumpscares if they go poking around, a taste of what’s to come. Images with ominous and thematically relevant text are sprinkled throughout the game, and players will miss the first one if they try to run through the game as quickly as possible.

It’s here that players are introduced to the mechanics of The Black Within. They have a flashlight and a lighter, can crouch and sprint, and can even pet a cat if they go to the balcony. The instructions are introduced to the player in a fun and creative way, stuck by a magnet to Laila’s fridge.

Arne’s Home

Laila’s record label manager, Arne Cheyenne, the man providing her with the deal, bids her to come to his home to sign the contract, which allows for Laila to travel from her home to his. Unlike Laila’s tight urban abode, Arne lives in a house in the suburbs. By the time she reaches his house, it’s night. The road is lit by red streetlamps, providing stylistic splashes of color in an otherwise dark world, a trend that continues through the rest of Arne’s house.

 The play of light on the sharp lines of architecture throughout this level gives it a stylistic, cinematic feel, and the vast stretches of darkness, even with the flashlight that the player is provided, feel menacing and dangerous. The sound design heightens the level. There is no music, only the ticking of the clock and the occasional creaking of distant footsteps, so every sound feels intrusive. With every accidental knock on a door or ring of a bell, there’s a flinching feeling that something may have heard the sound. The game at one point necessitates a loud sound; the ringing feels alien as it cuts through the almost-silence.

Arne’s home also has some interesting environmental storytelling baked into it, storytelling that raises questions and adds to the dark ambiance. All the homes in his suburb have normal windows; all except Arne’s. Almost every window in his home has a steel grate across it. As players walk through his home and things begin to unravel, the question only grows: was he trying to keep something out, or was he trying to keep something in? He also clearly had children. There’s a children’s bedroom, a small sink opposite a normal-sized one in the bathroom, and a tiny kitchen counter in the kitchen. However, his house is empty, dirty, and clearly in disrepair. He portrays himself as a big music manager who can bring Laila all the fame she craves, but his home suggests a much different truth.

The Cabin

The final location of The Black Within is a liminal, dreamlike space, a cabin in the middle of the woods. It is bathed in orange light from a distant sun on the horizon in an indeterminate state, neither setting nor rising. The starry sky still hangs above, clouds slowly spinning about it. While it lacks the grim horror of the first two settings, it has a sense of eerie isolation, reminiscent of Campo Santo’s 2016 game Firewatch. It’s just the player, the trees, and a cabin full of secrets. This area is the most in line with the images Waleedzo posts to his Instagram, which is full of lush wooded areas and light filtering through trees.

While the ambiance in this section may have been the best, the flow of action and the items within also felt the least coherent, or at least the least explained. In what has previously been a game focusing on occult rituals, there’s a door that needs a keycard and a high-tech box, which players are told they will need to hack. The most high-tech thing previously seen was a safe that required punching in the password on a keypad, so the shift is a little jarring. This is especially because the rest of the setting is fairly rustic. However, other elements of the cabin are very suited for the final location. It’s the sight of the occult ritual that will secure Laila her fame, and where better to do an occult ritual than an isolated cabin in the middle of the woods?

Characters and Acting

There are two voiced characters in The Black Within: Laila Rose, a woman seeking fame as a pop star, and Arne Cheyenne, her record label manager. Arne is only ever a voice that players hear through a phone. He serves mainly to move the plot forward and exposit things that the player needs to know. While he’s perfectly serviceable, a lot more could have been done with his character; there are a lot of interesting directions a creative could take the sort of man that Arne seems to be. He appears as a man who sold himself long ago to dark powers and has since lost everything but he is still trying to lure others down that path. However, his character isn’t ever really explored.

Arne’s voiced by Edson Camacho, an actor who often works alongside writer and director BC Fourteen and has played the role of Xterminator and Dr Jekyll in several of his works, even playing the titular role in Xterminator and the AI Apocalypse (2023). The role of Arne isn’t exceptionally meaty and some of the lines are written clunkily, but he works with them and delivers a perfectly satisfactory performance.

Laila, as the protagonist, is a character who experiences a much wider range of emotions. Players see her confused, determined, scared, and even sobbing, and voice actor Ally Murphy delivers a dynamic and perfectly emoted performance. Fans of horror video games may recognize Murphy from her role as Betty in Joey Drew Studio’s 2022 sequel to Bendy and the Ink Machine, Bendy and the Dark Revival. Laila’s character isn’t quite as excellently done as her voice actress’s performance; there is a consistent problem throughout the game with the writing. It’s often a little bit awkwardly phrased, can dip into cliché, and the subtitles and onscreen text are frequently misspelled; even the final quote displayed before the credits roll is missing a letter. This problem continues with her dialogue. Looking at only the subtitles, it doesn’t always read naturally, but Murphy makes the lines work.

Room for Improvement

There’s room for improvement in The Black Within; the writing can be distracting, there are immersion-breaking inconsistencies, and the ending feels on the nose and slightly sophomoric. However, it’s also a debut game. In the end credits, the author himself expresses a desire to improve on his journey in game creation. For every spot where the player might find themselves squinting at Latin filler text, there’s a moment where they realize that the clock swings in time with the music. Not only that, but the little issues don’t take away from the atmosphere produced. When the game is at its best, it is lonely, haunting, and dreamy. 

Arne’s house is sure to keep players holding their breath without realizing it, terrified to advance the plot and see what new horrors await them. It’s also hard to be too picky about English, since the game seems to have been a solo project, and English is not Waleedzo’s first language.

Waleedzo has a gift for crafting atmosphere and ambiance, and his skills in that field elevate the game. Furthermore, his skills are certain to heighten all his future projects. There’s room to grow, but, as a debut game, it’s incredibly promising. If he combines the experience he’s accumulated making this game with his preexisting gift for crafting worlds both chilling and beautiful, his next game, The Green Light, is sure to be even better.

For everyone wanting to spend an hour of their life scared of footsteps and statues, The Black Within is available for purchase on Steam now. Waleedzo hasn’t yet given a release date for his next game, The Green Light, so stay tuned for updates!

The Black Within (2024) Official Trailer Courtesy of Waleedzo

Source: Dead Talk Live

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