I recently wrote about the gradual destruction of media at the hands of big companies, so it’s interesting to review a game like Gylt, because it was actually saved from being unplayable. The title was originally released as a Stadia exclusive back in 2019, and was briefly not available anywhere after Stadia was shut down in 2023. But earlier this month, Gylt was re-released on PC and consoles, and I got to check out the PlayStation 5 version.
In the first few minutes, I wasn’t particularly impressed by Gylt. It wasn’t necessarily “bad”, but the plot about a young girl searching for her cousin in a weird, spooky version of a familiar location felt a bit too Stranger Things (yeah, I know the irony of saying something is derivative of Stranger Things when Stranger Things is purposefully derivative of a lot of other things). The gameplay also felt very familiar, as it has you sneaking around monsters and scrounging up scarce resources to potentially kill them, just like a more simplistic version of The Last of Us. You even go around consuming random discarded medications to regain health, though this time, it’s inhalers rather than pills. At first, I didn’t really get the point of a watered-down version of The Last of Us until I came to a realization; Gylt isn’t for people who can or should play The Last of Us.
Gylt is horror for kids.
For some reason, the absence of blood and the monsters being more of a “Henry Sellick” level of creepy didn’t clue me into this. No, it didn’t click for me that Gylt is aimed more at children until I noticed that the graffiti in the school contained relatively tame and juvenile messages like “Snot!!” and “We want winners, not wee-nerds.” Suddenly, everything came together: the relatively simple gameplay, the narrative’s ever-present themes of bullying, the reliance on dread over graphic violence for scares (one jumpscare got me good…) I respected Gylt a lot more once I saw it for what it was: a stepping stone for youngsters who are curious about survival horror games but also probably shouldn’t be thrown into the deep end.
While there are a lot of other indie horror games being released in that T-rated sweet spot, Gylt feels unique in that it’s a self-contained story that doesn’t feel like it’s designed to set up a franchise or launch a line of merchandise (this type of game is so common that they literally made a TV Tropes page for it). It’s a pretty simple story about Sally, a young girl who goes looking for her cousin, Emily, and stumbles into a supernatural realm where all of Emily’s fears and insecurities about being bullied are transformed into monstrous forms. As Sally gets closer and closer to reuniting with Emily, she realizes that even though she didn’t directly bully Emily, she’s still complicit because she never stood up for her. As much as the story can feel familiar and predictable, at its core, it still has an important message about how standing on the sidelines while someone is attacked and humiliated can be just as bad as taking part in it.
I was surprised by how good Gylt looks, and it’s an example of how a reliable art style can visually set an indie game above a AAA title with state-of-the-art graphics. Everything from the characters to the monsters to the locations feels like something from a Laika film but with a little less exaggeration. Illustrated images are used in the place of cutscenes, and this economic decision leads to something that gives the game a bit of a storybook feel.
The game also sounds good, as Chris Velasco’s score brings an appropriate amount of whimsy and terror. It’s sinister enough to really help with the illusion that Gylt has more of an edge than it actually does. It really plays with your imagination. Speaking of audio, I initially thought the sound design for Sally’s footsteps was maybe a little too loud or out of sync while she was running, but as soon as the monsters entered the story, this felt more like a feature than a bug. Whenever you’re running around quickly, you become painfully aware of how loud you’re being, and it helps encourage the player to slowly creep around enemies. It makes running more of something you do as a last resort if you’ve already been spotted.
As stated before, the gameplay isn’t groundbreaking. There are some fun puzzles, but the bulk of the game involves avoiding and taking out enemies. For the most part, this is pretty easy. You have a flashlight that can be used to blind and take out enemies at the cost of battery life and a fire extinguisher that temporarily freezes enemies. The flashlight requires batteries that are scattered throughout the levels, while the fire extinguisher refills automatically. It all makes you feel just a little too safe and powerful for a survival horror game, but then again, this game is supposed to be an entry point.
I played through the game twice. In my initial run, I took my time to get all of the collectables and explore everything. For the second round, I skipped all of the collectables in order to get the last achievement I needed to platinum the game, which requires that you complete the game without defeating any enemies.
Gylt is a bit more challenging and engaging when you no longer have the ability to remove threats, but even though I stuck by these rules, I didn’t get the trophy. Looking back, the problem may have been when I shoved an invisible enemy, even though shoving every other enemy type in the game specifically doesn’t kill them. I would have gone back to an early save file to test this hypothesis, but that brings me to my one major gripe with Gylt: you can’t save manually. The game only has one save file, and it saves the game whenever the hell it wants (possibly whenever you enter/exit an area). It’s especially weird that a game sort of made for kids wouldn’t have a save file because kids often have siblings, and siblings want to play the same games as each other. It’s 2023. We shouldn’t still have games with one save file.
Overall, Gylt is a pretty reliable- if not derivative- starting point for those looking to dip their toes into survival horror. There are definitely some quality-of-life changes that could’ve been made when the game was ported (most games allow you to exit a pause menu when you instinctively press the usual “back button,” but Gylt doesn’t do that). The more I played, the more a lot of my concerns seemed to melt away. The story became much more intriguing and elaborate, and enemies that showed up later on, like creepy, unbeatable dolls, started to shake things up. Gylt isn’t perfect, but it’s definitely worth its $20 price and probably a better alternative to whatever game is trying to be the next Five Nights at Freddy’s this week.