Taking a Dip Into the Aquatic Liminal Horror of Pools

Reviewed On
Steam (PC)

I have mentioned this in reviews a few times now, but liminal horror is a genre that is really exploding in popularity. Likely helped by quite a few YouTube and Instagram channels devoted to liminal horror, video games seem like a natural place to be able to replicate those interesting environments.

Liminal horror is unique in that it normally does not involve monsters or jump scares. It’s actually based on that odd feeling you get when something in your environment is out of place, or when you are in a location at an unusual time. For example, being inside a shuttered or closed mall might evoke those kinds of feelings by seeing all the empty store fronts and amenities devoid of people. You might get the same feeling being in a subway station or even an office building late at night when nobody is around. Liminal horror games normally take that concept to the extreme, adding in puzzles like with Superliminal, or anomaly spotting like with Shinkansen 0 or The Exit 8.

However, the claim to fame in Pools, as the name might suggest, is that the entire thing takes place in the world’s most bizarre indoor water park, where you will be swimming as much as walking while you explore this strange environment. Now, adding water themes to liminal horror is not exactly new. Anemoiapolis Chapter One famously featured a water park level (actually two water-based levels if you count the starting environment). My favorite level in Anemoiapolis was actually the waterpark. However, where Anemoiapolis strived for realism, at least to some extent, Pools features a world that could not possibly exist in real life. It’s a sometimes gravity-defying, watery world that players are tasked with exploring.

There is no plot in Pools, although it does have a weird ending once you get through all six chapters. The ending does not make a lot of sense, but at least there is a conclusion where players get some kind of closure knowing that they eventually are able to escape that world. Or maybe the world does not really exist in the first place. The ending does not really explain that, but I was happy to see it.

In terms of gameplay, your main mission in Pools is to journey through six different chapters or levels, with each one having a slightly different theme. All of them involve pools as well as pool-like environments with pool or bathroom-type tiles all around. Some levels even feature steamy saunas. You can almost smell the chlorine as you walk down the halls of what is either the world’s best, or possibly worst, indoor water park. There are pools everywhere, from little kiddie pools that are only a few feet across to deep chasms that span across and through several rooms. You will eventually need to travel through some of them as you explore, with your traveling speed slightly decreased as you wade or swim through that crystal clear water. There are even water slides along your path that you can jump into and slide down. Some of them are just there for fun, while others need to be used in order to pass through one level into the next.

The main way that you play Pools is by walking or swimming and trying to find the exit to a level which is always pretty far away from your starting point. In general, I found that trying to keep traveling in one direction was a good strategy for locating the exit. If you are tempted by stairs or slides that lead you away from your path or that would force you to double back, then they are probably going to lead you astray. Then again, you are not under any pressure, so if you like exploring the world, then by all means take your time and enjoy it. The title at least gives you subtle clues to help with navigation. For example, for a while you drip little puddles of water on the tile floors when you come out of a pool. So, if you notice puddles in an empty hallway, then you have been there before and are probably going in circles.

It took me about five to ten minutes to find the exits in each chapter, maybe a bit more if I found the architecture interesting and looked around a bit. Thankfully, you can toggle the run key, so you are not wandering around at a snail’s pace, which can be a real detriment to some walking simulations. Even when you are swimming, you move at a pretty reasonable speed.

You can’t really die in Pools, although you can take actions that could possibly kill you. If you do something like that, such as diving into a deep pit, the title simply rewinds you to a previous point (something that makes a bit more sense once you see the clip at the end). So, there is no death, and you don’t need to be in any hurry or ever feel like you are in danger. Pools does mess with you slightly in some places, such as playing growling or other unsettling noises at times and also by placing a giant rubber duck right around a corner so that you run into it unexpectedly, but you are never in any real danger.

In terms of the horror elements, Pools is not really very scary. Strict liminal horror requires a real environment where people feel out of place because it’s abandoned or nobody else is around. You feel weird because other people should be there but aren’t. But with Pools, the world is so incredible that it just seems like a video game environment that could never be real. As such, the liminal horror elements might never kick in for some players. I enjoyed exploring the world of Pools, but I never felt uneasy or afraid while playing. It’s a cool experience but not exactly a horror title by the strictest definitions.

Pools is on sale on Steam for under $10, which is a good deal for those who enjoy liminal-based titles. It should appeal to those who want to try liminal horror without most of the horror elements, or those who just enjoy exploring interesting environments without a monster or a jump scare anywhere in sight either in the pristine tile hallways or the crystal-clear pools that stretch out endlessly in all directions.

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