Welcome to Redacre, a sleepy little suburb nestled right in the National Radio Quiet Zone, which heavily restricts wireless transmissions of all kinds. The town is being possessed by a cast of powerful, virtue-based supernatural voices and, with the Radio Quiet Zone ensuring there’s no way to reach out for help, a team of plucky teens need to figure out what’s happening and how to solve it.
That’s a large challenge, since the voices are controlling the other townspeople, trying to protect whatever process has begun until their alien will has finished whatever it has set out to do.
I play a teenager investigating the disappearance of my best friend. I also have another mystery to solve: the voice in my head that causes me to randomly black out. The other teens in Redacre experience this too, and we’ve all united in an attempt to figure out what’s going on.
As a member of the titular Blackout Club, I start out in the club’s train car hideout. From there, I prepare for nighttime excursions by choosing one of three Hero Tools. A stun gun lets me get out of the grasp of a brainwashed citizen, a grappling hook allows easy access to higher levels, and a crossbow lets me shoot tranquilizer darts I find out in the field. I also earn experience points and level up both minor and major perks. Minor perks offer quality-of-life bonuses, like starting with a lock pick; major perks are organized into four skill trees of strength, technology, endurance, and a drone companion.
Once I’m geared up, I head out on randomly generated missions around Redacre. That can entail stealing a confiscated phone, investigating the evidence of a break-in, or helping clean up the dead dove a fellow club member ate in the middle of a possessed trance. Standard kid stuff.
Possession is established in the lore as a two-way street. One supernatural voice holds Redacre in thrall, but another seven exist, and the kids are possessed by those voices. Each voice, which is sometimes referred to as a god or a daemon, can possess multiple people. One voice has taken over most of Redacre in a vision of perfect, caged unity. Some of the other voices I encounter are benevolent, others are mysterious, and, thanks to ritual answers I can dream later in the game — I’ll explain in a bit — I learn that one of them has somehow been shattered and weakened.
Missions in The Blackout Club are designed for one to four players, and are almost like Left 4 Dead without the combat. I can’t straight up fight any of the adults since they’re the mind-controlled families and friends of the teenagers, but I can sneak around them, stun gun them, or try to knock them out, depending on my loadout.
Some of the townsfolk are in the early stages of indoctrination, and roam around in a sleepwalk. Others are dreaming, with constantly shifting faces, and they are much better at spotting me. Worst of all is the Shape, an invisible and invincible enemy that spawns if I’ve drawn enough attention.
Luckily, the Shape isn’t out to kill me right away. Instead, it wants to knock me out of the game and turn my sleeping body into another patrolling enemy. A friend can bring me back to consciousness, giving me another shot if I’m playing with others, but the game ends if the Shape catches me when I’m playing solo.
The potential for horror
The “Enhanced Horror” elements of The Blackout Club are some of the most interesting parts of the game. This is an opt-in system, and it allows me to further explore the game’s lore to figure out what’s really going on.
I can prepare a “ritual” back at base if I find a rare item, and use my microphone to ask any question I wish into the ether. I have yet to find one of these items, but when I finish a mission, I’m asked if I want to remember a dream. If I do, the game plays me a question asked by another player, and one of the voices gives an in-character response.
While players can ask whatever they’d like, the recorded responses are evasive and only give some tidbits of information over time. It’s a neat system, turning the voices of real players into in-game content, complete with answers given by the game’s voice actors.
Players have reported personalized messages being sent from ‘The Voices’ and weird dreams where other players have shared their nightmares with one another. Are these messages alluding to something bigger?
— The Blackout Club (@theblackoutclub) July 30, 2019
In another instance, I end up getting urged along a totally new trail by my voice. Usually, when I close my eyes, I’m met with the deep red clouds of eyelids, but a bright red path lights the way to my next mission objective.
