The concept of summer camp is foreign to me. I know a little from American movies but being Australian means I’m unaccustomed to the tradition. Sure we had school camps growing up, and they were usually in the summer, although they were always supervised by teachers or parents and were never more than a week long. I think that If I were an American teenager heading away to a camp for months on end without my friends and family, I’d be more than a little overwhelmed. For me, summer camp stirs uneasy feelings that come from unknown surroundings and a group of strangers, not knowing who is friendly or who you can trust. I believe this is why the summer camp is the perfect setting for a horror story.
Although too many films with similar settings exhausted the summer camp trope. The Friday the 13th franchise and Sleepaway Camp, and the Friday the 13th remake immediately come to mind. I don’t know of any recent horror set in a camp, but the resurgence of 80s hhorror with TV shows like Stranger Things will probably lead a revival. Until then we have an abundance of games to fill that void. The most recent entry Camp Sunshine was released right in time for Halloween.
Camp Sunshine is a 16-bit horror/adventure game where your goal is to survive the night and stop a costumed maniac from murdering all of the campers. It’s 1984. You play a Jez, a teenager who wakes during his first night at camp to find blood splattered throughout his cabin and when he ventures outside, the corpses begin piling up. A mysterious man named Isaac is dressed in the costume of the Camp Sunshine mascot and is stalking Jez throughout the camp. It’s up to you to first survive and second locate hidden diary pages that explain Isaac’s origin story and hopefully a way to stop him.
Just an FYI, this indie titles bares no resemblance to the 1964 film Monster of Camp Sunshine where “a nudist camp caretaker who drinks from a contaminated stream and transforms into an axe-wielding maniac.”(I need to locate that film). Camp Sunshine looks and plays like a typical Super Nintendo game with the addition of excessive gore and a modern soundtrack. Despite looking like it’s straight out of 1994, Camp Sunshine creates a tense and disturbing atmosphere that had me on edge throughout.
The voice acting is superb. There’s very little of it, but when it’s used, the voice over adds an additional layer of desperation to the already harrowing ordeal. Isaac laughing and taunting you while he’s on your trail can be unnerving. The best piece of voice over was when I entered a dorm, and I could hear a women’s voice whispering asking for help and warning me that Isaac was moving closer.
Camp Sunshine itself can be a fun location to explore. There are dozens of buildings, some interesting, some are not. There are just too many buildings that serve no purpose other than padding the camp and making it appear larger than it is. On the other hand, the arcade has a working parody of Pac-Man! Still many of the locations offer useful items like batteries for your flashlight and energy drinks to restore stamina which can be acquired by rummaging through drawers and trash bins.
It’s inside buildings and dorm rooms that you find corpses of other campers but also hints about the game’s main objective: the diary pages. You are not the only survivor, but you are the only one who’s not a jerk. The survivors you encounter all possess diary pages but will only give them to you once you have completed their respective fetch quest. The quests range from collecting items to collecting items then solving lite-puzzles, there’s not much to them, but they add some much-needed variety to the gameplay.
The main issue with the gameplay which will be a deal breaker for some is that Isaac is too good of a killing machine. When Isaac is about, he’s going to get you, there’s no escaping him. He spawns extremely close and can outrun you. You may survive if you are close enough to a doorway as passing through the threshold resets Isaac’s location. This would be fine if he couldn’t spawn inside buildings too.
When Isaac catches you, there’s a short death cut-scene and it’s straight to the game over screen, then reloading a saved file. Dorm beds offer save points, but they are predominantly found in a small area of the camp which means venturing away from them is guaranteed to result in death with no save point. I was stuck in the ‘woods’ area where I was forced to restart dozens of times because Isaac would always spawn in my path. Then, for no foreseeable reason, he didn’t show up, and I was able to move on. Skill cannot help you through Camp Sunshine, surviving is entirely based on luck, and it shouldn’t be the case.
I would love to see the developer Fossil Games take Camp Sunshine back to the drawing board and implement a system where Jez can hide in one of the many trees, closets or trash cans that are spread throughout the camp. If you can hide before Isaac sees you, great, you survive. If you don’t, death. My review would be significantly different if a simple feature such as that was included.
Overall, Camp Sunshine is an excellent homage to 80’s slasher horror and does wondrous things that could leave many reevaluating their opinions of the 16-bit era. Unfortunately, it’s also a mixed bag of good intentions and bad game design. Camp Sunshine is developed by Fossil Games. It’s available now for PC on Steam and the Humble Store.
Michael Vane is a freelance journalist and co-editor of PN2. He’s on Twitter @DrVane