There's something very unnerving about an empty hotel. They're establishments designed to house wayfarers, those on the path towards something else, or those seeking out a path without knowing where that final destination lies. Seeing one desolate, devoid of the hustle and bustle of daily life, is an uncanny sensation. It's that eerie dread and solitary fear that Fobia: St. Dinfna Hotel plays upon, crafting a survival horror experience that may not be wholly original, but marks its stamp nonetheless.
Fans of the recent first-person Resident Evil games will revel in the claustrophobic encounters with horrifying monsters, the shrewd puzzles, and detailed locations that makes you second-guess everything you do. It doesn't quite stick the landing in terms of its time-bending story, which occasionally gets a little too convoluted for its own good, but you're in for a memorable and gripping twelve-hour story despite this.
Ultimately, Fobia: St. Dinfna Hotel scratches that survival horror itch due to the conviction with which it presents its eponymous location. From shadowy figures lurking behind doors slightly ajar to a damn elevator that never quite works, the chances are you'll want to steer clear of a hotel for a little while after dipping your toes into this surprisingly impressive indie horror.
A Story Across Time
You step into the shoes of Roberto, a fresh-faced journalist looking to make it big by investigating the notoriously mysterious hotel from which the game takes its name. Rumoured to be built on a historic burial site, previous investigators digging into St. Dinfna simply vanished without a trace - but Roberto has a contact who he believes will help him get to the bottom of this centuries-spanning urban legend.
It's a plot that doesn't break the barriers of horror storytelling, though the first few hours of Fobia: St. Dinfna Hotel certainly have a lot of intrigue behind them. Doors will slam shut for no apparent reason, noises will wisp through the hallways, and the meticulous detail of each room uncovers the story of what has happened there previously.
It's a shame, then, that the plot loses its footing as we progress. It starts off in familiar but engaging haunted house-adjacent territory, before turning into a time-hopping, Bioshock-style fantasy caper that doesn't keep in fitting with what's come before. That's principally due to the secondary protagonist you also play, a nobleman called Christopher who stumbles across dimension-spanning relics while mining in the town of Treze Trilhas. He's a morally grey character who provides a very different perspective to Christopher's, but the unravelling of his links to the overall plot feels rushed.
The same can be said for the last hour or so of the story, which goes wildly off the rails based on the taut, atmospheric horror that comes before. Without delving too much into the specifics, Roberto and Christopher's plotlines intersect with the overarching mystery behind the hotel, but it happens so fast that the result never quite feels satisfying.
Resident Evil Meets Travelodge
While the plot of Fobia: St. Dinfna Hotel may leave you wanting, the gameplay is refined and well designed enough to paper over those cracks. Anyone who has played the recent first-person Resident Evil sequels will immediately feel at home, with vast open buildings to explore, clues to find, and puzzles to solve in order to progress.
Fobia takes it one step further though, oftentimes feeling more like an out-and-out puzzle game than a survival horror experience. These brain-teasers take on the environmental veneer from Capcom's revolutionary horror franchise, with a key focus on finding items hidden across the map to unlock doors, or noting down digits and codes from text pickups to plug into computers. It works very well and the puzzles feel incredibly rewarding to solve, even if some of them feel devilishly challenging.
The most unique gameplay element in Fobia: St. Dinfna Hotel is a seemingly innocuous camera you pick up around an hour into the game. Initially seeming fairly pointless, you soon discover that flipping to the camera lets you see the hotel from years gone by, almost as a totally different dimension. Rather than just an aesthetic change, it often completely revolutionises how each room looks: new furniture, old-fashioned machinery, and even passages that may be blocked in the present day. It's a truly genius bit of game design, that adds a whole new consideration when traversing the hotel and solving puzzles. You'll often find a clue for a present-day obstacle hidden in the past dimension, meaning you'll have to search everywhere with a fine-tooth comb.
Annoyingly, some of the controls lack the required polish to make this traversal between universes feel totally seamless. Swapping the camera in and out of Roberto's hands is a clunky process, taking a fair few seconds. That's not to be expected of an investigative journalist, and it makes the required backtracking to fully search each location that bit more tedious. Equally, swapping out guns, which you'll use consistently, can also feel slow. There were more than a few cases where I pressed the correct shortcut on the D-pad, but the requested gun simply never showed up.
Yes, combat is another key notch on Fobia belt, and it's also handled with surprising care. As a result of the hotel's murky pat, zombified residents lurk around the halls, resembling fleshy skeletons with burning red chests. They aren't scary per se, and lack the intimidation factor of something like RE7's Molded, but they're a very capable adversary nonetheless. Initially plodding towards you, their jittery bursts of intense speed can easily catch you off-guard, especially if you're low on ammo.
Their far more irritating counterpart is the Children, smaller rat-like creatures that scour the hotel's walls. Not only are they incredibly scary, suddenly jumping out to catch me off-guard and yelping several times, but they're very hard to spot or anticipate. Prepare for a few pauses to catch your breath.
As may be expected from a game of this scale, there are a few performance problems lurking in the pre-release build I got my hands on. There was one point in particular where I had to fully close the game and restart from my most recent save, after I clicked back onto an already-completed puzzle, with no way of subsequently backing out. It's minor inconveniences like this that mar the immersion, alongside some rubbery character models that do no justice to the next-gen hardware the game runs on. Load times zip by though, which is always a plus.
What some players may find more frustrating, however, are some of the game design choices - particularly around save progress and checkpoints. Taking clear inspiration from the first few Resident Evil games, you can only save in Fobia at specific points, where you align your pocket watch with larger clocks scattered around the hotel. So far, so good: we've seen it in the aforementioned horror series, and the nervousness with which you approach every encounter, fully aware that you're one death away from losing plenty of progress, is a thrilling one.
However, some of the checkpoints — or lack thereof in certain instances — feel at odds with the game's pacing. There's one notable moment where you do battle with a stalker-type villain called Red Light, in a fairly intense mid-game encounter. The problem here is that the game doesn't give you any checkpoints immediately before the fight, so if you die you'll go back to your last save - which, if you're playing through at a regular pace, is about fifteen minutes prior. None of the other boss fights have that problem, so it made for a particularly frustrating and repetitive scenario of playing through the same puzzles and clearing the same enemies, just to make up for one death in a boss fight.
On top of that, a few of the default settings also feel at odds with your progress. For example, you have to manually turn on objectives from within the settings menu, an option that really ought to be turned on by default. It took until the final act of the game before I even became aware of this, meaning you could easily return to a play session with no clear idea of what to do if you didn't have that guidance. The same could be said for the lack of a mini-map, meaning you either had to learn the layout of each environment by heart or stumble around to remember the area you're looking for.
But those gripes shouldn't take away from the remarkable achievement that Fobia: St. Dinfna Hotel is. In my twelve hours with the game, my expectations were vastly surpassed. This was in no small part due to the really engaging level design and taut survival horror gameplay, taking clear inspiration from my all-time favourite game series, Resident Evil. The narrative could use some tightening up, and it's one that you won't remember for too long, but the quality of the moment-to-moment gameplay more than makes up for that.
If you go in expecting a tribute to the Resident Evil franchise, or survival horror as a whole, you'll be more than impressed with FOBIA: St. Dinfna Hotel. Your slow, atmospheric journey through the hotel and its dark secrets will leave you wide-eyed and consistently engaging, capturing a similar feeling I felt when first exploring the Spencer Mansion or RPD. You may not expect much from it going in, but FOBIA: St. Dinfna Hotel is a much-welcomed surprise that is more than worth your time.
Reviewed on PlayStation 5. A code was provided by the publisher.