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  • Writer's pictureNate Hermanson

REVIEW: Explore local legends in the GPS app-based Simulacra 3

We've all been there once in our life. Diving through our phones, jumping from one app to the next, searching names and details as we look to uncover some answers — for personal reasons or research, I ain't asking questions — that only the supercomputers in our pockets can answer. If you've ever enjoyed those deep searches, or been the one in your friend group who can dig up just about anything your friends asked for, Simulacra might be the horror series for you.

The first two Simulacra games feel like perfect closed-system thrillers — spooky horror games that not only use familiar experiences to build a constant sense of dread as you wait for the other shoe to drop, but also deliver commentary on the social media landscape and the surprising amount of power held behind messages delivered over the phone.

Simulacra 3 both broadens and focuses the scope of the series, centering around a GPS social media app that has you examining an entire town's rise and fall.

Just the Facts

Developer: Kaigan Games

Publisher: Neon Doctrine

Platform(s): PC

Price: $9.99

Release Date: Oct. 25, 2022

Review code provided by publisher.

"Smartphone Horror"

In Simulacra 3 players take on the role of "Rook," an unnamed intern at a local paper. They've been recruited for a special project by an unrelenting veteran of the paper, Ruby Meyers, who relies on facts above all else. The town of Stonecreek is on lockdown following multiple disappearances, and so, with a mysterious phone in your possession and nowhere else to go, Rook and Ruby get to work.

Investigating missing folk, a frightening town legend about a drowned woman, and Paul, the paranoiac who delivered his phone to Ruby (and then you) just before the game starts, the duo is wrapped up in a saga that has them working across the entire town to uncover exactly what's going on.

The horror this time around comes primarily from the Bedlam, a local legend about a witch who cursed the town when she was blamed for a period of drought and consequently drowned by the townsfolk. Paul, the man whose phone you're poking through, has been investigating the legend for signs of proof for years and believes that the Bedlam is at the center of all these missing people. Her legend is reminiscent of other ghost stories passed down through generations (La Llorona, Bloody Mary), and in using its familiar set-up, it works as a (mostly) effective tool for scares.

Past games relied heavily on cheaper scare tactics — jump scares and the like — and Simulacra 3 keeps things a bit more restrained in that regard. I missed the ways those first two games toyed with the player, but I appreciated a deeper and more creative exploration of ways to produce thrills. Spooky imagery, chilling writing, and some more intense "live" video work are where this game focuses its horror. It results in an experience that never felt as scary as previous games, but without those sudden shocks, the story felt richer and a bit more mature.

As you might expect from a game that focuses on social media culture, Simulacra has always delivered some sort of (oftentimes heavy-handed) message about society. This time, Simulacra has its crosshairs pointed at gentrification and how easily misinformation can spread on the internet. It's got a unique approach to the misinfo angle, and gentrification is far from the usual topic covered in games like these, so I admire that Kaigan Games is trying to start deeper discussions here. Even if it is far from subtle.

An in-game screenshot of Simulacra 3 depicting the ATLAS app's social interface. A post about a person's experience at Seer Antiquities can be seen. It reads: "This was my first experience with a psychic and tarot, and I have to say, it was an amazing experience. She was very genuine and empathetic. The Mistress made sure she knew what I was comfortable with hearing before show shared, which I really appreciated."

Plot a route to safety

Through your investigation, you'll be consuming lots of text. As you peruse emails, texts, social media posts, blogs, pictures, videos, and a variety of apps to unlock encrypted information locked deep within the phone, most of your game time is spent reading. So... fair warning if you like your games a little less book-like. The writing is a little tighter all around than in past games, but it still feels a little cheesy — particularly with a focus on the supernatural, with talk of ancient ghosts and cryptids, and the kind of #cringe that you might expect from social media writing. Past games have used Instagram and Twitter equivalents to serve as vehicles for their stories, but in Simulacra 3, they've shifted toward something a little more niche: ATLAS, a kind of Nextdoor-Google Maps hybrid.

Browsing through areas in town and the discussions surrounding them, you'll see issues of homelessness, a force in the city council pushing for "town improvement" beyond what anyone's asking for, and a general mix of caring and callousness for neighbors discussed in ATLAS. While it's refreshing to see a shift away from the usual apps and social media networks, it's not nearly as fun or exciting to play around in what equates to a map app.

But it does manifest in some interesting gameplay twists for the series, as Kaigan Games continues to find ways to introduce new mechanics into a series all about tinkering with your phone.

The phone you're working with is heavily encrypted and all the information about every lead you're investigating is waiting for you somewhere within the phone. To decrypt this info, you just need to scan pertinent clues in apps, texts, videos and the like (this is made obvious, with the scan icon showing up only when a relevant clue is on the screen) and then bring that clue to the locked piece of information to unlock it.

All of these puzzles are super straightforward, but they do require some out-of-the-box thinking, which is appreciated. It's in the game's newest mechanic that some of the more frustrating puzzles arise.

