Sunday, February 23, 2014

I'm Going On An Adventure! - Sanitarium

After finishing both Phantasmagoria games I commented how I wanted to do The 7th Guest next. Well I started it, played for a few hours, saved (or so I thought) and went back to it later. When I realized my save wasn't there either by my own mistake or something on my computer I decided to hold off for a little while. Instead I jumped into yet another horror themed adventure game (What can I say? They've got a charm others don't.) And so this time around I have completely lost my mind and must be sent to a Sanitarium.
Sanitarium was released in 1998 on PC. Much like half the games on my PC I got it off of and I'm so glad I did. However despite my excitement I just teased the game did receive plenty of mixed reviews when released. I won't go into detail why because some of my praises and complaints are similar to the critic's. Beyond that the game didn't have much of a legacy. Obviously it was popular enough to warrant a digital re-release like I mentioned earlier. Still the only major legacy left behind was a kickstarter campaign. One of the programmers for Sanitarium was trying to pick up funding for a new game, Shades of Sanity, which was considered to be a spiritual successor. I haven't looked much into this new game. The game's official website does have plenty of info, though.

Sanitarium's setup is as typical and as simple as a psychological horror story can get. Your character, Max, suffers from amnesia after getting into a car crash. He wakes up in an asylum with his head wrapped in bandages. And from there you go on your journey to get your memory back and to find out how you wound up there. Like I said, pretty typical.
Despite how typical the story is I actually really like these kinds of stories. Not amnesia stories. Stories where the lead character is either going insane or where the line between what is and isn't real is blurred. This means it can go in many directions, many of which can be really out there, but can also incorporate real world elements to express how fucked up the character's real world is. In this case the game does not take very long to get there. You only need to complete a couple of quick tasks in the asylum right away. Then you approach an angel statue who wraps her wings around you and you instantly wake up in a completely different place. A seemingly abandoned small town where only the children are left. More on that in a minute. First I want to talk about the gameplay and presentation.
Since this was the 90s there was only a couple of likely paths a point and click game would go. I don't believe the full 3D polygon adventure games (like Syberia or the last Gabriel Knight game did) had made full swing yet so it was either going to be like Myst (1st person pre-rendered everything), Phantasmagoria (lots of FMV with digitized characters), or somewhat more traditional with a graphical upgrade. It went with the last option as the game is presented with a bird's eye view of the environment using pre-rendered 3D sprites as graphics instead of polygons. Think Dokoney Kong Country but from above and with a more realistic approach since it isn't about a monkey with amnesia who is trying to get his bananas back. Or just look at the below image.

And so my first complaint comes. No it's not the visual style (not entirely), it's the controls. Like a typical point and click adventure you use the mouse for everything. For the most part it works out just fine. I do feel there was some more work that could have been done to make it more intuitive. The part that's well done is the stuff you click on. it has a very good detection when you hover over "clickable" spots/items with well enough cursor changes. However when it comes to moving you can't simply point and click where you want to go. Something many other adventure games do plenty and do well. In this case you have to hold down the right clicker and hover the mouse over the general direction you want to go. Good... in theory. However one of the major downfalls of this graphic style is that it can be very hard to tell where you can and can't go. Sure everything looks amazing (for the time) but unlike with polygons it makes those invisible walls even more invisible. Especially when you feel your character should be able to walk around or through an area that would make sense, but alas cannot. Something that became very present early in the game and forced me to walk more tedious paths when I shouldn't have had to.
Otherwise the controls are pretty simple and low demand. Outside of actually navigating your character you just click on whatever/whoever you want to interact with. And it works just fine. If you want to access your inventory you click on your character. Again very simple and very straightforward. Nothing too complex going on here. However the last thing I have to say about the controls is the speed of your character. He walks at a very casual pace which is fine in smaller areas. But if you've ever played adventure games before you know there is a lot of running around trying to figure out what the hell to do next. With your character moving sooooo slooooow it makes it an unecessarily long process. Especially late in the game when you have to use this slow speed and clunky control to navigate through time sensitive obstacles.

