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  • Writer's pictureNate Hermanson

REVIEW: Life Eater is Strange Scaffold's most twisted game yet (and they made a black market organ trading sim)

I was starting to worry about Strange Scaffold.

I fell in love with the studio thanks to the esoteric nature of games like An Airport for Aliens Currently Run by Dogs and Witch Strandings. I was moved by the ways that they pulled emotions out of me through obtuse interface-driven gameplay in titles like Space Warlord Organ Trading Simulator. But then in recent years, we got two "traditional" experiences out of them: a poker game technically inspired by a Valve release and a third-person shooter inspired by Max Payne. These games had all the things I'd come to love Strange Scaffold for and then some, but they were... a little more normal. Was this a sign? Were they "Normal Scaffold" now?

Well, after playing their latest, a horror fantasy kidnapping sim called Life Eater? A game driven almost entirely by a video-editing timeline interface and ritual sacrifice? Yeah. Strange Scaffold is fine.

An in-game screenshot of one of Life Eater's cutscenes. A bearded man in a plain baseball cap is stuffing a loose cut-off leg into a trash bag. His hands and arms are bloodied and his expression is horrified. Subtitles read: "He is not a kind god."

​Just the Facts

Developer: Strange Scaffold

Publisher: Strange Scaffold, Frosty Pop

Platform(s): PC

Price: $14.99

Release Date: April 16, 2024

Review key provided by developer via FIFTYcc.

It turns out human sacrifice is a little bit dark

Life Eater is the first game released under the five-game deal that Strange Scaffold signed with Frosty Pop earlier this year to help secure their future. After some rocky times before the release of El Paso, Elsewhere, Strange Scaffold now knows they've got the runway to continue developing sustainable indie releases that subvert expectations.

And how else could a studio subvert expectations than to follow up their biggest game yet with a game that asks you to kidnap and sacrifice innocent folk to prevent the end of the world?

In Life Eater, you inhabit the tortured mind of Ŕ̸̬͖ą̵̝̻͘l̴̢̝͙̂͛̈́p̷̗̺̿̔̕h̷̗̱̘̐͂ (or Ralph, if you're normal), a man forced into a lifetime of servitude for a ruthless god known as Zimforth. Zimforth requires annual human sacrifice to stave off his wrath, and the apocalypse that comes with it, and Ralph's the lucky one chosen to go out and gather the lambs for harvest. When the game starts, Zimforth's patience has grown thin and Ralph's timeline has shrunken greatly. From now on, when Zimforth comes knocking, Ralph's only got a handful of days to stalk and capture his quarry to prevent the end times and keep his god happy.

All that chaos clouds Ralph's focus, and just a year into our time with this sullen soul, the wrong person says the wrong thing at the wrong time, and suddenly Ralph's got a friend trapped in a cage in his basement. Ralph's lived his life like a shadow, as an innocuous face in the crowd, shut off from society so as to not provoke any suspicion about his lethal extracurricular activities. Having Johnny, a young man who recognized him at the store, in his basement shakes up his life and changes his outlook on the work he's doing for Zimforth. But the work has to be done. And Ralph does it because he has to.

It's an uncomfortable narrative. One that has you doing the kinds of things no other video game protagonist would ever do. One that has you inhabiting an unwitting and unwilling villain doing the kinds of evil things that even the worst "renegade" choices in an RPG would ever have you do. You stalk and prey on people's lives, turning the intimate details of their daily lives into fodder for your eventual sacrifice. It's painful, and you're supposed to feel just as uncomfortable, just as frustrated with the actions you're forced to do, as Ralph is. Strange Scaffold knows how to make its brief moments of direct and traditional narrative count, through cutscenes that are fully voiced and delivered through a series of grungy, shadow-driven illustrations that beautifully capture the darkness and grit of a narrative like this.

Xalavier Nelson Jr., director on the project and voice actor who made his debut in last year's El Paso, Elsewhere, serves up a strained desperation that gives way to a resigned helplessness over time as Johnny. Relative newcomer Jarret Griffis gives Ralph all of the empty, pained tones you'd expect from a man forced to kill year in and year out. The two of them together take you on a rollercoaster, with Ralph finding his solitary life enriched as Johnny sees his slowly drain away.

Their strange relationship serves as the beating heart of this dark adventure, anchored by the power of Strange Scaffold's script with lines like "I am my God's precious sinner," "Hatred lives in his eye and I deserve every last drop," and many others I dare not write for risk of spoiling things.

For everything else that this game does, for how spartan its presentation ends up being, you might be surprised by how effective its narrative is. But that's just what this team does, and, as always, it bleeds into every aspect of the experience.

An in-game screenshot of Life Eater's video editing screen. A timeline of events, from 10:30 AM to 3L30 PM, is broken out in chunks. The first chunk on the timeline seems to be revealed and the others are obscured with static. The player has highlighted one and it reveals a list of actions like "Lurk in bushes". A silhouette of the prospective victim can be seen above, this one being a mustached man on his phone. A timer can be seen at the top and a list of "downtime" actions can be seen in a menu to the left.

The most horrifying video editing timeline on the market

Let's be clear from the start: this game is unlike anything you've ever played. It looks to simulate something that hopefully none of its player base has any relatable experience with. It does it with an obtuse interface-driven gameplay system. And it manages to blend handcrafted puzzles with randomized ones so well you barely realize it's happening. But know from the start, this game's not for everyone. You get back what you give a game like this, and its systems require a bit of a buy-in to enjoy fully.

