Serena (Review)

For God knows how long, a husband’s life was turned upside down when the love of his life Serena disappeared. But in a disconcerting fashion, he realizes that everything is hazy and there are many questions unanswered. Reeling from the disappearance of Serena, he sets out to find clues and meanings in the cabin to find her. What lies ahead is a somberness of secrets in the cabin, as he searches for answers about the only woman he ever loved. Will the truth be too ghastly to handle?

When I decided to give Serena a go, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. It was free on Steam, and I didn’t see why there was no reason for me not to play a horror adventure. First impressions, it wasn’t too shabby. From the very start, I am in a cabin that reeks of the absence of hope. In a first-person perspective, my feet are tied down by the fixed background screens and a point-and-click interface.

Gameplay and Mechanics

The game is simply designed with basic controls. Keep in mind you are not actually playing as Serena (as the title states) but more so, her husband. Confined in a cabin, all I had to do was aim my mouse on various objects that are within my vicinity. Clicking on the objects pushes the husband to narrate his various thoughts and memories of Serena. Sometimes, he imagines the difficult conversations that he would never have with her, cursing his own lack of nerve. He’s rather loquacious and every little thing I clicked seemed to strike a nerve in him as I was nearing the truth. With the right sequence and objects clicked to trigger his key memories, things in the cabin changed subtly, thereby revealing new awareness towards the end of uncovering the mystery of it all.

// The objects that trigger the memories

The story isn’t overly long or complicated, and it is well-developed through the course of the object interactions. I found Josh Mandel’s voice as the husband to be disturbingly good in the game (God, that man sure can lament) — one that starts out optimistic and reminiscent, and then gradually degenerates into anger, hatred, bitterness and revolt. In true minimalistic fashion, as I clicked on the same object for multiple times until the lines started to repeat itself, it tells me that the game did extensively well in portraying the dynamics and emotions of the protagonist’s former relationship with his wife like so.

Design and Visuals

The game visuals filled me with foreboding. I think the visuals were splendid for an indie game and encapsulated the eeriness of a dilapidated cabin. When I was walking closer to something, my heavy footsteps on a long abandoned cabin where the miserable rusty windows were my only source of light to illuminate the path onwards, it was a natural instinct for me to freeze when I heard a clock chiming out of nowhere. The visuals take a huge understanding in the colour psychology where its colours are unsaturated. The brown tones of the game go in darker tones when things get more disturbing.

// Faint lighting in the bedroom
// View of the bedroom from the kitchen and dining area

Final Thoughts

There is not much for me to say without risking spoilers. Ostensibly, mixing pathos with psychological horror was the highlight of this game for me. It was refreshing to play a horror game without the cliché jump-scares and mindless screaming, something I berate a lot when it comes to horror. As much as I enjoyed the story of Serena, it may be for me to convince others to play what seems to be a dying art in the industry.  While it is also tough to contend on such game style due to subjectivity, and even though this point-and-click adventure genre has its nostalgic charms – even that warm glow is frequently cut off by a reminder of how often these games ended up being an exasperating exercise in aimlessly clicking on random objects, all in the vain hope that it might trigger the next bit of plot. I will cherish such games memories, but maybe clicking on objects without the ability to move around on my feet just isn’t enough anymore.

Despite the game’s clunky mechanics, and the inability to save the game, I can forgive it and appreciate that Serena is supposed to be a sort of homage to old-school adventure games. I only wished the game developers had thought of placing a settings page for me to save the game. Because really, the game just takes over your screen and if your first instinct for any game is to configure the keys, you might just find yourself out of the game when you hit the “Esc” button like I did. You literally get booted out without any progress saved. Not exactly fun.

// Something’s not right

The first twist of the game was fairly predictable but I must say… that ending caught me off guard. I think one thing anyone can relate from Serena is the idea that inside every person you know, there is a person you don’t know.  The whole thing was so surreal, it was as if it had been a ghoulish nightmare. But an unmistakable dread rose within me, confirming that I was in the game for an hour, leaving me to wonder what it all meant. It’s the uncanny feeling, I decided. Two lonely people, who once had dreams, and one had been caught up with the long hours of work.. and everything just came crashing down.

Still, I could not shake my sense of unease after the game. There had been other horror games, but this had been different. It was as if a tiny crack, a fissure in the protective armor I had spent years putting up around myself, had been opened, leaving me feeling exposed. In the meantime, I will continue this game with a few more runs for a thorough analysis. You can never fully know the life of another. You only have fragments, bits, scraps of their words and others’ perceptions of them. But sometimes, you would wish you never knew anything about them in the first place.

All Things in Consideration

Now if you have read this until the end and you are considering playing Serena, know that there are areas of the game where you can be unsure on how to progress and can frustrate you. But please understand that I do not wish to spoil anything for you and since the game is story-driven, it is crucial for you to immerse yourself in it. So here are some useful tips that will come in handy for you:

  • RIGHT MOUSE BUTTON – Change control scheme
    • This locks the camera and prevents it from following the mouse. To look around, move the mouse towards the edges of the screen.
  • SPACEBAR – Toggle hotspots
    • Pressing the spacebar highlights all of the clickable spots with a blue dot.
  • ESCAPE – Escape
    • There are no settings in this game. This just means quit.

I also noticed some people get stuck at the bookcase where they are unable to exit the scene. If your game has no visible words on the screen when there is a narration going on right from the start, just edit the CONFIG.LUA file present in the game folder. Go ahead and change “fullscreen = false” to make it work. You can open the .LUA file with the notepad software.

Good luck.