Southern Cross v. Dead Space

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© Visceral Games 2016

Like many people, I enjoy the thrill of being scared. While it might be a bit masochistic, there’s something intensely satisfying about a well-timed jump scare. It makes you want to curl up in the fetal position under your bed, and makes your heart feel like it’s trying to claw its way out of your throat. You all know the feeling. It’s the reason people tell ghost stories and make up urban legends. It’s the reason that, at almost 25 years old, I still sometimes run up the basement stairs at night or when I’m alone.

Science fiction and survival horror often go hand in hand, and it was in October of 2008 that Visceral Games set out to scare the pants off of gamers with Dead Space. Visceral put players in control of Isaac Clarke whose name alone, a hybrid of Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov (two prominent writers of science fiction) is the most on-the-nose clue that some seriously bad s**t is about to go down. Clarke is a systems engineer who soon finds himself stranded aboard the USG Ishimura, an interstellar mining ship, while looking for his missing girlfriend. For mysterious reasons that players piece together over roughly 11 hours gameplay, the Ishimura is crawling with terrifying, horribly mutated, reanimated corpses or, as they’re otherwise known, necromorphs.

There are Slashers which have blade-sharp bones sticking out of their spidery, elongated arms, Hunters which quickly regenerate lost limbs, and Dividers which look like the poorly dressed, zombie-fleshed cousins of Slender Man (as if Slender Man wasn’t freaky enough.)  The only way to dispatch these enemies properly is to curb stomp them into pulp. It’s gorgeous, and violent, compelling, and was so widely popular that there were two sequels and even an animated movie. Clarke’s determination to discover the truth of what happened aboard the Ishimura, scares, and the clever use of notes and audio logs scattered throughout the ship help to drive the narrative home in ways that Becky Cloonan and Andy Belanger swing for and miss in Southern Cross.

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© Image Comics 2016

In Southern Cross, when news reaches Alex Braith that her sister, Amber, has suddenly and mysteriously passed away, she packs up her things and hitches a ride on tanker flight 73 to TITAN!, the refinery moon where Amber worked in order to collect her remains and, hopefully, uncover the truth. Some bodies turn up. Others go missing. Alex—not unlike Isaac Clarke—begins to suffer from violent hallucinations, while everyone aboard the ship is a seemingly duplicitous jerk with a secret that they’re willing to kill for. Belanger’s art is wonderful to look at, but does little to help move the plot of the story and panels often feel disjointed on the page. There are monsters, smugglers, and a mystery at this story’s core that could jeopardize the very fabric of the universe—again, not unlike the plot of Dead Space. But in the end, it’s an excess of unanswered questions and an overall lack of emotional attachment that will leave readers disappointed in what had the potential to be a phenomenal, horror-driven Space Odyssey.

Cloonan’s gorgeous art-style (which makes a brief appearance on the cover of the first trade volume of Southern Cross) and storytelling chops have established her as a force to be reckoned with in the comic book industry. Her female characters in particular are wonderfully thought out and have been well received by readers. They’re smart, funny, vulnerable without needing to be saved, and pretty without being over-sexualized. These are ladies who have no problem keeping up with, and often surpassing, their male counterparts.

Needless to say, I was disappointed to find that there was little to connect with or feel sympathetic about in Alex’s character.  Yes, her sister has died a horrible death. Yes, she’s stuck with a ship-load of crazy people in outer space. Yes, terrifying things are happening. Yes, people are trying to kill her.  Unfortunately there’s nothing atmospheric or unsettling about this. Like her creators, Alex’s emotional detachment from goings-on and general lack of a concrete backstory leads to a swift and painful downfall. And, as more is revealed about Alex, her companions, and the mystery of what happened to her sister, the more I was reminded of how well Dead Space pulled off such a similar story eight years ago.

As for the scares? Well, they’re there… just not as effective as they could be.  So if you’re looking for something that’ll make your skin crawl I suggest you skip Southern Cross and opt to play Dead Space instead.

But do so with the lights off. It’s much better that way.

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