VR Spotlight: Organ Quarter’s Pre-Alpha Demo is a great and frightening foundation

In VR Spotlight, we feature some of the interesting VR titles we’ve been enjoying around the office. This week, we’ve been skulking around the flesh-infested hallways of Organ Quarter’s Pre-Alpha Demo, a promising VR horror game for the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift from the developers over at Outer Brain Studios.

There’s no doubt that Resident Evil 7: Biohazard delivered a solid VR horror experience. Unfortunately, because it's just a different version of a traditional game and was originally adapted for PlayStation VR, for many it was far from a comfortable port and lacked things like room-scale VR, customizable locomotion, and in general a standing VR experience that could have made it one of the best VR horror games we’ve ever seen.

Organ Quarter shows off exactly how valuable these elements would have been to a RE7 while also standing out as a well-executed indie VR horror game in its own right. Organ Quarter’s Pre-Alpha Demo Delivers a short, atmospheric, and extremely intense VR survival horror experience that manages to tease the player exactly the way a demo should, without giving away too much about what to expect in the main game.

Keep it Tense

Although graphically Organ Quarter is nothing special, it manages to pull off a fantastically tense atmosphere by blending quality audio, well-placed monsters, and a true-dark lighting system that makes it extremely difficult to see unless you’re shining your flashlight directly at an object.

Audio is easily one of the most important qualities of any horror game, and Organ Quarter pairs its creatures well with sounds that are subtle but appropriate. Meaty steps for creatures that looks like giant walking scabs, the occasional echoing cry of pain from nightmare fuel level prong monsters, and most importantly, the occasional bout of silence in which you completely lose track of the enemy in question. Enemies have their audio cues, but it’s obvious that some are meant to move silently, and most only make the occasional noise rather than lumbering around like a gore-covered elephant in a dark room.

Beneath all of this is a subtle melody that grates just lightly on the nerves as you strain to hear these occasional footsteps. It’s a subtle touch that makes up for its lack of realism for the way it raises the hairs on the back of your neck. Yet again, the sudden silence when the audio cuts out raises the stakes, especially when you enter key areas and it feels like the game is ramping you up for a big scare, with rarely a cheap payoff. Instead, you’re rendered so paranoid during these moments that Organ Quarter could easily throw a horde of monsters at you with a similar effect, but the subtlety of using audio to trick the player causes the tension to build rather than release.

Graphics wise, things aren’t anywhere near what you would see in a triple-A horror game, but they are well optimized, and if you appreciated the gritty, nightmare-inspiring art-styles of mods like Cry of Fear, Penumbra, and early Silent Hill titles, you’ll feel right at home. The good news is that because of this relative graphical downgrade the game runs beautifully, easily vaulting the minimum VR framerate without even making the average GPU break a sweat.

The bad news is that stepping into Organ Quarter’s world feels a little like you’re going back in time to an earlier generation of gaming visuals, a feature that’s not uncommon in VR games these days.

For me, personally, this wasn't a big issue because it made me flash back to some of my favorite horror games as a young adult, but it’s important to note that you shouldn’t go into Organ Quarter expecting to be stunned by the sheer graphical fidelity.

It’s a gritty, somewhat rough aesthetic that almost feels like it’s meant to foster that sense of nostalgia, while also reminding you that you’re in a brutal world that’s far from the one you know and love. It’s also an indie game on a brand-new platform, so we’re sure that has something to do with the way the game is rendered. All-in-all, if you’re a fan of indie horror games, value gameplay over graphics, or still like to start up some of the horror games from five or ten years ago, Organ Quarter’s graphics are perfectly serviceable for what they’re trying to convey.

Keeping Comfortable

Tension and atmosphere aside, Organ Quarter VR implementation is pretty good, although lacking slightly in the UI department.  

Organ Quarter integrates both standard locomotion and optionally the ability to teleport. Both are well done, and I particularly like the locomotion system they went with because it follows the direction you point your hand when you press forward or reverse on the touchpad, allowing you to move around your environment in a way that does an excellent job of mimicking the agility and precise freedom of movement you get from using an analog stick or keyboard. Teleportation works as you would expect, and removes any sense of motion sickness you might normally get out of a locomotion-based VR game.

The only real issue is that the game is seriously lacking any kind of options menu allowing you to change settings or switch forms of locomotion mid-game, which means that once you choose a style of movement you’re stuck with it unless you finish the game or restart entirely. I’m sure we’ll see some kind of menu in the final version of the game, but even a simple UI would be a nice addition to the demo for people that might be sensitive to traditional locomotion.

Grabbing items was also an interesting and well-implemented system, but one that took just a little getting used to. Unlike in most games where you grab by clicking the triggers, Organ Quarter allows you to grab with the grip buttons on the side of the controller. The motion initially feels a little odd, but once you get the hang of it it feels a lot more natural than pulling the trigger and has the added bonus of preventing the occasional hand cramp when you need to hold an item for an extended period of time. This also keeps you from accidentally pulling the trigger and misfiring your gun when you’re trying to stealthily filch some ammo out from under a desk, which is a welcome change up from the traditional VR formula.

