Once Upon a Time in Roswell fails to follow the light

Are aliens the next big boogieman in pop culture? The viral Facebook event inviting thousands to charge Area 51 says yes, but the review scores of Men in Black: International say no. Either way, fighting off grays is not the most well-worn territory in gaming. Outside of Alien: Isolation, there are few moody horror adventures featuring otherworldly beings. Quarter Circle Games and tinyBuild are trying their hand with Once Upon a Time in Roswell. Set in the height of the original Area 51 incident, this game has the potential to offer scares and delights to horror players everywhere but its execution makes it seem like it won’t reach that potential.

Once Upon a Time in Roswell Preview | New Mexico on my mind

Once Upon a Time in Roswell Camp

Upon loading up Once Upon a Time in Roswell, the atmosphere was the first thing that stuck out. You play as a 1940s detective investigating a missing family, and walking through your office is mesmerizing. Serving mostly as a tutorial item to teach the game’s item system, it was a blast just poking around and checking out details. Many games suffer from the horror trope of plunging you into full darkness. However, the light and shadows in this initial area strike the perfect balance.

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But the game unfortunately doesn’t stick with this type of atmosphere throughout the preview build. The other environment in this demo was the missing family’s house, and it suffers from the aforementioned bouts of darkness. In an attempt to make things scarier, every light source is as dim as possible. For some reason, your eyes fail to adjust to the darkness. You have to just stumble around hoping to find where you need to go. There’s even one point where you find a flashlight, but your character is unable to pick it up. It was a feeling of defeat that permeated throughout the second half of the demo.

Once Upon a Time in Roswell Preview | Jeepers creepers

Once Upon a Time in Roswell New Mexico

Gone was the atmosphere of the initial location. In its place, a room that felt copied and pasted from the horror game handbook. Tasked with recovering a film canister for an old-timey projector, you stumble around several locked doors before watching a few generic images flash on the screen. The whole thing felt a world away from the opening, a phrase that gains more meaning as an alien jumps out at you for a cheap scare.

Even the alien feels slightly off. While you don’t get a great look at the creature in the demo (appropriate for a horror game), it’s confusing as to why a standard grey spaceman would be going after its prey, teeth first. This isn’t a spacefaring creature with a raygun, it’s a humanoid monster who wants to bite your head off. Not to criticize a work of fiction for being unrealistic, but that’s just not how aliens work. If anything will get me to play the game, it’s an explanation of this seemingly incongruous juxtaposition.

While the horror elements seem pretty standard, there is some hope for the rest of the game. You can rotate and inspect objects after picking them up, letting you pull off some LA Noire-style detective work. At least, that’s what the mechanic seems to suggest. Outside of a single instance, the demo doesn’t really engage with item inspection, which is a shame. Hopefully, it’s an important part of the full release, as it’s an underutilized mechanic in this demo.

Once Upon a Time in Roswell Preview | Where’s the kaboom?

Once Upon a Time in Roswell Alien

When you do use your inventory, it’s usually to collect keys and unlock doors. This is something many horror fans will be all too familiar with. Navigation in both sections of the demo seems particularly drawn out because of it. Keys for your next destination always seem to be in the opposite corner of the level, forcing a lot of slow walking back and forth. It’d be amazing if there was some gameplay reason for this backtracking. Perhaps the environment could subtly change to get you on edge. Alas, that just wasn’t the case, at least as far as this demo showed.

A lot of Once Upon a Time in Roswell‘s presentation suggests good things. The voice acting, while a little on the nose with directing the player, fits right into the 1940s atmosphere. Your gruff detective narrates a decent chunk of the demo in the way that all good detectives narrate their adventures. The soundscape is appropriately minimal, letting players build their own tension as they stumble around in the dark. Some moody music might have also worked, but that’s just not the type of game this is.

The only issue is just how done to death the main gameplay conceit of first-person horror is. Even from the little I’ve played, I feel reasonably safe in saying that Once Upon a Time in Roswell is not going to be the game to break that mold. However, the game isn’t slated to release until late 2020, so it does have a bunch of time tighten things up and find itself. If you can’t get enough of creepy abandoned houses and the monsters that haunt them, this otherworldly horror game might just be the ticket. If you’re looking for something with a bit more depth, it might be worth avoiding the mass trip to Area 51.


GameRevolution previewed Once Upon a Time in Roswell with a demo build provided by the publisher.