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Crow Country review - retro horror thrills that offer much more than mere nostalgia

Park de Triomphe.

Crow Country official screenshot showing the main character in a room full of retro arcade machines, lit by a flourescent pink glow
Image credit: SFB Games
More than just its nostalgic visuals, Crow Country is funny, self-aware, and extremely hard to put down.

I didn't realise how much 90s horror lives on in my muscle memory until I sat down with Crow Country. My head is still full of things I forgot to forget as games grew and evolved and expanded beyond the blocky figures and pixelated gore I grew up with. Stuff like the sound of the cursor flicking over the items in the inventory, or knowing I can reload from the menu, or knowing, with cast iron certainty, that I'll find more handgun ammo than shotgun shells around here, which in turn will be more plentiful than the magnum ammo. Perhaps that's why Crow Country feels so much like coming home.

Well. You know. If I stomped around home melting deformed denizens with my flamethrower, anyway.

I'll be honest, though; these kinds of retro homages? I'm kinda done. And by kinda, I mean totally, and by done, I mean I've absolutely had my fill of them. Maybe they're a little more impactful to those who missed these kinds of experiences the first time around, but I'm old enough that I didn't, which is possibly why I'm more surprised than anyone that after reluctantly picking up Crow Country, I found it astonishingly difficult to put it down again.

You play as Special Agent Mara Forest, a firearms expert – lol; I'll circle back to that one, my friends – sent to locate the missing Edward Crow, the erstwhile founder and operator of the stunningly grim theme park, Crow Country. Yes, it's now abandoned – although the spilt sodas and empty popcorn tubs littering the ground suggest that the exodus wasn't all that long along – but it's hard to imagine this place as anything other than deeply unsettling even at its prime.

Caw! Ian gives Crow Country a go.Watch on YouTube

Like the 90s horror games it imitates, this story unfolds through the notes, journals, and newspaper clippings you find stashed around the place, although it remains delightfully opaque right up until the end. Occasionally, you'll stumble upon other people who've strayed too far into the park – a young lad ill-advisedly trying to catch a snap of something strange on his Polaroid camera; a gleefully unhelpful hi-vised park attendant; a lawyer who doesn't know when to quit – although more often than not, the things you'll stumble upon won't quite be people. Even though they look human-like from a distance.

Of everything Crow Country offers – and it's a lot – it's this creature design that impressed me the most. While at first it all seems a little obvious and expected, developer SFB endlessly reinvents its rotting roster in ever more surprising and interesting ways. No, they're not fun to fight – even switching from the old-school combat scheme to the modern-day one didn't mediate the frustration I felt each time Mara took three and a half days to lift her gun when something shambled towards her. But intentional or not, it's profoundly irritating – though as the ghouls are pretty stupid and insultingly easy to dodge, I often found myself stopping the gruesome cast to admire them from afar.

Mara stands at the entrance to Crow Country. A banner spelling out the theme park's name straddles a dirty, empty entryway.
Mara straightens up and lines up her laser sight down the corridor where a human-esque shape lurches forward in the darkness, half-shrouded by shadow.
Mara stands in a far corner of Hilltop Manor, staring at a staff memo pinned to a railing.
A stylised keyboard is on the screen, showing the letters C D E F G A B. F A D is shown above the keyboard.
Image credit: SFB Games / Eurogamer

The way Crow Country itself unfurls up before you is wonderful, too. Slowly stumbling upon the keys, props, and items you need to open up hitherto barred pathways means the theme park frequently reinvents itself, offering new set pieces, enemies, and secrets to explore time and time again. Yes, there's quite a bit of backtracking, but given the many locked doors and blocked exits and secrets scattered throughout, I never once begrudged it, especially when I located handy shortcuts and secret entrances. Thanks to the clumsy combat and "save room" save system, I rarely felt invincible racing through the park's dark corridors.

