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Reveil review

Reveil review
Johnny Nys avatar image

No clowning around in this compelling psychological circus thriller that provides all the chills of a waking nightmare

There’s a reason why I don’t go to the cinema to watch horror movies: I can’t stand the sudden pop-ups with their accompanying loud noises and music. It’s not so much being scared, as being startled by sensory overload. I’ll jump and I’ll scream (often also because my wife’s reactions sitting next to me are louder than the movie itself) but I prefer intriguing psychological horror stories. Reveil kind of falls into the latter category but with a pinch of the other stuff as well, and at times takes on more thriller allures than true horror. It’s a weird but interesting tale about a man searching for his family, traveling through a nightmarish world that will challenge you with some ingenious puzzles while constantly giving you the creeps, yet it will sometimes make you jump and scream as well.

An opening sequence takes you to the flooded grounds of an old circus, where a wooden walkway appears out of nowhere in front of you as you follow signposts pointing towards the big tent in the distance. This dream world is drenched in black and red hues, as if everything is covered in blood. A skeletal figure on top of the tent stirs and you’re suddenly transported into a funhouse cart riding through dark tunnels past strange tableaus that don’t seem to hold any meaning at the time but will start to make sense later on.

You take first-person control of Walter Thompson, once he wakes up from this introductory dream. (“Reveil,” after all, is French for “awakening.”) It turns out that Walter and his family were once part of the Nelson Bros Circus – his daughter Dorie actively performing with his wife Martha, and Walter himself working as a handyman – and of course there’s some enigmatic history to uncover here. Here in the present, however, Walter just wants to see what Dorie and Martha are up to, but he can’t find them anywhere. The house is an architectural marvel, with a strange layout spread across several floors, with stairways and narrow corridors connecting the rooms, but his wife and daughter are nowhere to be found. The search for them will soon take you back to the circus, which is where things get truly interesting. 

Reveil offers several different gameplay styles, but the main one is exploration. You start off walking around realistic-looking locations, which are quite bright with both natural and artificial light, but eventually they’ll turn very nightmarish, again with heavy use of a blood-red color palette, dark corridors and dim nighttime lighting. Often the laws of physics are defied, like objects floating in mid-air, and there’s one eerie scene where a spotlight flickers on and off in a stroboscopic effect, with cloaked figures constantly changing places as they surround you. The graphics are impressively realistic, but freely walking around as Walter induced a feeling of motion sickness in me. If you’re prone to this, the developer has posted some guidelines to adjust the graphic settings in their Steam discussion forum, which should remedy this issue. 

Not only does Reveil have strong visuals, the surrounding soundscape made me believe someone really walked around with a recorder and uploaded it wholescale into the game, from Walter’s footsteps as constant companions to other ambient sounds like crows and crickets, squeaky hinges, rain and thunder, running water and more. There are several original songs, all dark and mysterious indie-pop with folk-based sounds, sung by a haunting female vocalist, though there are instrumental tracks as well. You can listen to these primarily on the record player in Walter’s living room, but samples do show up during your wanderings. Some faster-paced background pieces add to the tension and scary atmosphere, while gentler tunes complement the more emotional and nostalgic scenes with typical circus calliope music. Most of the time, however, you’ll hear a continuous deep bass tonal score straight out of a Christopher Nolan movie. (The complete soundtrack is available through the game’s Funhouse Edition.)

The game provides full controller support but I played with keyboard and mouse. You can rebind the keys to your personal preferences, and general directional movements are expanded with sprinting and crouching. You use the mouse to move the camera and to manipulate objects like pulling open drawers and (cupboard) doors, levers, switches, and turning wind-up keys and other adjustable machinery. A center screen dot will change if you can examine something or interact with it. While walking around, you can slightly zoom in by pressing the right mouse button. You can also hold that button to rotate objects you pick up for a closer look, zooming in even further using the mouse wheel. Every document you discover has a plain text option; I never used this myself since they’re all typewritten, but the words can be a bit small and zooming in can make them blurry.

As you explore, Walter comments on everything you see and do. He is voiced by a very believable actor – the confusion, the terror, the nostalgic emotions when confronted with memories all sound realistic from his natural-feeling performance. Through the menu you can access a speech log to refer back to anything he’s said, but this log is limited to your current playing session. Quit and continue later, and the log is reset and completely blank again, which I think is a missed opportunity as it could have easily helped you remember where exactly you left off earlier.

While walking around, you might stumble upon interesting hotspots that trigger a memory. The screen will seem to freeze and turn black and white, but you can still move in slow motion while listening to related conversations between Walter, Martha and Dorie, slowly lifting the veil from these characters’ history.

Soon you’ll begin to think you’re imagining things, or even that your graphics card is acting up, when a number of background items start to shimmer for a couple of seconds. Sometimes the entire screen will shake as if there’s an earthquake, or like Walter is having a seizure. These are indications, however, that Walter’s concept of reality isn’t what it seems, and it only gets worse from there. Rooms will trade places, or even transform behind you when you turn your back, so that sometimes it feels like you’re going around in circles. At other times, you can only go forward by going back. Reveil takes your logical mind and pretty much destroys it, making you as the player feel the madness that’s enveloping Walter. This adds to the feeling of helplessness and despair.


