When it comes to liminal horror, there are few more prominent examples than The Backrooms. If you’re unfamiliar, it started as a 4Chan post (natch) and has since spiraled into a piece of shared fiction that depicts the existential terror of glitching through space and ending up in an endless empty series of corridors and rooms. The horror aspect mostly comes from the idea of being trapped in places usually filled with life, with no one but yourself. Of course, sometimes monsters get added into the mix, for better or for worse, but in its purest sense, Liminal Horror is existential in nature. Anemoiapolis: Chapter 1 is the first entry in an episodic Liminal Horror game that takes heavy inspiration from The Backrooms, but does it make for an interesting gaming experience?
Anemoiapolis: Chapter 1 – Unlike the Others
Right off the bat, Anemoiapolis: Chapter 1 is in a bit of an interesting position. This is a horror game created by an indie developer, but one that doesn’t fall into the normal traps you experience in games that are inspired by The Backrooms. In most cases, these games default to having you running through endless corridors, pools, and other terrifying monoliths of mid-90s American architecture, while being chased by a meme or monster of some kind, and the point is to survive. Here, the focus is totally on the fear that you’re trapped in an endless otherworldly prison that you don’t necessarily have any hope of escaping from. No monsters. No Enemies. Just you, your thoughts, and the eerie feeling that there’s something subtly wrong at all times.
When you first start the game, you’re dropped into a relatively normal (ish) looking area. You’re arriving at what looks like a modern housing development that hasn’t been developed yet. You’ve been tasked with inspecting a power transformer at the site, and when you arrive, you discover it has been tampered with. During your examination of the definitely-not-up-to-code power cable someone has jerry-rigged together, you fall through a panel in the floor and fall an impossible distance into what seems to be a giant underground pool. With no obvious way back and no one around to answer your cries for help, you have to explore this titanic labyrinth in the hope that one of these ‘Exit’ signs actually leads you somewhere.
Anemoiapolis: Chapter 1 – True Existential Dread
One of the first things it’s important to know about Anemoiapolis: Chapter 1 is that it’s not going to be your typical horror experience. There isn’t much in the way of creepy music or jump scares. Hell, there’s not much music at all beyond some of that Muzak that often gets played in malls and elevators. That said, it does still offer scares, but they’re more the slow, creeping kind that gets under your skin and makes you scare yourself. It’s pretty effective too, but you have to be willing to meet the game halfway to really enjoy it. First up: PLAY WITH HEADPHONES. We don’t usually do all caps here, but it’s that damn important to the experience. Also, turn off the lights, but that’s less important. The main thing is that this game relies almost 100% on the atmosphere to get you into the experience.
So, what’s the gameplay actually like? Honestly, and I hate to say this because I know it’s going to turn off a few people; this is obviously a walking simulator. You literally spend your time walking around, trying to discover a way back out again. I want to make it clear, especially as someone who really doesn’t enjoy the aforementioned genre too much, that this isn’t a criticism in this case. As you walk around, the only thing accompanying you is the sound of your own footsteps and the ambient noises of where you happen to be. You’re not exploring in an attempt to piece together a storyline. You’re just trying to get out of an impossible situation. This is the only reason that I think the walking simulator tag works here.
Anemoiapolis: Chapter 1 – Like a Walking Sim, But Hear Me Out
All that said, in defense of Anemoiapolis: Chapter 1‘s Walking-Sim-Like nature, there are other elements to the gameplay, but they’re relatively minimal. As you explore, you can choose to go off the beaten path and find your way inside sequestered areas. The reason you might want to do this is that the game is filled with arcade tickets. You use these to access different elevators that are in the game’s main hub. You need to do that because the elevator marked “surface” will only unlock once you’ve explored the rest of the available elevators at the behest of a seemingly voiceless and faceless unknown presence. The ticket hunting isn’t exactly what you’d call “high-intensity gameplay,” but it does add a much-needed ‘game-like’ element.
I should also point out that it’s not like you have to go out of your way to hunt these tickets down. You need a limited amount to progress, and they don’t have much in the way of other uses beyond allowing you to leave a level early if you get too lost or just want to go somewhere else. Sure, some of the elevators can cost upwards of 100, but there are so many lying around the place. As long as you’re here for the right reasons, ie, to drink in the atmosphere and explore this unsettling environment, then you’ll come across plenty to make progress without having to actively seek them out. In the end, it feels like an addition that adds a little without taking anything away, and that’s really what you want when adding features to a game.
Anemoiapolis: Chapter 1 – Lightly Puzzling
Anemoiapolis also features some light puzzle elements. You’ll occasionally come across an obstacle that blocks your way, and you’ll either have to figure out how to platform your way around by pushing objects into place or otherwise rewire a panel to activate some sort of mechanism. These often aren’t overly complicated or difficult, but they feel more like puzzles that are put in place to control the pace rather than puzzles actually intended to be a big challenge. Arguably the main puzzle of the game is figuring out where you’re supposed to go. Unlike in most games, this isn’t an issue, more a feature. You’re supposed to feel lost and like you’re going in endless circles sometimes. Of course, the challenge is figuring out if you actually are going the right way or not, and it’s that uncertainty that does the game the biggest favor.
In many ways, it’s hard to explain why Anemoiapolis is so appealing. The creeping dread that sets in when the only things you can hear are the buzzing of overhead lights, tinny music and voices from a PA system, and your own footsteps reverberating around the empty monoliths of American architecture in which you find yourself trapped. For most of my time in the game, I loved it. The way everything is put together and presented does a great job of putting you on edge, and it really doesn’t stop most of the time you’re playing. There are a few moments where things will move without you touching them, or you’ll hear something in the distance, but they never go so far as to have a monster come after you (sort of anyway. There is a moment in the “ pools” level, but it’s very minimal and only happens relatively late in the game.)
I’ve been very positive about the game so far, but there are a few things of note which are worth mentioning. Firstly, the level design is mostly actually pretty good. There is minimal use of procedural generation during certain sections, and it works 50% of the time. The other 50, known as the “country club” level, is just kind of annoying and is certainly a low point in the game itself. It’s basically a very crap golf sim, but it’s one bad level amongst a selection of excellently designed ones, so it’s worth letting it slide. The graphics and sound are also very obviously the result of the game’s indie development, with a sometimes-excessive amount of bloom and some janky visual design. It’s really not that big of an obstacle, as the use of sound design really makes up for it, and in the end, the game is more immersive than many big-budget AAA horror titles.
When all is said and done, Anemoiapolis: Chapter 1 is an excellent first entry in an episode horror game. Not just because it explores liminal horror in a way we haven’t seen before but because of what it represents. In many other cases, this sort of horror game wouldn’t exist. It would have been so easy to follow the trend and to have a screaming monster come jibbering around the corner to chase you down, but the developer avoided the temptation (at least so far.) This game is, right now, truly one-of -a-kind, and it’s a unique horror experience you can’t get anywhere else. While there are certain shortcomings of the indie nature of the title, there are so many strengths here that you’d have to completely misunderstand the point to think that the developer hasn’t improved on the theme, as well as on their own demo. If you’re a fan of The Backrooms, or at least of the part of the backrooms that doesn’t feature Slenderman clones, then you owe it to yourself and to the Liminal Horror genre to buy this game and rave about it to everyone you can.
TechRaptor reviewed Anemoiapolis: Chapter 1 on PC via Steam with a code provided by the developer.