Life Eater's kidnapping simulation takes place entirely on a video editing timeline, where you unlock chunks of the footage Ralph has already recorded to uncover facts about your victims' weekly schedules. You unlock these otherwise obscured chunks by choosing specific actions for Ralph to take to film these clips, like fake delivering a package or bugging a house.

Each action takes time and raises your victim's suspicion levels. The more effective the action, the more suspicion it raises. Once your victim's wariness reaches a certain level, there's a chance you'll earn a strike. Three strikes and they'll call the cops and Ralph's usefulness to Zimforth ends. Luckily, the game offers opportunities to lower suspicion through a series of "downtime" actions that take up your precious time but may offer special tokens that lower any single action's suspicion all the way down to zero. Once you've got enough of their timelines uncovered, they're free to be abducted.

It's all about balancing your suspicion meter against the time you've got left, all while trying to learn as much as you can about your prospective targets. Because it's not enough to find out their schedules, you've got to track very specific details about their lives to ensure they meet the obtuse requirements for Zimforth (for example, "someone who will not be missed," meaning someone with no friends) and for the whole ritual sacrifice thing.

You've got to track precise things like hair color, whether or not they live alone, whether they have a commute, the amount of bathroom breaks they take. Each of these things is tied to a specific organ to be removed or rib to be broken before sacrifice. Mess up any part of this process and you've got to repeat the year.

Yeah, I told you. Unlike anything you've played.

An in-game screenshot of Life Eater's ritual sacrifice screen. A representation of a person's internal organs can be seen and directions line the edges of the screen, prompting the player to remove organs or break ribs if the victim meets certain requirements. Everything is rendered in an anatomically correct style against a purple background. Under it all, a simple button reads: "Water The Flower".

A couple of hits and misses in the kidnapping genre

Life Eater's puzzles are fascinating because, if you even vaguely know what the average human's schedule looks like, you know where to start your search. "I've got to find out if this guy has friends, so let's start with the weekend and see what he gets up to." This specifically leads to the weird bits of simulation, as you end up taking the same kinds of notes you imagine Ralph might be taking on his stakeouts. (For example, here's one I kept amidst my various notes: "Zachary Gallon: no commute, 21, purple hair, lives alone, no kids, no bathroom breaks." I promise I've never taken a note like this before in my life.)

On the whole, though, Life Eater is a pretty easy game. Take your time, make smart choices with your actions, and follow your common sense intuition about a person's schedule and you'll make it through just fine. I didn't fully comprehend what I was working with for the first few years and still I managed to stumble my way forward.

But in a few specific cases, Strange Scaffold does obscure its puzzle pieces a bit too much, leading to a few frustrating moments, because failure means going back to the start of a level and having to tediously unlock chunks of each timeline once again.

One level in particular really tripped me up. It had me repeating it over and over, losing track of what small pieces of its puzzle I managed to uncover every time, and almost adding an entire hour to the game's short 2-3 hour runtime. And yes, while I'm always happy to squeeze more time out of my games, when a solid third of the game's runtime is mainly the product of one frustrating level, it certainly leaves a bit to be desired. (It should be noted that an endless puzzle mode will be added in the weeks after launch, so that bit of replayability may help and I do think the system is versatile enough to be enjoyable in a mode like this.)

But like I said, you get what you give a game like Life Eater. And the small ways its gameplay systems echoed back its horrifyingly disturbing narrative ended up being one of the things that resonated with me most in the end.

Abstracting a person's life out as blocks on a video editing timeline is deeply disturbing, and clicking through to see things like someone's hour spent to "mourn" or "disassociate" drives a dagger through your heart and showcases Strange Scaffold's ability to emotionally weaponize simple pieces of a user interface. I know its abstract systems and narrative delivery may not work for everyone, and it certainly took a while for its impact to sink in for me, but if you're a fan of analog horror experiences, Strange Scaffold's unique take will likely work for you.

An in-game screenshot of one of Life Eater's cutscenes. A man in a baseball cap and plain clothing is slumped on the ground, leaning against a giant cage behind him. He looks down, defeated, with his phone in his hand. Inside the cage just behind him is another man with long hair. He also looks down defeated. Subtitles read: "Ralph: I know you know that I can't let you do that."

Its gameplay systems echoed back its horrifyingly disturbing narrative.

Life Eater is the kind of game that comes with a lot of ifs. If you're able to buy into its disturbing narrative, if you're okay with abstract systems-driven storytelling, if you're okay with short and easy... then sign up! And if you are able to embrace all of that, you could come away with it being one of your favorite experiences of the year.

If even one piece doesn't click for you though, the house of cards starts to fall apart.

For me, it almost put all the pieces together. Its narrative stunned me, but it was over in a blink. Its gameplay systems build a fantastic foundation but never quite find that cohesion I'm used to from the team. But when Strange Scaffold only half-clicks you still come out the other end with one of the most original games of the year, one of the strongest narratives of the year, and almost definitely the best kidnapping sim ever released.

Video Games Are Good and Life Eater is . . . GOOD. (7.5/10)

+ a narrative unlike anything you've played presented with confidence, a unique set of gameplay systems suited for the "sim," as disturbing and upsetting as it should be

- inconsistent difficulty, its unique structure takes a bit to settle in if you buy in and simply won't work for you if you don't

The key art for Life Eater. A bearded man with sullen, pained, and glowing eyes, holds up a digital video camera. A plain cap sits atop his head and visual echoes of his eyes float out from him. A green messy paint splotch to his right reveals the game's title.

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