Genre: Horror, Thriller
Presentation: Realtime 3D
Theme: Psychological
Perspective: First-Person
Graphic Style: Illustrated realism
Gameplay: Puzzle, Walking simulator
Control: Direct Control
Game Length: Short (1-5 hours)
Action: Stealth
Difficulty: Low

This ever-evolving (or devolving) world is enriched by the occasional escape room-style puzzle. Reveil features a small inventory system, needed for these narratively well-integrated obstacles with a scavenger hunt feel. They’re never too hard; you don’t even need to choose the correct item from your inventory, as the game automatically picks the one needed for a particular solution. For instance, the first puzzle you encounter is in Dorie’s room. There’s a locked diary on her bed, but Dorie has drawn a map, leading you from one toy to the next, guiding you through the multilayered steps involved in opening it, each with its own goal or minigame to complete. I found this so well-executed and a lot of fun. My favorite puzzle, however, was manipulating a mannequin with a laser pointer, but only after figuring out its exact positional settings from a clue found elsewhere. This is the sort of puzzle I always hope to encounter in a real-life escape room!

The final gameplay element involves avoiding enemies. At one point you’ll have to move stealthily around a blindfolded creature to gather some inventory objects. Another time you’ll be chased through a circus train by an animated mannequin and you’ll have to find a way to get rid of your pursuer. Finally, there’s a combination of these two: the biggest monster of them all actively hunting you down in a forest, where you need to gather some items again, but from a place so massive it’s easy to get lost, plus there are little bells hanging everywhere that will alert the creature when you run into them. 

Should you get caught in Reveil, you simply “wake up” at your last checkpoint, while still retaining any items you might have already found. But even without fear of serious repercussions, these are all edge-of-your-seat sequences that scared me to the point where I was almost afraid to move forward throughout the rest of the game, in constant anticipation of something jumping out at me, or a sudden sound figuratively blasting me out of my socks (like a particular elephant in a cage). Such moments don’t actually happen all that often, but tension is definitely high throughout.

It may not be needed, but it’s too bad Reveil doesn’t allow manual saving. Instead, it records your progress automatically at fixed checkpoints. Thankfully they come along pretty often, and even though the game is only about four hours long anyway, it’s always handy to keep an eye out for the flashing red logo in the bottom right of your screen if you feel you’re almost running out of game time. I had to quit a couple of times due to the motion sickness I mentioned earlier, but it never took me more than five minutes to catch up again.

You can also watch out for collectibles like toys, posters and all kinds of other everyday objects having to do with circus life. They not only function as little rewards to encourage exploration and replays, but also fill in some additional backstory for the characters. Each of the game’s five chapters has its own set of collectibles, which you can then admire through a main menu option. Once you find a collectible, an indicator shows how many are still left to be found in that chapter. During my initial playthrough I only found about half of them, but if you miss any you can freely go back and search for them later thanks to the chapter select function. 

While Reveil takes place in an interesting setting, the first part of the story doesn’t really come off as very original. Someone who has played through the Silent Hill series, for example – particularly Shattered Memories – will definitely recognize certain aspects. The game later delivers its own narrative surprises, though, and without spoiling anything, I will say that my mind was blown when the truth of what exactly was going on in Walter’s mind was revealed. When the penny drops and you connect the dots, it’s really cool to finally see how everything makes sense in context. The only thing that bothered me is that the creepy paranormal and supernatural elements from earlier are pushed to the background, though the story definitely remains pretty out of this world.

There are five possible endings, all of which can be achieved by making different decisions in the final chapter. Two are fairly obvious, dependent on an explicit choice you’ll make at the very end, while a third requires possession of a certain object. The other two involve actively seeking them out by performing certain actions, no matter how out of character they may seem. While it’s easy enough to reload an earlier checkpoint to seek out those alternative endings, and each one offers a slightly different variety of the final puzzle, none of them are all that satisfying from a storytelling point of view. What’s considered the “good” ending felt kind of like an open-ended dud to me, while two “bad” endings felt more rounded off so I actually preferred those.

Final Verdict

The beautifully realistic graphics pulled me into Reveil, but I stayed and even endured some motion sickness for the emotional quest of the main character to find his missing loved ones, the nightmarish locales and the nifty puzzles, capped off by an exhilarating final chapter that truly succeeds in turning everything upside down. I know jump scares are often a main attraction in horror games, but I’m personally not a fan of them so I’m glad they didn’t go overboard with them here. Although there were just enough to make me instinctively curse out loud on occasion, something I’m usually not known to do! I certainly don’t regret getting a ticket to this crazy circus adventure. It may not be the greatest show on earth with only a four-hour funhouse ride, but it makes for a captivating exploration through its protagonist’s twisted dreams and tortured memories.

Hot take


Reveil takes you on a thrilling nightmare journey through one man’s memories of life at the circus on a quest for truth (and missing loved ones) that will keep you on the edge of your bleacher seat.


  • Photorealistic graphics blended with increasingly surreal imagery
  • A compelling journey through a troubled psyche
  • Thrilling combination of nightmarish explorations, puzzle solving and enemy evasion
  • Riveting final revelation that adds a whole new dimension to what you’ve experienced
  • Collectibles and multiple endings add replay value


  • Story feels overly familiar until eventually charting its own unique course
  • No manual save option and speech log limitations make it rather redundant

Johnny played Reveil on PC using a review code provided by the game’s publisher.           


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