Scared of the Dark, and the Developers

There’s no doubt that virtual reality and horror titles go hand in hand. The sheer nature of having a monster close enough to physically bite, gnaw, and slash your face gives it a significant edge over a standard horror title. It’s up close, it’s personal, and it’s scary for that fact alone. There’s no doubt that Organ Quarter is a great indie horror game, and it translates into VR as a really good start for a great VR horror game. Between the atmosphere, the close-up nature of VR, and the survival horror elements it implements, it has us extremely excited for the full VR release of the title.

Organ Quarter’s gameplay revolves around a combination of resource management, careful aim, exploration, and some light puzzle solving all rolled up in a terrifying bundle of freakish scenes, horrifying enemies, and the occasional clever surprise that sets it apart from the cheap jumpscares that seem to be the go-to mantra of modern horror games.

The demo itself isn’t terribly difficult and if you’re keen you can get through it with plenty of ammo and medkits left over in a just few hours, especially if you’re not afraid to get on your hands and knees to thoroughly search under desks, behind bookcases, and in the occasional grimy toilet to find extra supplies.

You’ll encounter several enemy variations as you explore, and careful aim is rewarded because of the sheer scarcity of ammo. But when an enemy is shambling towards you down a dark hallway trigger discipline is more than easy to forget, especially when you step through a door and a new enemy is standing less than a yard away next to the item you need to progress the story.

Adding to this is the fact that the game is appropriately dark for the setting. You’ll find almost every other hallway is nearly pitch black, and your only source of light is a small flashlight on your pistol. The result is a serious sense of tension as you’re forced to take your eyes off of any one enemy to look to the next as you move your flashlight to shoot. Additionally, you’re never quite sure what path is safe from one moment to the next, because any of the quieter enemies can easily sneak up behind you if you aren’t regularly scanning the area with your light.

This injects you with a healthy dose of paranoia that keeps you on your toes, and the game occasionally rewards this sense of caution with cleverly placed scares, which also has the effect of renewing the tension and rewarding cautious, paranoid play.

One of my favorite moments in the demo involved a larger apartment with several rooms and a number of crevices hiding valuable supplies. As I entered the room, I encountered one of the larger groups of enemies in the demo. At the time, I had plenty of extra ammo so I settled for turning the enemies into scabby, horrifying swiss cheese rather than kiting them through the various doorways in the area.

Once all the enemies were down I did a quick circle of the rooms to make sure the area was clear, and then started searching behind barriers for extra ammo and looting a small desk of supplies in the back of the apartment, nabbing one of the final pieces I needed for the final puzzle along the way.  I did a final loop of the area and found a bit of ammo, which I began to hurriedly shove into my inventory.

At this point I was relatively relaxed and confident that I was safe to loot in peace, which is why the single squelching audio cue that came from right behind me scared an almost unladylike screech out of me. I spun around and found another large group of enemies shambling down the hall in my direction.

Only one of them had made a sound, and they were all within a few yards from absolutely ripping me to pieces. I panicked, unloaded a whole clip into the closest enemy, and after a reload fired purely off instinct to finish off the rest. It was heart pounding, intense, and scared me in a way that reached much deeper than a jumpscare could ever hope to achieve.

The whole event entirely destroyed the illusion of safety I was slowly developing as I learned the ropes of Organ Quarter’s world. In a single startling event, Organ Quarter made me realize that the developers over at Outer Brain Studios were playing just dirty enough to get me killed and make me feel like it was entirely my fault. It was a learning experience, and even though it scared the hell out of me, the part of me that loves horror games was absolutely thrilled.

This moment aside, I would have liked to see the game be a little bit less friendly all in all, either with tougher enemies, less ammo, or fewer health kits just to make everything feel a little bit more desperate and terrifying. I only say this because, at times, the experience felt a little too easy because of how natural it is to shoot a gun in VR. Once you learn to keep your wits about you, nailing follow-up headshots at close range isn’t very hard, and it makes even a small number of rounds stretch much farther than they do in RE7 where precision aiming on the console feels like its own kind of hell.

That said, considering it’s more a preview than anything else, we’ll hopefully see optional difficulties in the full release of the title, or more scenes where the enemies crank up the intensity to a level beyond the sheer shock factor of being attacked by an enemy with more metal spikes than legs.

Either way, as Organ Quarter’s Pre-Alpha Demo stands right now, it’s a great free VR horror experience that shows that the indie horror scene is alive and well in the Wild West of the VR marketplace, and we can’t wait to see what Outer Brain Studios does with the full release of their game. They managed to scare us more than they surprised us, which is impressive enough to earn them a spot in our virtual hearts.