Witching Hour: Indie Horror on the Dreamcast?

I could hear the wind and rain lashing at my bedroom window, like a cruel temptress in the night, wailing its cries of anguish through the tempest. I hunkered down, my hands shivering with cold and the fear of the evil lurking outside; my face dimly lit by the pale light of the television screen in front of me. Below it sat the white Sega machine, which I had turned on in a feeble attempt to distract myself from the nightmares swirling around my head, but I just found myself sitting there, staring mindlessly at the screen, unable to focus my attention long enough to decide which of the discs in front of me would be my attempt to escape the maelstrom. 

And then, a knock. At least, it sounded like a knock. The thunder rumbled in the distance, a flash of blue in the sky accompanying it, but I'm sure there was a knock. A timid, almost distant, tapping on the glass of the front door. I waited, anxiously, my mind tripping between scenarios - a visitor? At this hour? No. No one would be brave enough to face the violent storm battering the town tonight, surely? A creature, seeking shelter from the weather, perhaps? Nonsense. What type of creature would gently rap on my front door? No, it was definitely my imagination running wild. I was just hearing things in the dark. I needed to focus. Needed to find something to distract from the nightmares. The discs in front of me gave me portals to untold worlds of mystery, if I just picked one, I could have some relief.

The tapping again. Stronger this time, loud enough to jolt me to attention, audible over the howling wind and piercing rain on the window. There was no doubt this time. There was something, someone, at the front door. Fear very nearly overtook me, but somehow I managed to muster enough courage to investigate just what manner of visitor was calling upon me. As I walked, trembling with every slow, careful step, down the dark stairs, the room lit up with the furious bright light and cracking roar of another strike of lightning. My heart must have skipped a beat - or two - but in that momentary illumination, I saw something on the floor. A package? What ungodly courier would deliver me a package, at this hour, in this storm? I moved as slowly as I could, fearful of my nocturnal visitor still being present, but there seemed to be nothing there. Dare I open the door and seek the stranger? Nay, thought I. Besides, the presence of this mysterious package now occupied more of my thoughts. The brown paper of the parcel was shimmering wet, no doubt a result of the weather outside... although, in the dark, I momentarily thought I could see a tinge of red sprinkling this most unwelcome of deliveries. I needed to get this into the light, and quickly.

I hurried back up the stairs, another flash of lightning and whip crack of thunder punctuating my ascent, and into the relative safety of the bedroom, still dimly lit by that television screen. I no doubt could have turned the main light on, giving some warmth to my surroundings, but my desire to see what was in this parcel overwhelmed me. I sat down in front of the screen, and for the first time could make out the package clearly. The brown paper was wet, but not from the rain as I had thought. My throat dried, my heart beat faster, for it was now obvious that upon this unrequested bundle delivered to my door, was the unquestionable imprint of a bloodied hand. Blood. On a parcel delivered to me in the middle of the night, in a storm like this. I froze, my mind not quite capable of grasping the reasons why. Was it really blood? Maybe not. Maybe, this was a joke, played on me by an unseen trickster in the night. It couldn't be blood, I tried to reason.

It felt like an age, just sitting there, staring at the brown paper and that bloodied handprint. I had played out reasons why in mind, but every attempt at explanation just took me down more darker trails of thought. One thing was for certain though - I had to open this. I had to see what horrors - for horrors they surely were - lurked inside that parcel. My hands were sweating and my lips were dry as I carefully tore at the paper, being careful not to destroy what was in front of me. As the paper peeled away, its contents became clear. A plastic case, cold to the touch, was the first thing that caught my eye. A game? There was no doubt, the red quarter circle with a white swirl contained within caught my eye immediately. A Dreamcast game. A new world to explore. There was another crack of thunder in the distance, but by this point, the skipping of my heart beat was solely due to the possibilities that this game now presented me. The strange skeletal features on its front cover, the title written in blood. What unthinkable horrors could be contained within this disc? In the still dimly lit darkness, I peered at the cover - “Witching Hour” seemed to be the name of this new arrival, and its entrance into my life heralded dark things. 

