Hotels are a common motif in horror stories. That sense of being away from your safe place can reawaken all sorts of fears, of isolation or things crawling in the night. Studies have proven that the brain is more alert when sleeping in a new location, and this vigilance can lead to some incredibly strange dreams, further giving a simple hotel room a slightly sinister sheen. Free title Swallow the Blue focuses on this feeling of being out of place, throwing the protagonist into a bizarre hotel where he must quickly learn the daily routines of the building’s residents in order to survive. Weaponless, sleep-deprived, and utterly confused, the hapless hero explores the increasingly bizarre floors for a way out.
Swallow the Blue begins with the nameless protagonist stepping into the lobby of the Sapphire Hotel, a place that was clearly once beautiful but has been neglected for some years. The owner personally greets him, warmly, guiding the player to the very best room the building has to offer. The owner leaves him to get settled in, warning that breakfast the next day must not be missed. The creepy presence intensifies around the breakfast table, with hotel guests sipping mugs of blue liquid in perfect unison and praising the owner for his generosity.
One guest is slightly out of sync with the others, and he pulls the protagonist aside when they are away from prying eyes. He explains that the hotel is home to a menacing presence, one that enjoys preying on humans if they do not follow a strict list of routines. Furtively pressing a copy of the list into the protagonist’s hands, he bids the player to seek a way onto the rooftop, as that is the only way one can escape the hotel. Step by step, the protagonist learns the rules, clapping when others do and never making eye contact with staff on the elevator. As he works his way upward through the hotel, each floor brings new strange occurrences and challenges, to the point where it is uncertain if he will make it to safety before his sanity unravels entirely.
A variety of systems are used to make the journey through Swallow the Blue feel as dangerous as possible. Straying from the stringent rules results in a swift, deadly punishment, and certain rooms also have deadly creatures roaming within, which can only be avoided by closing your eyes. Shutting the eyes renders the screen pitch black, making the player depend on sound to tell if danger is near. Save points are rather far apart, with resting at the protagonist’s room the only way to retain progress, so each step into a new room is extremely tense.
Information on both the controls and the rules can be checked at any time, which is helpful in the later areas where movement does not work like one would expect. The residents of the hotel take the daily stage performance seriously, and failing to turn up or clap at the appropriate moments is highly suspicious indeed. This rigid routine really benefits the game, both adding an unsettling atmosphere to the world and giving hints on how to progress.
At times it would be frustrating to have to head back downstairs for the show when a puzzle was nearly figured out, but the shows themselves were always worth the visit. A comedy duo swap between cheesy jokes and harsh violence, both of which are applauded by the crowd. Their act also hints at the backstory of the game, details that would be easily missed if the shows were optional. Along with the hypnotic slurping of the breakfast liquid and the glowing praise of the hotel owner, this repetition builds up a concerning atmosphere — cheerful victims of a terrible fate.
Swallow the Blue contains a lot of text, with the ramblings of the owner, the stage performers, and an odd sea creature really adding up. The dialogue is well-written, aside from the occasional typo, but the text presentation could use refinement. The text speed is about right the first time you read it, but due to the dangerous nature of the hotel, some passages have to be read many times before you finally make it back to the save point without dying. A button to speed up text is present, but it does not speed up the text boxes at all, so mashing the skip text button is barely faster than letting the writing play at normal speed. I usually do not mind games with harsh save systems, but when combined with watching a cutscene over and over, it becomes tedious. Furthermore, the text auto-advances rather than waiting for the player to click through, so slower readers may miss out on important information.
A few control options could also present accessibility issues: Running is done by rapidly tapping “A” or “D” rather than holding a key down or toggling. While I appreciate that mashing buttons creates a sense of urgency, such an action is simply not possible for a lot of players. The closed-eyes mechanic would also have issues for hard-of-hearing players, since sound is the only indicator of safety. A menu with toggles for these options would make the game more approachable.
While I really enjoyed how the story was presented in the main game, pieced together from snippets given by the strange residents of the hotel, I felt it was really undercut by the reward for collecting the optional hats. Five blue fedoras are strewn through the hotel, generally hidden in dangerous areas. Collecting them is a tough challenge, taking almost as long as the rest of the game to obtain them. The reward? A noticeboard of newspaper clippings giving a CliffsNotes summary of the plot.
I was honestly baffled. The storytelling was much better when it was vague, rather than giving confirmation to all my theories. Since gathering the hats was so tricky, I was expecting a more substantial reward. I also did not care for a scare that deliberately froze the game, mainly since it is both unclear about being intentional and located next to an area with lots of dialogue, thus causing a lot of progress to be lost.
Aside from those small issues, however, I enjoyed Swallow the Blue a lot. The art is honestly stunning, with a creepy shimmer over the smoothly animated characters, and the horror is a delightful slow build of small details. The routine adds to the sense of the hotel being a place that existed long before the protagonist came to visit, and it also gives a solid structure for the player to follow amongst the scares. For more odd horror games, developer Euphoric Brothers has several more titles available on its website.
Next week we will be playing I Wish I Was, an adventure game that uses a text parser. The game can be downloaded from itch.io. If you would like to share your thoughts, discussions will be happening in the Discord server.