In a fit of irony that's surely not lost on developer Cowardly Creations, Uncanny Valley's mix of horror, adventure, and consequence-based gameplay nearly gels, but the overall effect is not quite enough to convince. Drawing inspiration from Human's old Clock Tower games, as well as The Shining, shades of Ex Machina, and, er, (perhaps) the Mega Drive version of The Terminator, it's an interesting if flawed experience.
Players take on the role of Tom, a young man plagued by night terrors informed by a dark past. In a bid to lay low and clear his head, he's headed off to the mountains of what appears to be the American Midwest, taking a job as a night watchman at a grand, deserted research building owned by a large biotech firm.
Apart from Tom, the only other people to be found are Beck, a morbidly obese fellow watchman who shows Tom the ropes, and Eve, a pleasant housekeeper who looks after the employees' (near-empty) lodgings, housed a short if intimidating walk through the woods away. After the briefest of introductions to these two (and the environments they inhabit) you're told to get your rent-a-cop gear on and get to work ASAP. The job is a simple one: patrolling the corridors of the main building overnight, with the working shifts lasting around seven minutes.
During these shifts, the player has free reign to explore, flashlight in hand, any of the building's four main floors. Clearly, there's something not quite right about these offices, and the low-fi but engaging pixel art - which mixes different framing perspectives with obvious focal points for its rooms - creates a lightly unsettling atmosphere, aided by an excellent score. There's no denying the efficacy of Tom, small in frame, walking through a grand empty lobby which appears frozen in time, or running through the snow in the pitch black to a broken generator. It's not a game of jump scares - although there are a few - instead relying on a dawning realisation that everything is fucked.
Unfortunately, that dawn comes far too quickly. Uncanny Valley is too hasty in revealing its secrets, and the big reveal of just what exactly Melior Corp has been up to is second-guessed far too early. The developer attempts to mitigate this by enforcing the working schedule, breaking the first part of the experience into distinct days: spend too long snooping and you crash out into Tom's dreams, almost all of which are expositional and filled with dread scenarios of him running from, or being captured by, ominous men in black.
On each subsequent day Tom wakes, things slide slowly further into ruin, enabling him (and the player, via a little puzzle solving) to move further down into the building. It works - using a fire extinguisher to break into a neighbour's room to find they've been spying on you drives up The Fear - but the game needs a little more structure: a greater degree of defined tasks that slowly peel back the horrors of the facility. Instead, it's too easy to run around the floors reading increasingly-agitated emails and getting, if not the full picture, then at least a thumbnail of it.
It's a shame, because when players have things to actually do Uncanny Valley tightens up immensely. Once in the bowels of the building, with your suspicions confirmed, there's a more structured air to proceedings. There's no more sleeping: instead, Tom has to fight his way back up four distinct floors, each requiring a bit of lateral thinking and item management - as well as the dodging of near-invincible enemies - to navigate. It's here where the game shines: before there was a slight dissonance between player and character. Here, there is none: a straight-up fight for survival with a surrealistic twist.
It won't take more than a couple of hours to complete, and your first playthrough may very well end with no clear resolution thanks to the multiple endings. Players are warned at the beginning that Uncanny Valley is best experienced over multiple playthroughs, and thanks to a branching narrative there's a welcome pressure associated with knowing your next move may be your last. Fixing burned-out generators in the dark, mixing materials to freeze (and subsequently destroy) security doors, or stealing Buck's car keys and making a run for it: each add much-needed tension to the game.
On the other hand, Uncanny Valley can often feel like it revolves around trial and error, that it's not obvious what to do to get the 'best' ending without going through it multiple times. That is broadly true, but like the aforementioned Clock Tower, I found myself returning multiple times to see what else could happen. It's unlikely to keep a hold on players for longer than a day, and there are some irritating bugs (including one that crashes the game during a potential ending). But there's just enough here to justify the price of admission.
I only gave this a go to see if it would be suitable for our "Two Cowards" video series. After about five minutes it was clear the somewhat plodding pace wouldn't work, with jump scares few and far between, but I was intrigued. Uncanny Valley is most definitely about atmosphere and place, rather than hideous figures leaping out of closets or peering through cracks, and it somehow gets its hooks in very early on.
Despite its basic (although attractive) appearance and light storytelling, I was eager to see where the game was going beyond the 'man gets new job in creepy building' setup. Bad stuff was clearly happening around my security guard's place of work, and suddenly I was in a Stepford Wives scenario. I hadn't made it through to the ultimate conclusion, but I had seen an ending - a disturbing, grim and bloody one. It was enough for me. I could have done things differently, seen more, achieved a better outcome, but I didn't feel compelled to. Uncanny Valley may not be the biggest adventure, or the best, but I was satisfied with how things turned out.