This time, the footprints don’t lead me to where I expect. Instead, I find myself in an Escher-esque library, where strange structures rise up into the sky. An informative poster changes when I close my eyes; there’s a message emblazoned in the same bright red as the footsteps: WAKE UP LOOK AROUND YOU!!! Looking around, with my eyes opened or closed, doesn’t seem to reveal anything further. Soon, I have to flee, as enemies spot me and begin to chase me down.
It’s even possible for other players to invade your game as a “Stalker,” a traitorous member of the Club who is aiding the bad guys. You have to opt-in to have Stalkers invade your games, and players need to win a game with a Stalker chasing them before they can start a game in this role.
The Stalker isn’t as powerful as the Shape, but, if they play their cards right, they can summon the Shape much earlier than normal, all the while raiding resources from the map and giving enemies an extra set of eyes. These unpredictable horror experiences, and the lore that ties them all together, are great.
I love ARG-style campaigns, but loathe how they tend to lead up to the announcement of a movie, or a game, and then peter off into nothing. The Blackout Club, on the other hand, is a much more ambitious project. It can conceivably continue as long as it’s sustainable for developer Question to maintain the workload of recording answers. Engaging with the game’s community to share notes about what I find, and to theorize about what might be happening, is part of the fun.
The issue is that the rest of the game doesn’t live up to these high points; the minute-to-minute play of The Blackout Club is rough.
The missions are repetitive, and are largely built around dodging enemies. Sometimes, sleepwalkers deviate from their path to climb over fences, and then clip back and forth. It’s often hard to tell what to do when an enemy is on my tail; I often just end up sprinting away and then crouching somewhere until they leave me alone.
When the Shape spawns with the intent to possess me and turn me into an AI-controlled thrall, all I can think to do is aimlessly run. I’m not sure if hiding works, and the game doesn’t give me enough feedback to find out. The pathing around Redacre is questionable, so sometimes I jump a fence and get stuck in some trees, or I miss a very specific path to the exit and end up bouncing off rocks for a while. A suggested path isn’t the best path either; sometimes I followed a trail only to climb a fence and find myself at a locked door.
At one point, I set up a cool play: I used my personal drone to fly into a chokepoint and ring the alarm, allowing me to sneak up behind an enemy and pickpocket the mission objective off of him … but the enemy just spun around in rapid circles.
Bring a friend, or a few
The cooperative element of the game is meant to add complexity, and it can be a lot of fun if you end up in a group with friends or talkative randos. There are also large incentives to group up: Enhanced Horror experiences don’t spawn in solo games, and there’s an XP multiplier for each additional player in your group. Doing so also gives you an extra set of hands; all players share the same objective, and having a friend can make breaking into a house or distracting an enemy much easier.
Playing with a quiet or disagreeable group, however, is disorienting and frustrating. I had a player join a game and loudly admit that he had not, and would not, play the tutorial, and then shrieked and loudly asked very basic questions before getting us Shaped. Often, more experienced players will go ahead and rack up objectives while I find my footing. There are minimal advantages to sticking together with a team you don’t know, and the game doesn’t push you too hard to cooperate.
The various Hero Powers also don’t interact well with each other. If I take a grappling hook, I can vault to higher levels, but I never felt like I was providing an essential new route for my group that couldn’t be accessed via ledge hopping. The stun gun let me push enemies off myself, but it’s clumsy to get the prompt to show up on an enemy if it’s not reactively triggered.
While The Blackout Club is being released today, the title has just finished a stint in Steam Early Access, and we can expect more updates. Just because it’s entered 1.0 doesn’t mean the game is at the finish line; there’s more work that needs to be done.
I still love The Blackout Club for its ambition, even when its basic design or lack of polish fails me. It’s a wonderfully weird game that swings for the fences on creepy teen horror and social features, and that makes up for so many of its stumbles.
The Blackout Club is out now on PlayStation 4, Windows PC, and Xbox One. The game was reviewed using a final “retail” PC download code provided by Question LLC. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.