Crow Country Review: A Retro Survival Horror Game That Pleasantly Coasts on Nostalgia

For better and for worse, Crow Country goes down smoothly.

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Crow Country
Photo: SPB Games

To call SFB Games’s Crow Country pleasant would seem to clash with its horror setting, which is played reasonably straight. The game’s setting is an abandoned amusement park, whose ransacked corridors are now home to a horde of rotting mutants. But Crow Country nonetheless exudes a rather cozy atmosphere, with its lo-fi style bathing this house of horrors in a warm glow of nostalgia. The colors pop beneath a hazy PS1-esque filter, and the textures are smooth and shiny, reminiscent of early 3D’s plasticene aesthetics.

Blood pools beneath monsters in a perfect, shimmering circle, and characters like the game’s protagonist, Mara Forest, are squat and cartoonish, more of a piece with the 3D polygonal models from the original Final Fantasy VII than the more realistic character models from the horror touchstones of the PS1 era like Resident Evil or Silent Hill. From the overhead camera perspective, everything looks a bit like a toy diorama as Mara makes her way deeper into the park, with the living things not too far removed from the constructed attractions.

Broken up into interconnected areas with distinct themes like Fairytale Town or Haunted Hilltop, the scenery and puzzles scarcely repeat themselves throughout Mara’s journey. And through it all, the mutants you encounter are in a constant state of deterioration, with some late-game creatures little more than vaguely sentient piles of gore. Yet even these formless monsters can kill Mara, unless she dodges around them or, better yet, shoots them dead.

One room might have you orient statues based on their names, while another might have you search for subliminal clues by watching a series of VHS tapes. None of these puzzles are especially difficult, even if you ignore some of the rather straightforward hints posted around the park as “staff memos,” though a few offer surprising interactions, like an underwater-themed shooting gallery that holds the secret to multiple rewards.

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The through line for Crow Country’s puzzles is observation, which plays to the game’s strengths. The simplicity of its lo-fi style aids the act of exploration, ensuring that nothing is buried by the visual noise of quote-unquote “realism.” The simple presence of detail in the environment almost always means that an object can be examined. (There’s something blissful, or at least refreshing, about playing a game with environments that don’t abound in glinting objects, insisting that you interact with them.) The park’s backstory can be a bit sparse, but Crow Country’s attention to detail brings the place to life, down to small touches like how the decorative crow-headed trash cans are only used for the public-facing areas.

When starting the game, you’re prompted to choose between a traditional “survival horror” or monster-less “exploration” mode. Regardless of what you choose, the combat and horror-centric mechanics end up playing second fiddle to the puzzles. The monsters are more of a nuisance than a threat, easy to dodge and not much more difficult to gun down. In the end, there’s more thought involved in shooting open a container than defending yourself against a monster.

Given the sheer amount of hints and instructional text plastered all over its environments, Crow Country is tuned to be approachable and readily digestible. You’ll never find yourself desperate for resources or racking your brain over a fiendish puzzle. Even the old-school tank controls are optional, mapped to the D-pad just in case any players feel compelled to experiment before going back to the analog stick. These decisions are hardly out of step with the pleasantly nostalgic presentation, but they also ensure that the game succeeds far more as a puzzle object than as a horror freak-out. For better and for worse, Crow Country goes down smoothly.

Score: 
 Developer: SFB Games  Publisher: SFB Games  Platform: PC  Release Date: May 9, 2024  ESRB: T  ESRB Descriptions: Blood, Violence  Buy: Game

Steven Scaife

Steven Nguyen Scaife is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Buzzfeed News, Fanbyte, Polygon, The Awl, Rock Paper Shotgun, EGM, and others. He is reluctantly based in the Midwest.

1 Comment

  1. Between this game, Alisa, Signalis, and much more, I am glad for the new crop of indie devs who want to fill the void left by the disappearance of “traditional” survival horror in big budget games.

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