Getting back to the story. The first place you wind up after your bizarre encounter with the angel statue, as I was saying earlier, is a small seemingly abandoned town. I was also saying earlier that the only people left were the children. Here's what I didn't tell you, they're all deformed like they got hit with nuclear radiation mixed with domestic abuse. One boy had two mouths, a girl with burnt looking skin, a girl with a tail and gouged out eyes, a boy named lumpy whose name speaks for itself, and the list goes on. It's a very disturbing start to what looks like will be a (good old fashioned) fucked up story. What you soon discover is that all the adults "went away" with the exception of a mysterious person they call mother. You don't see mother at first but do encounter her later. You soon find articles and newpaper clippings talking about a meteor that is going to hit as well as some bizarre bits with the towns pastor. Religion is something that is actually brought up a few times in this game but never really... emphasized? I think that's the word I'm thinking? Cause it's not overbearing like other stories. But a few hints here and there that the game's writer may have an odd view on religion.
The fucked up meter goes from an already high spot to an even higher point when two things happen. One, you meet mother who is a giant plant-like creature that took over the town with her weeds, killing all the adults. And when you play hide and seek with the kids. Yes, hide and seek. While figuring out a plan to kill mother you are forced to play a game of hide and seek with a key to the general store as your reward. What makes this fucked up is the kids have a secret weapon. How you will not find them all because of this. Well... you find a shovel, dig up the right grave, and there is their secret weapon. They thought you wouldn't win because one of the kids who was "playing" was hiding in her grave. Yeah, that's the kind of story we're in for here.
After killing mother by electrocution you are able to leave the town hand in hand with the little girl with a tail and no eyes you sorta befriended through what looks like a warp tunnel. It cuts away and next thing you know you're back in the asylum. This is the sort of back and forth the game will be doing throughout. One hand you appear to be in reality, then you're somewhere completely different sometimes as a different person, then back to... normal (?)... once again. It doesn't take long to figure out what the writers are trying to do here. They're digging deep into the mind of your character to unravel the story via metaphor and memories instead of a straight plot. Again something I am definitely up for. And for the most part I enjoyed the story of the game. The only downside is that the game didn't really maintain it's fucked up nature it established early on. Yes there is a portion where you're at a carnival and most of the workers are either assholes or disfigured in some way, but it didn't have that same feels. And the context of the story can get pretty fucked up at times, just not quite what it presented itself with right away.

I know I'm really focusing on the content of the game over how well it pulls together but you really can't blame me for it. Right from the start the game lets you know it is going to be a dark journey. Something it definitely is. The big thing is that you'll notice the nature of what makes it dark changes throughout. On one hand it is downright disturbing, other times it is disgusting, and then at one point it's very sad. Just... sad. Thankfully it doesn't jump from one to another too quickly and without warning too often, otherwise that would be jarring. And overall the elements in the story aren't fucked up for the sake of it. They're really there for a reason. It ties together in the end. It ties together very sloppy but it ties together none the less. It's not like Phantasmagoria 2 where I felt most of the explicit content was there for the sake of being there. Sanitarium has a clear story with intentionally not so clear hidden messages.
I just wish the game could have had some consistency in how it wanted to tell the story. At first it was very obvious or at least clever how the scenario connected with the real life of your character. Like with the kids in the lost town. Later in the story it is revealed your character, Max, is a doctor who was working on a new breakthrough drug that will save lives. Also you find out your little sister died very young which shows clear inspiration for his adult work in medicine. The deformed kids were representational of potentially lost patients and mother was the disease (if you remember that far back in the review). Then later there is a section where you play as your little sister which takes the story to a different point. But then next thing you know you're playing as this comic book character who is a mix of the cyclops, Goro from Mortal Kombat, and Thomas from Narnia.

And I thought... okay? I mean I guess it could be a representation of how Max couldn't be the hero he idolized in his comics as a kid. But the way it played out just didn't feel quite right or on the same, unique track as everything that led up to it. Then again toward the end of the game you also play as an Aztec god which had an ever looser connection (I felt) to the story so there's that, too.

Really I did enjoy the game a lot. While simple navigation was a pain from time to time, and the graphics style made it hard to see key items or even locations the game never felt like too much of a pain. I was always interested in what each character had to say so I never skipped anything they said. That and I wanted to make sure I didn't miss any clues but by the halfway point I think I was able to tell when a character would and wouldn't be giving me a clue.
Not an amazing adventure game. Definitely good, though. There was plenty more fine tuning that could have been done. I'm sure at the time the game's visual style alone would have been enough to help people get into it upon first release. But now that we're able to look past that the flaws can be seen much easier, and they come up more than you think. Even little things like bad placement of text in the character word bubbles. Also how the consistency from conversation to conversation would come off odd. Asking a question to something you already knew the answer to (the character I mean, not you the player) and so forth. But if you like adventure games, have played through some of the more popular titles and are looking for something else in the horror genre... give it a shot. You've always got an infrequent chance of getting it on a great sale via GOG. Can't hurt. Still hard to fully recommend.

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