The Horns is a game for iOS (paid) and PC (free), developed by Fluttermind – the studio of Dene Carter, probably best known for his work on the Fable games. Carter's instincts led him away from big-budget products and towards smaller more experimental titles, and I was delighted to stumble across the latest (it was released a month or two ago). It's a text adventure, Jim, but not as we know it.
The conceit is that you awaken in a darkened room, and hear the irresistible sound of horns in the distance. You then guide your avatar through various hellish landscapes, sometimes stumbling across survivors and other times smack-bang into monsters, trying to reach the call. The Horns is divided into short stages, between each of which is a brief opportunity for respite, and you have a health bar and an insanity bar. Both of these will, you can be assured, be going down at some point.
What's so clever about all this? As well as the writing creating a sinister, intriguing atmosphere, you are simply going to die the first time you attempt this journey. And probably the time after that, and after that. But the brutality isn't really the point, even if it gives the turn-based combat a surprising intensity. The smart thing is that each playthrough of The Horns is a quick journey, one where you learn a tiny bit more about what the game can throw at you, and then start over again. This isn't the first game, or even the first text adventure, to come up with the idea of a repeated cycle, but it's surprising what a great fit this structure is for mobile (the desktop experience is presumably identical, and also free if you fancy just trying it out, but for me this feels made for mobile). I can't imagine playing an 'old style' text adventure on the bus, but for the last few days I've been straight into this.
Then there's the special sauce, which in a way reminds me of Darkest Dungeon. As you move through the environments, you encounter monsters and find items (again, experimenting with these is another way the structure reveals layers), and combat is a relatively simple affair where you choose to attack or run away or try your tools, with the results depending on the situation. The devilish aspect is your companions. See, this isn't a very nice place. I mean, our avatar isn't exactly sane, following their nose through some sort of post-apocalypse because they hear a nice tune. And so everyone you run into is a little bit cracked in the head.
And they're also a potential tool in combat. Your goal, whatever the circumstance, is to reach those horns. These folks... if they want to tag along, great, but are you really responsible for ensuring they survive? The weak-willed might say yes but nasty folk like me come to see them as tools. You can let them take the hits from monsters, or be driven insane by acting as distractions. And if they lose their minds properly, they'll turn on you.
Don't get me wrong: there are more positive sides to these relationships, and keep someone alive for long enough and you'll uncover little nuggets about their past, perhaps even benefit in a material way from their expertise. But when a slavering demon bears down on you and a gibbering companion in a church? On you go mate, have a swing, I've got your back. I'm probably playing it wrong but the companions now seem to me like little more than human shields, whom I'll keep on the edge for as long as I can then throw to the wolves, or abandon before they have the chance to turn on me.
No, it's not nice. But that's why The Horns sticks in your head, and they keep ringing through your ears. The power of the written word is absolute when it comes to our imagination, with a spare sentence or two capable of inspiring thoughts of cavernous, nihilistic worlds more fantastical than anything a team of 3D artists could create. The greatest scares are the ones you play on yourself. The greatest stories are the ones where you fill in the gaps yourself. And it's why The Horns, though it may not look like much, tempts you on, and on, and on towards... who knows?