Nightmare on Elm Street is a terrifying film. On its own, the notion of a man with too little flesh and too many knives murdering me in my dreams is plenty scary, and the movie knows just how to twist this idea, taking it places that never fail to shock or awe. I can’t help but feel, however, that Freddy Kreuger would be significantly less frightening if his pants fell down every time he tried to chase someone down a winding hallway or moonlit street. Sunshine Manor is a game I frequently caught with its jeans around its ankles. It’s survival horror by way of the Super Nintendo, and while it seems intent on frightening its players, its attempts at eliciting a sense of dread are undercut more often than not by a lack of tonal clarity and near-constant technical frustrations.
The year is 1980. You play as a young girl named Ada out on halloween night with her friends, so naturally it isn’t long before you find yourself trapped inside an ominous mansion, forced to navigate the dastardly puzzles and grotesque apparitions the house has on offer. This story’s protagonist is Sunshine Manor’s most confusing narrative decision, and the one chiefly responsible for the game’s ever-present jarring oscillation between humorous and eerie. The vast majority of Ada’s lines are prompted when the player interacts with objects in the environment, and tend to express a detached curiosity in the pervasive gore and death comprising her surroundings. Not only do these insights into the game’s world sap most scenes of any discernible emotion, but they make me question the entirety of Sunshine Manor’s intent as an artistic work. At one point, after ruthlessly dismembering a comparatively docile demonic entity, Ada proclaims “Holy moly, that was insane!” Is this meant as an earnest depiction of a small child reacting to such an event, or as comedic relief designed to erase any horror that might’ve been briefly achieved? There are numerous scenes throughout the game unquestionably intended to be humorous, and yet still countless others which strive to be taken seriously but come off just as silly. Perhaps this inconsistency is an elaborate attempt at subverting the genre itself, meticulously constructed to create the very sense of uncertainty I’m criticizing. But if this is the case, and Sunshine Manor has executed its vision flawlessly, I feel that vision accomplishes less than committing to either horror or parody would.
Mechanically, Sunshine Manor is eager to dip its toes into all of horror’s staples, and its attempts at variety succeed about as often as they fail. Your time in the mansion is primarily spent solving inventory-based puzzles from a 2D top-down perspective, but there’s a sort of rudimentary combat system in place as well, which – while by no means complex – serves as an intriguing addition to the archetypal “walk slowly from creepy foyer to creepy kitchen” formula. Your actions are governed by a stamina bar, which you can deplete by either dashing or attacking. The former grants you a sudden burst of speed, but proves risky as there might be an ambush waiting around the next corner, and if you’ve exhausted your stamina you’ll be left temporarily defenseless. This dynamic provides a palpable tension as you traverse the manor’s creaking floorboards and overgrown gardens, intent on making optimal use of your limited move set. While the puzzles here are engaging enough, the act of solving them is made a chore by the mansion’s sprawl. Rooms are vast and often all but empty, and despite having to visit every inch of the place in order to uncover its secrets, the house offers little in the way of branching paths or hidden shortcuts. There is no option for strategically planning routes toward your desired wing of the manor, and thus no reason to care about or familiarize yourself with its intricacies beyond the bare minimum required to get from point A to point B.
Alongside exploration and puzzle solving, boss fights complete Sunshine Manor’s mechanical repertoire. These bouts are inserted sporadically throughout Ada’s journey, punctuating each of its roughly five narrative sections. Despite their inventive visual and auditory design, these encounters, too, extend well past fun and firmly into tedium, necessitating survival of the same two or three attack patterns for minutes on end, repeated ad nauseum. Similarly to the game’s writing, I feel these battles have a spark of passion at their core, made dim by a lack of focus, or perhaps a focus on too much at once.
Like its titular house, Sunshine Manor seems to be the victim of a terrible curse. No, it didn’t delete my desktop applications or make blood spurt from my laptop’s USB ports, but I couldn’t help feeling like the game’s multitude of bugs were crafted by some gnarled witch specifically to torment me. Certain items inexplicably disappeared from my inventory, while others duplicated themselves, taking up slots I needed for puzzle-necessary objects. The title screen itself is almost entirely non-functional, as its “continue” feature simply launched me to the beginning of a new game each time I attempted to employ it. This particular issue was compounded by the way Sunshine Manor handles death. When your health is depleted, you’re sent back to the menu screen rather than to a checkpoint, so each time I died – because I couldn’t load my game from the menu – I was forced to begin anew, watch a roughly three-minute opening cutscene, and then manually load my save before being able to play on. I put in considerable effort to be frightened, to be engaged amidst the frustration and the artificial difficulty that arose from these glitches, but Freddy Kreuger ceases to be threatening once you’re helping him pull up his khakis.
Developer Fossil Games’ latest foray into pixelated perversion is an odd beast. There is undeniable talent on display in Sunshine Manor’s art and especially its sound design, which enlivens a setting made otherwise redundant by the past decade’s countless other 8-bit horror escapades. This passion, though, is so often overwritten, so often siphoned of identity by a game reluctant to pick a direction and stick to it unwaveringly.