2D horror is one of the most unlikely genres in gaming. How do you make flat scary? Well, the answer is that you can’t, very well. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t a lot of other ways to make quality gaming out of a creepy 2D adventure, and that can absolutely be said about Distraint.
I didn’t know what the word “distraint” meant before today, so I looked it up. It’s a noun that describes the act of seizing property from another as a form of debt repayment. This makes sense considering in Distraint you play a young and morally-conflicted man by the name of Price who is tormented by his occupation as a repo man. He works for a real estate firm by the name of McDade, Bruton & Moore, which is run by the three greedy men after whom the business is named. As their new apprentice, Price is tasked with having to make house visits to those the firm is currently attempting to oust from their living spaces, a job which appropriately weighs very heavily on Price’s mind. But more on this later.
The art and graphics in Distraint are unique and suitable. When it comes down to it, Distraint is a game that mixes equal parts horror and whimsical absurdity into its thematic recipe, so the flexy, bouncy, big-headed sprites bring just the right amount of cheekiness to the tense hallucinatory experiences of Mr. Price. There will be blood, gore and no shortage of irksome ickiness to be found throughout the game, but don’t be surprised when random dance parties break out either. Such goofiness serves to unnerve the player with their surreal nature just about as much as they relieve the tension for a short bit.
The story behind Distraint is basically a morality play about the sin of putting money before one’s humanity, and the mental damage it can (ostensibly) cause. Though themes having to do with the conscience-slaying properties of money are not new, I think it’s always a welcome message for the in with the new, out with the barely not-new materialism of the current era. If you’re the sort to roll your eyes at the idea that individual people’s lives matter more than financial success or industrial progress, then you’re likely not going to vibe with this story.
Getting to the raw mechanics of the thing, you’re going to be moving Price left and right the majority of the time. You will also go through doors, and inspect objects. The adventure aspects are very pared down compared to other more ardent games of the genre, so that all you’re going to need to worry about here is finding the correct item and then using it in the correct place. There will be no branching dialog or multiple ways to interact with any one object. I found this streamlined adventure process quite welcome, and would imagine that the addition of more cumbersome procedures would have taken away from the storytelling experience.
Likewise none of the puzzles are exceptionally difficult. With the exception of possibly the last couple acts you will breeze though the obstacles, but for me this was preferred. All the tasks, while not wildly different mechanically, never felt repetitive thanks to how different they were aesthetically and how well they went flush with the story as it unfolded. I became engaged with the story to the point that I desired to see what nightmarish chapter of Price’s doomed life would happen next.
When it comes down to it, the gaming experience of Distraint is as much about the story as it is the play mechanics, and luckily for us players, developer Jesse Makkonen did a great job of pulling together a compelling horror novel of sorts here. Our protagonist Price lives in a world of horror within his own mind, and you will have a difficult time discerning if the man is dreaming, hallucinating or truly living a nightmare on earth for the length of the game. And speaking of length, I must mention that the game is very short. It took me little more than 2 hours to complete, but the 4.99 price tag seems more than reasonable for the high quality of the game.
Distraint is not a horrifying game. It will not assault you with jump scares or realistic gore. What it will do is give you a morbid and interesting tale to fall into for a couple hours where you will care about the characters involved and be held captive by Price’s fluctuating insanity. I recommend Distraint to anyone who enjoys horror-tinged stories with unique, themes of insanity and greed, and light adventure mechanics. If you require adventure games with incredibly tough puzzles and complex interactions, or demand your horror to be unrelenting and gruesome, then you may not be as interested. But in that case maybe you should consider chilling out, bro.