The culprit: Sanitarium (PC)
I knew it would be difficult–if not impossible–for any game to match Amnesia in my horror charts, but that didn’t prevent me from continuing my search for inventive representatives of the genre. I can’t remember now where I first heard of Sanitarium–a fairly obscure effort by the now-defunct DreamForge Intertainment (sic) published in 1998. But hear about it I did, and its premise of a delirious romp through a man’s disturbed psyche intrigued me enough to pick it up from GOG.com.
The ‘delirious romp’ element is certainly there. You are put in the shoes of Max Laughton, a medical researcher, whom you first see leaving a hospital in a hurry, taking his car and making an excited phonecall to his wife. However, it’s a rainy night, Max is driving hard on a winding road, and his brakes end up failing, sending him over a railing and into a ravine. He then awakens inside what appears to be a mental asylum, with bandages all over his face and a serious case of amnesia. How he got there and why–a car accident doesn’t equate to madness, after all–, that’s up to you to discover. It quickly becomes apparent that Max’s environment is not real, and he wanders from one nightmarish vision centred on a common horror trope (e.g. children, aliens, body horror, clowns, insects, hospitals, ghosts, divine curses) to another, sometimes even finding himself embodying different characters. During these travels, there are short bouts of lucidity, and ultimately, the visions do provide the key to what really happened to him.
This is a fairly solid premise, and discovering the various scenarios that Max goes through is the main attraction of the game. Some are more successful than others–especially the two opening episodes and the conclusion to the circus episode–and while I wouldn’t say any of them are downright frightening, some are seriously disturbing. There are many graphic scenes, images and descriptions–blood, slime, corpses and body parts–, and even though the dated graphics and isometric view dampen the impact, I wouldn’t recommend this if you’re especially sensitive or squeamish. That said, I should put a word in for one of the final scenarios, where Max is put in the shoes of what is probably the last character you’d expect. The problem is that, as the plot unravels, you realize that the underlying storyline just isn’t all that compelling, and that while Max’s nightmares feel symbolic and get under your skin, you’re sometimes not entirely sure what it is they’re symbolic of. And while they’re interesting in and of themselves (certainly more so than the actual plot…), there’s really not much to connect them together, thus resulting in a disjointed experience.
Still, the atmosphere is properly eerie and gruesome, and the ideas are there. However, a game lives and dies by the execution of its potential, and, in this case, if the execution isn’t outright fatal, it at least leaves Sanitarium moribund.
This is a point-and-click game, and progress is based on an uneven mix of puzzle-solving and combat. Max can converse with NPCs to gather clues about his surroundings via a system that feels like a hybrid between Mass Effect and Final Fantasy II. Every interlocutor has their own list of topics or questions they can address, sometimes sequentially, meaning that discussing one topic will grant you access to another one. Max can also pick up a variety of objects, stored via an inventory system, which he will then use to interact with his environment. As for the uneven distribution between puzzles and combat, there are only two battles in the game. It seems that more were originally planned, but never made the cut, for some reason or other. This has a strange consequence. On the one hand, it feels like a jarring imbalance, and this is coming from someone who doesn’t think that combat is a necessity in a game. On the other hand, however, it’s probably just as well that there isn’t more of it, considering how painfully clunky the controls are. It’s very simple on paper: you automatically enter combat stance and simply need to click on the enemy to attack it. But compound that with a moving target which you can’t lock onto and you have yourself a recipe for frustration. To make matters worse, the way movement is designed in this game makes it near impossible for Max to dodge incoming attacks. Granted, this is a bit of a moot point, since you’re allowed to save wherever you like and, if Max dies, he’ll simply respawn prior to the combat sequence. But you must still win the fights to progress, and this is, therefore, distinctly aggravating.
To clarify the movement issues: you pick a direction and keep the right mouse button pressed while Max saunters over to where you need him to be; he can’t run. This is already awkward to achieve, but he also has an outright maddening tendency to get stuck on corners or simply not move quite where you directed him. Having delved into the issue, I found out that this is apparently due to the programmers skimping on movement angles. Be that as it may, there are instances where this may make you want to tear your hair out, particularly during the finale, where you’re presented with a ‘walking’ puzzle involving shifting patterns and a timer.
When a game has no fatal flaws, it’s easy to overlook and forgive minor ones, like graphics or voice acting. When there is a fatal flaw, however, these small aggravations suddenly become so much weight to drag the game down further, and this is exactly what happens here. Stilted movements, plasticky-looking cinematics, pseudo-humorous credits, shoddy voice acting, it all comes to the fore. Max himself is the greatest offender here, with many of his lines sounding forced, overemphatic or gratingly whiny. Mind you, we’re not talking Valkyrie Profile levels of quality (or lack thereof) here, but then Valkyrie Profile had a lot to redeem itself. This game…not so much.
To sum it all up, I’d call Sanitarium more of a curio than a must-have. It starts off with good intentions–or at least original ones–, and there are moments of genuine creepiness and unease, but the delivery is so uneven that it mars the overall product. Ultimately, it feels a bit like watching a bunch of B-movie excerpts: entertaining, perhaps even intriguing, but overall sloppy and inchoate.