Horror, stealth, and co-operative multiplayer. Three elements that shouldn’t really gel together yet, somehow, The Blackout Club makes it work.
Developed by Question, whose ranks include key talent from the BioShock franchise, this is the studio’s second project following 2015’s The Magic Circle, in which you play as the hero of an unfinished game stuck in development hell.
The Blackout Club marks a change in direction for the fledgling studio though still carries their focus on first-person storytelling. It also taps into the burgeoning multiplayer horror scene, recently popularised by games such as Friday the 13th and Dead By Daylight, though The Blackout Club is a strictly co-op affair.
Left 4 Dead and Payday are strong points of comparison here – as is Vermintide – though The Blackout Club feels completely original, slicing choice cuts from successful multiplayer games such as these, then adding its own creative twist. Instead of gun-wielding survivors, bank robbers, or swords for hire, you play as a group of adolescents investigating strange goings on in their quiet hometown of Redacre, Virginia.
It’s the early 2000s and children have been going missing at night, only to wake up in the surrounding woodland with no recollection of what happened. Aside from refusing to believe them, their parents are also acting… strange. There’s something sinister afoot and with no social media (or even a cell signal in this remote part of the United States), these kids form The Blackout Club in an attempt to expose Redacre’s dark secret.
It’s an intriguing premise for a multiplayer game and one that definitely feels inspired by Goosebumps and The X-Files, with Stranger Things being another key touchstone. Question has a clear focus on storytelling and creating a setting that isn’t just another virtual sandbox. The Blackout Club features a tutorial that also doubles up as a singleplayer prologue of sorts, establishing lore while also showing you the ropes. The team isn’t looking to skimp on production value either. Although this early build is rough around the edges and has placeholder assets, it has a distinct look and atmosphere.
Bells is one of teens who has been experiencing blackouts. Home alone, one night she discovers a passageway leading to an underground network of tunnels. Both here and above the surface, Redacre’s residents roam mindlessly, as if possessed, guarding some kind of strange secret. Although she manages to infiltrate this subterranean maze, Bells never makes it back to The Blackout Club’s headquarters.
This abandoned train car is your base of operations. In groups of up to four, The Blackout Club will take to the streets of Redacre in search of anything that can help them fight back against this mysterious force that has enthralled their hometown. These missions are objective based rather than feeling like self-contained chapters from a story-driven campaign. Once you and your squadmates have readied up, you’ll drop into a neighborhood, the game presenting you with a series of tasks such as photographing evidence, stealing intel, or extracting mysterious artifacts.
The first map in this early access build of the game is fairly huge, especially when you factor in verticality, and it’s yours to explore. At street level you can enter homes and scavenge for items that will come in handy should you need to go underground.
Redacre is being surveilled from top to bottom at all times, however. Sleepwalking grunts are roaming the streets and you’ll need to be constantly aware of drones and cameras. Bolting from one objective marker to the next is a surefire way to get yourself captured, potentially compromising the entire mission, so a stealthy, methodical approach is required.
You won’t be toting assault rifles, swords, or slinging spells in The Blackout Club. There’s no direct combat as per se, forcing you to rely on makeshift tools and repurposed DIY supplies to help distract, disrupt, and incapacitate enemies while also helping you navigate the environment.
Character movement is surprising dynamic, at least much more so than a lot of immersive sims or survival horror games. It’s not exactly Mirror’s Edge though you can climb most surfaces to either gain a vantage point or to escape patrols, the grappling hook giving you easy access to higher, harder to reach spots.
This build of the game features two types of guards: Sleepwalkers that are blind but sensitive to sound, and Lucids that can spot light and movement. You can’t always anticipate where they are or in which direction they’re moving so, chances are, you’ll eventually get noticed. It’s not game over right then and there, however. You can use items to stun your would-be captors and flee or have teammates tackle them from behind.
It goes without saying that teamwork is key in The Blackout Club. Even if you aren’t communicating via voice chat, you can highlight enemies and other points of interest similar to Left 4 Dead. With some playtime under your belt, you’ll lend how to effectively monitor guards, lay traps, and bait patrols, gaining the upper hand and allowing other club members to complete objectives without getting caught.
There is one enemy you won’t be able to thwart, however. Whether it’s some kind of spectre, demon, or alien isn’t made clear but if you cause too much of a ruckus, “The Shape” will emerge from one of the ominous red doors scattered throughout the map. This invisible predator will chase you down, only relenting once you’re far enough out of range. It’ll corrupt your mind if it gets too close, The Blackout Club’s version of bleeding out and needing a revive. Your character will mindlessly move around the map until another player can bring them to their senses, usually placing them in danger too.
Completing missions and making your way back to base will earn you experience and other rewards such as cosmetics for your character. Levelling up will also give you access to perk-like powers and abilities that will eventually allow you to specialize. Think of it a class system with options to spend points on scouting powers such as a remote-controlled drone, or having the brute strength to knock down enemies.
On paper, The Blackout Club sounds like something that just shouldn’t work, yet it does. The way it manages to weave together stealth and horror within the framework of a co-op action game is commendable, especially when you factor in the efforts made to create a distinct story and setting. Like any stealth game, there will be bad runs: failed attempts where everything seems to go wrong. However, with patience and skill, the game has all the right tools to execute the perfect plan.
One niggling concern is longevity. With this being an early build, there’s no way of knowing just how many maps, objectives, enemies, gadgets, and unlocks The Blackout Club will include at launch. If forced to run the same missions over and over, there’s a good chance repetition will quickly set in if Question can’t find ways to keep unrolling new features or drop you into a variety of different gameplay scenarios. Alternatively, we’re hoping the game will lean into its class system and character customization a little harder.
It may not have a fixed release date yet, but The Blackout Club is already shaping up to be one of the most unique co-op video games out there. It has that distinct flavour and an evident attention to detail we’re growing to expect from Question. This early look certainly shows promise. Once it’s been fleshed out and those rough edges softened down, this could easily be one of 2019’s breakout hits.
The Blackout Club is available now on Steam Early Access.