An in-game screenshot of Simulacra 3 depicting the ATLAS app. It shows a map interface where the player is plotting a route between multiple points.

Within ATLAS, you are sometimes asked to plot a route between various points of interest on the map to decrypt information, either by mapping the chronological path a character took through the town or linking related locations in some clever way. It's something new, but it's executed a little poorly.

For one, when it first presents itself, it shows just four spots you can use to plot a route. So, of course, your brain says, "I need four locations to solve this puzzle!" However, that was true only once or twice across my five hours of gameplay. Because it didn't communicate very well how this mechanic actually works, I ended up wasting so much time trying to understand what fourth location I was missing or how the four I had input weren't the answer... when all I needed was to input more or fewer locations.

And even when that became clear, these puzzles (and many others) ended up slightly more frustrating than needed when navigating through the phone's user interface. It's just cumbersome enough that I felt the need to break out the pen and paper just to make things smoother, rather than feeling like it made me more clever to do so.

In the end, the actual puzzle-solving ended up stuck in this place between frustrating and satisfying, despite the team's best efforts. But the closed-system framework, placing all of this within the confines of a phone, goes a long way toward making this feel fresh even in spite of some of the frustrations.

An in-game screenshot of Simulacra 3 shows a video being played on the in-game cellphone. The video shows a man looking down at a pile of papers just in front of a classic detective pinboard wall.

Video calls are always a little awkward...

In an effort to differentiate the gameplay and introduce some more familiar smartphone experiences, Kaigan Games added a few new mechanics that leverage the live-action work the series has previously used to break up the otherwise phone-based action. There are video calls and a thrilling Five Nights at Freddy's-esque segment where you use your phone's security cam system to help navigate Ruby safely through a dangerous situation.

During video calls, you'll be face-to-face with one of the game's live actors, guiding them through a situation with timed dialogue choices. These decisions feel like the most consequential in leading you toward one of the game's different endings, along with the game's text-based dialogue choices. How you treat folks in one-on-one conversations and how the vaguely tense video calls end up can seal the fate of different characters and even the town itself. There's a ton of tension driving you to make the right choices, particularly toward the game's end. But if you play your cards right and follow some common sense, it's easy to guide yourself toward a good ending.

There are some awkward moments here. Video calls are far from seamless, as it plays both scripted and reactive clips — depending on the choices you make. Sometimes you might just be staring at an actor silently blinking into the camera... but it never felt like it diminished the moment. If anything, it felt like the realistic awkward pause we've all grown accustomed to in the video conferencing era.

The security system segment is probably the biggest showcase of potential for a series like Simulacra. But it's also emblematic of the issues the series has with fulfilling that potential. Using a series of cameras, you help explore a house and eventually help navigate a character to safety. You'll use smart home connections to create distractions and clear a path for your companion. While it is one of the most dynamic segments of the entire series, it's way too short and not as involved as you'd expect, ending just as quickly as it starts. It showcases the potential of playing the "man in the chair," supporting someone on the scene, but it ultimately still feels held back.

Of course, there's only so much that Kaigan Games can do as a smaller team. What they pull off here is impressive considering, but all things equal, it falls just short of the mark more often than not.

An in-game screenshot of Simulacra 3 showcases the texting interface on the in-game cellphone. The player is chatting with someone named Persephone who is criticizing someone the player knows. They have the text reply options of: "What was your experience with her?" "Extreme, how?" and "I take it you're not a fan of her reporting." A dimly lit room can be seen in the background.

What these two sequences do pull off is supporting (and putting more focus on) the acting performances that the series has started to rely on. Through voice clips and videos, Simulacra has essentially turned into an FMV thriller series, with live actors anchoring the overall narrative. The two leads behind most of the action in Simulacra 3 — Tung Jit Yan as Paul and Amanda Ang as Ruby — deliver some incredibly earnest performances. I guarantee I mean this as a compliment when I say they deliver peak '90s schlocky horror, serving up tension and terror while having to work directly against the camera. Some of the game's final moments with Ruby affected me more than I expected, and Amanda deserves love for the work she's put in.

While I spent most of my time with Simulacra 3 waiting for the game to reach its full potential and never quite seeing it happen, Kaigan Games continues to deliver one of the more unique horror series out there. Scrolling through a phone to discover the world's horrors is always worth it — it at least adds a new definition to doomscrolling, I'll tell you that — but I can't help but wonder what Kaigan Games could do if they met the full potential they continue to showcase throughout this trilogy.

Regardless, it's a worthy expansion of the series, and with an affordable price tag, I definitely recommend giving it a shot.

video games are good and Simulacra 3 is . . . GOOD. (6.5/10) + maintains all the unique aspects of the series, delivers an interesting message in a thrilling package, and manages to keep the tension high in a stripped-back package - not as scary as previous entries, nor as all-encompassing of the modern social media landscape, puzzles are mostly easy save for a few frustrating thinkers that leave you scratching your head, and feels limited in its scope

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