That was not all, though. Underneath the cold plastic, there was a piece of card, no doubt a message to me from my unknown benefactor. I held it up, illuminating it in the light of the TV screen in front of me. What words would it contain? 

"Mike. No luck with that creative writing course, then."

How dare they.


There's nothing quite like the arrival of a new Dreamcast game. Sure, the sheer number we're currently receiving may make the unique specialness of such an arrival a slightly less exciting experience than it once was, but for those of us involved with the Dreamcast community at large, it's still a heart warming feeling when you tear open the plastic, open that case and start up a brand new title for the little console that won't die. Sega's zombie box of dreams had a great 2022, and one offering in particular promised to bring some horrified first-person gaming to the system - something which is particularly close to my heart. Step forward Witching Hour

The Wolfenstein 3D modding community has been active for over three decades at this point, bringing all manner of mods and total conversions to iD's seminal first-person shooter. With the original game playable on the Dreamcast due to the work of the community, it's no surprise that some of these fan-made projects have also seen release on the console. Witching Hour, however, can claim to be the first to have a 'retail' release – although we're quickly getting into slightly murky waters in terms of what is official and what is not.

Developed by M2 Software, Witching Hour is unique in the sense that its original developers were actually involved in porting the Dreamcast version too, all the way back in 2016. This version was released online for free, with the likes of pcwzrd13 covering it. Six years later, Witching Hour finally received a limited physical release, produced by Polish publishers PRO Studio.

Witching Hour has a few nifty ideas that set it apart from being 'just' a homebrew port. It's a rather simple affair at its core – your van breaks down in the woods, and you need to find various bits (keys, a tire, gasoline) to get going, whilst avoiding the evil which lurks amongst the trees and is constantly pursuing you. Whilst it is based on Wolfenstein 3D, there's no first-person shooter action here, with the sole gameplay being collecting the items you need, and avoiding that evil presence. 

The game makes great use of the VMU, not only as a compass, but also a map and a checklist of required items. Also, when you complete the (admittedly short) goal of the game, a survival mode is unlocked which requires you to rescue your friends.

While Witching Hour is not a particularly long game, and the presentation is rather bare-bones – it's in the atmospheric terror where the game shines. The now-aged engine the game runs on brings a suitably gloomy, retro horror feel to the title, which is enhanced by a minimalist soundtrack that is nevertheless immediately effective. A tense, lo-fi, dungeon synth style affair, punctuated by screams, shotgun blasts and the hideous sounds of your pursuer. Visually, its green and brown muddy pixels reveal brutal, ripped apart corpses, dead bodies hanging from trees, and a well-imagined, if horrifying, creature. It's all quite effective. It never quite feels like a 'proper', fully-formed game, but instead like some sort of video game equivalent of a found footage VHS tape, discovered in a forest by that one school friend we all knew whose tales were always somewhat untrustworthy. As an actual game, it's somewhat hard to recommend; but if you have a particular fascination with the macabre, and low-rent horror B movies, it’s a must play, especially if you want something a bit different for your Dreamcast.

Credit: PRO Studio

Credit to PRO Studio for really going all in on their physical release, too. Whilst the disc isn't pressed, it comes with a poster, cover versions for all three regions, a fake film cell, a Japanese spine card, and an awesome full colour manual in both English and Polish. It just adds to that atmospheric feeling of the title, and is something I wish other indie publishers focused more on.

There is currently no way to purchase new copies of the physical release at the time of writing, so it’s probably worth keeping an eye out of eBay to see if you can grab one pre-owned. You can still download the game digitally for free here, though. Simply burn it onto a CD-R, put it on your GDEMU or boot it up with an emulator.

1 comment:

Lewis Cox said...

Great stuff, Mike. The A to Z needs a dramatised horror introduction now.