There's an option to experience Crow Country entirely without enemies, and whilst my immediate reaction to that is to gasp in dismay at such a suggestion – what good is a horror game if there's nothing horrific in it?! – I'll admit that if I played again, that's exactly what I'd do. Like many survival horror games of old, there'll be times when you'll have to run past enemies because you won't have enough ammo for the next area you open up, but even though I managed to unlock all of Crow Country's collectible secrets organically in my inaugural playthrough, its environments are so dense and deliciously detailed, I'd loved to have taken my time, rummaging through shelves and rubbish bins. I've no doubt I've missed a handful of items and notes when I'd been distracted by fleshy lumps and skeletal marionettes.

Mara stares at the bloody corpse of a stranger on the ground in front of her.
Crow Country's inventory screen. It shows a lifeline, equipped weapon, map, and then all the items within here inventory. There's a lot.
Mara's standing in a creepy maze, a tall stone-like plinth in front of her. It says: "There's a symbol that looks like a star. Press B to Leave it. Press A to Kick It".
Mara's obtained a silver key. It was removed from a treasure chest, which you can see peeking out below the pop-up screen.
Image credit: SFB Games / Eurogamer

And it's smart. Stuffed with silly jokes, relatable one-liners, and a self-aware irreverence that's surprisingly refreshing, Crow Country doesn't take itself too seriously. Yes, it packs in many of the tropes and conventions so associated with old-school horror, but it's not afraid to poke a little fun at them from time to time, too. Mara is at once both befuddling – what on earth do you mean, you're "not allowed" to smoke?! – and beguiling, and a perfect companion as, together, you try to piece this puzzling mystery together.

Talking of which: it's Crow Country's puzzles that truly shine. At once challenging without straying into frustration – bar a couple of exceptions, anyway – SFB's puzzle design varies wildly from the insultingly easy to fiendishly difficult and everything in between, even though I spent half the game thinking I'd accidentally skipped a key item or weapon, so often was I picking up ammo for a gun I didn't possess. There are some truly devilish touches – a code you'll encounter in the opening five minutes will not unlock the safe you stumble on a couple of moments later – but if you get stuck, there's likely a fortune-telling Crow nearby that may be able to help. (Now that's a sentence I never thought I'd write.)

Mara stands in front of a slide projector, which gives her the option to read the slide or turn it off. A gruesome figure – seemingly called the "Grinner" – is on the screen. It looks like one of the enemies you've encountered but there's no way to zoom in and double-check.
Mara stands, bathed in bubble-gum pink neon. There's a selection of retro electronic games like pinball machines around her. The carpet is reminiscent of 80s/90s arcades.
Image credit: SFB Games / Eurogamer

The environmental traps, though, feel unduly punishing. The number of times I took unnecessary damage from a gas-belching crow head or a teetering chandelier is humiliatingly high, no matter how hard I tried to keep a look out or how carefully I tried to skirt them. I also learned to ignore the soda machines and trash cans, as they never threw up anything good for me (although was this because I'm an ammo hoarder who already had too much of the good stuff for the game to throw me a bone? Who knows).

Is it scary? Not even slightly. Not in the feverish glow of games like Amnesia: The Bunker or Alan Wake 2, anyway. For most, this won't be a dealbreaker; Crow Country so perfectly apes the games it homages, you'll be having too much fun solving the puzzles and exploring the park to care that there's little here that's genuinely unsettling. For others, it's possible that the care SFB takes crafting an authentic 90s horror won't be enough to make up for the decided lack of scares. Me? I'm definitely of the former camp. Yes, the combat can be annoying. Yes, sometimes I felt as though I was fighting the camera as much as the spooky park guests. Somehow, though – despite being sculpted so unashamedly from a tried and tested blueprint – Crow Country nonetheless tells an intriguing story in a highly memorable setting, and in a thoroughly entertaining way. What an unexpected treat.

A copy of Crow Country was provided for review by SFB Games.

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