Stairs is a first-person horror game with a complex plot.
Stairs on PC
It’s October, and that means it’s time for the yearly deluge of horror games. Having recently dived into the fantastic SOMA, the next terrifying tale on my list is Stairs, a first-person exploration-horror by indie developers GreyLight Studios. Filled to the brim with gorgeous atmospheres, creeping dread, and more than a few moments of heart-pounding fright, Stairs offers a lot to love. Some lack of polish and the occasional bug keep it from being as engaging as it could be, but this psychologically-minded weaving of several story threads creates a compelling experience nonetheless.
Stairs follows photojournalist Christopher Adams as he sets out to break the story that will remake his career. He arrives at an abandoned factory recently turned into a crime scene by the discovery of remains belonging to a missing teen named Valerie. With his trusty camera and journal his only companions, players must guide Adams as he breaks into the scene in search of clues about Valerie’s disappearance and sudden discovery, only to find that something much more sinister may be at work. From here, fragments of several seemingly-unrelated events tie together as Adams makes his way through a number of horrifying locations.
The story of Stairs is tough to follow in many ways, because it’s not just one story, but three. In addition to the missing persons case, Adams will find himself in the midst of mysteries surrounding a young businessman, James Reed, and a sinister-sounding priest, Jean Jowers Remens. The threads connecting these tales aren’t always obvious, but each lends a part of the overall story of Stairs as players make their way from one fear-filled place to the next. With no shortage of jumps and scares along the way, the overall sense of dread is the real star of the show, and is a relentless descent into Adams’ own mental anguish as more pieces of the greater puzzle come together.
While Stairs may not be breaking new ground in the horror genre with its approach, it’s worth noting just how well-crafted much of the seeping horror really is. With top-notch sound and music design to pull players in and play with their nerves, it’s hard not to get caught up in the game’s more tense moments. Soft scratching from behind locked doors, the metallic creak of aged architecture, and pulse-raising crescendos in the musical score all play a part in keeping players on the edge of their seats. With most of the in-game environments being well-designed and detailed, the atmosphere is really great — maybe not on par with the more-refined SOMA, but standing well enough in its own right.
The bulk of gameplay in Stairs is made up of exploration and puzzle-solving as players guide Adams through the old factory, an abandoned mine, a forgotten-looking forest town, and more. Creeping through some of the more cramped areas, Adams will also have to avoid horrid monsters that seek to end his investigations, with no means of fighting back. There’s an element of stealth, as well, to keep out of sight, but in some cases the dead-sprint option is your only way out. These “creature feature” moments are pretty spread out, at least, so the real meat of the game is in scouring for clues, exploring the world, and the growing sense of overall dread that permeates the game.
Stairs’ weakest point, easily, is the presence of some technical glitches and bizarre texture and light issues. I experienced a few seemingly-random crashes that shut the game down entirely, which isn’t great for the whole immersive aspect that effective horror relies on. In addition, you’ll find some passages that seem impossibly dark and difficult to traverse, and more than a couple of pitch-black environmental pieces where shadows have consumed objects that seem like they should be visible. Fortunately, a couple of patches released through my time reviewing the game seemed to focus on making at least the game-stopping errors more sparse, but I still encountered one very near to the end of the game, so failing to mention this would be remiss.
Ultimately, Stairs is an interesting game that displays how well GreyLight really grasps the genre. The atmosphere, sound design, and overall aesthetic is great. The story may be a bit disjointed and disorienting, but it feeds the thematic piece very well in this regard as players dive deeper into Adams’ attempts to cope with his experience. It’s easy to say that it’s worth the $12.99 price on Steam for horror fans, though it may not hold much for those who aren’t keen on the nerve-wracking. Still, with its focus on exploration and the more psychological aspect of terror, it may be pretty approachable for those with a less than die-hard interest in horror. While the technical problems hold it back, the presentation and overall design still shine when the game is working correctly, and it’s a great overall play.