Slowly but surely, I have been making my way through Warframe’s story missions. And while understandably story and lore may not be the first things that comes to mind when you think about this shooter, Digital Extremes does not skimp on them. You can find them all over (sometimes in plain sight, sometimes not), but especially in the story missions. And it is in these missions that DE packs a story punch. One of my most impactful Warframe moments was in The Second Dream! At that point I wasn’t sure whether story would continue to affect me so viscerally, but I remained eager to experience more. Spoiler: It did!
And I loved it.
Now, let me note here that to have the full effect, you should be very sure you do not start the mission from the navigation window as you lose the entirety of the visuals of that first scene. That, my friends, is a massive loss! I know, because I did just that; I had to go back and watch a clip via YouTube to see what really happened for myself.
Warning: The rest of this column contains pretty explicit spoilers, so if you have not yet played through Chains of Harrow, read at your own risk. I repeat, continuing past this point will spoil the surprise and story elements. OK, now that you’ve been warned…
Hopefully, you start the mission with the creeptastic haunted moments aboard your orbiter. If that doesn’t clue you in to the type of mission that’s ahead, I’d have to wonder if you were asleep through it. That vibe only continues from that moment on. That’s what made Chains of Harrow so great to me! Digital Extremes used visuals and sounds masterfully to create an ambiance that set me up for some very visceral experiences. And then it made my heart race like a B-Movie killer was right at my heels — and didn’t let up.
The very first thing I noticed when I landed in the mission was the atmosphere. This was DE’s first use of a darkened set, reducing the lighting for effect. It worked very well! Aside from some glow and scattered shafts of light, I counted on my frame’s personal light to see. If I wanted to go check out dark corners, I needed to go right up into them. That only made me want to explore every blackened nook and cranny even more – and that gave things ample opportunity to jump out and spook me. The lack of lighting also increased the chance of stumbling across otherwise obscure visuals that pop out. (Yes, I am talking about messages written in blood!) The use of reds in the final mission added to the horror and gory feeling without gore dripping everywhere.
Lighting and looks was only half of the equation. Combine the visual with the audio: It started with Space Mom whispering and moved into haunted sounds echoing along the walls in an otherwise hushed and abandoned environment. Then you have soft mechanical sounds in the background, almost lulling you. Music would swell at points increasing your internal agitation, and then you had to follow the voice through the dark. Those whispered words alternating between sides of my headset really amplified the sensation that whatever was there was surrounding me and could come at me from anywhere. The ambiance had me feeling more physically and emotionally invested in this mission as I swung my camera vantage around; I was hyped into a fight or flight mode by the atmosphere alone.
The sights and sounds certainly set the mood. Together, they kept my nerves winding tighter and tighter the further I crept. If that hadn’t been enough (and it wasn’t – I mean, why stop there?), the lack of anything happening for so long built even more tension! My initial surprise at how empty the mission was quickly turned to knowing nods. Oh, devs knew exactly what they were doing here. I am on to them. Soon, that desolation felt much more menacing. I just knew something was going to happen… any time now… yes, something was definitely going to jump scare me at some point, but it kept dragging out until I was wound up tighter than a spring. Now? Now? Is it in this corner? Or this one?!
When it finally happened, even though I was expecting it for so long, it still got me. (I apologize again to all those eardrums!) Nailing an expected scare is a work of art. Bravo. You have to drag it out just long enough to make the mark doubt it will happen anymore but not so long that they give up on it altogether.
Shortly thereafter I might have regretted wanting “something to happen”; once the action got going in earnest in the second half, it became fast-paced chaos where I had to start relying on muscle memory to move forward. And my poor keyboard! At this point the music is rushing you, the on -creen action is rushing you, and the creepy apparition is popping all over getting in your face every which way. As the cacophony of sight, sound, and action swirled around me, I was hitting my keyboard even harder and losing my ability to focus. I’d get easily turned around and lose sight of where I was going. Such is the mastery of action and atmosphere conspiring together against you.
And then came the final confrontation. Up to this point I rarely used my operator, so having to rely only on her was a nice change of pace for me. I also really loved the stealth aspects. The escalated music and the intensity of the sounds kept the sense of urgency and wound nerves up enough that I got flustered into make some keystroke mistakes. It took me a number of deaths but I got the hang of what was needed.
I very much enjoyed the atmosphere of this mission, from the ambiance to the mysterious figures to the use of a red palette at the end. The story itself was intriguing and raised some questions worth exploring. I am looking forward to replaying it (and seeing that initial scene!) and picking up on more pieces that I might have missed before.
In between my playthrough (I did the mission in two halves), a friend expressed how disappointed they were in the apparent portray of Autism in this mission. Due to that, and combined with my other work and training, I was on the lookout even more carefully for portrayal and representation. I do see what they meant there, but ultimately I came away with a slightly different sense than my friend. I feel there’s actually more to the story, and we’ll explore the ties to mental health and alternative abilities next time in Warframe of Mind.