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AdventureDex Retrospective: Sanitarium
Review - posted by Crooked Bee on Tue 27 May 2014, 04:39:23Tags: DreamForge Intertainment; Sanitarium
[Review by Deuce Traveler and VioletShadow; edited by tuluse]
Sanitarium Doors Open (Free Entry!)
Sanitarium is psychological horror 2D point and click adventure game created by Dreamforge Intertainment for PC and published in 1998, just a few years before DreamForge would shut down. According to a Gamasutra article by Sanitarium game writer Chris Pasetto, Sanitarium was conceptualized after the DreamForge team was feeling 'burnt out' from creating 'bandwagon games'. The team wanted to do something different, but couldn't agree on exactly what. Then the idea blossomed to incorporate all proposed projects into a game with several layers of stories built upon each other with the one link between them being that of a shattered mind in an insane asylum. Winner of Computer Gaming World's 1998 Adventure Game of the Year, this classic of the genre was re-released by GOG in 2009.
A Story for Sane and Insane Alike
Deuce Traveler: The beginning cinematic sets the tone. At the start of the introductory movie, exuberance turns into tragedy as we are acquainted with a deeper theme of trying to resolve conflicting realities. The protagonist sees himself as a smart and respected researcher who is now undergoing an unfortunate crisis. However, at the end of the cinematic, a voice speaks of him as an escaped lunatic whose irresponsible actions led to self-induced injury and the destruction of another's property. Your journey through the game will answer who the protagonist really is and what his or her history and motivations are.
That's the game in a nutshell. You play as a person who can't or won't remember who he or she is, and you take a disturbed journey through self-discovery. The entire time you'll be forced to question your character's identity, motivations, and history; never quite sure if you can believe one new revelation. The pacing of the tale is done remarkably well, with an ending that could have easily been disappointing if mishandled. The writers seemed to find a perfect balance in aligning all the seemingly trivial facts that you pick up through your hero's journey to a satisfying reveal at the game's conclusion.
VioletShadow: 'Who am I?', 'Where am I?', 'How did I get here?'... Sounds slightly cliché, doesn't it? The protagonist who wakes up with a severe case of amnesia and must recover his memories is something that has been done so many times before in video games. Some have failed miserably, often because they make it so the character remembers everything by simply touching an object or meeting an important person in their life. Such an approach lacks believability because the brain, or mind if you will, doesn't work like that. Sanitarium does very well at making it believable, with the player gathering information about the protagonist in a slow, non-linear manner. The player has to think about possible sequences of events and where all the pieces gathered might fit in. In fact, the game made it so believable that it is was very hard for me to decide what was reality and what was delusion until the last third or so.
The game is divided into nine chapters, each with its own distinct setting, style and goals. Overall, the writing is strong with interesting use of literary devices such as flashbacks, plot twists, foreshadowing and red herrings. Central themes include death, grief, mental illness, medical ethics, family relationships and the supernatural. I found the pacing to be adequate for the first five chapters, but weaker from then on with chapters six (The Hive) and eight (The Lost Village) dragging on. There is a character introduced in 'The Hive' gave a very important clue about what was happening too soon, therefore making the revelations of the last three chapters predictable.
As you explore the different locations you will meet many characters to interact with, mostly through dialogue. Dialogue never felt boring or useless, with most characters providing valuable information or hints on how to move past specific obstacles. Some served as a source of much welcomed, refreshing humor and became memorable to me such as 'Old Man in a Tutu who loves Belladona in a flat' and the 'Holy Mission Preacher'.
An element I thought was executed interestingly is that when it's a character's turn to speak, their face would come out of the shadow and their facial expressions change depending on the topic or mood.
Overall, it was a success of storytelling because of how many different elements (writing, environments, cut-scenes, music, atmosphere) not only come together to advance the story and themes but make the player feel as unsettled as the protagonist by all the bizarre and disturbing events that occur throughout the game
A Puzzling Journey and How to Get Places
VioletShadow: Sanitarium is in many ways about discovery and this is reflected on the amount of puzzle-solving one must do; there was a lot of it. For the most part, puzzles were intuitive and well integrated into the story. Many were inventory-related, with some machine and lever ones as well. Disappointingly, their difficulty ranged from easy to medium so experienced adventure players will most likely be underwhelmed by the lack of challenge. I appreciated a few puzzles that required paying attention to what other characters said or details in the environment to be solved.
There were a couple of action sequences which involved using an object on enemies while avoiding their attacks. These weren't much of a challenge, as failure meant the character was 'reborn' and free to try again without losing any progress. My favorite puzzle was a maze, which tends to be a headache in many other adventure games but in this case was nicely challenging and fun to complete.
Deuce Traveler: Some of the puzzles in the beginning were so simple that the game nearly felt like a visual novel where you are focused more on reading dialogue than gameplay. The difficulty picks up a little bit more after the initial chapter, but never really becomes challenging to a player who is willing to click on everything he or she sees, or use every item in the inventory on every object and person in the environment. There is a lack of real death in the game, which reduces the tension of the experience. A limited inventory and smaller, contained locations reduced the amount of actions you had to employ to solve the puzzles. This is definitely one of the easier adventure games I have ever played. Your enjoyment in solving puzzles won't come in feeling how clever you are in defeating them, but instead their bizarre nature. For that reason, I enjoyed some carnival challenges the most.
VioletShadow: Now, as for the interface it isn't awful, but has several flaws that may frustrate players to no end. Firstly, sometimes the character must be standing in a certain position to be able to interact with objects and maneuvering him until he is at the right place can take several tries and become a minor annoyance. Secondly, click/hold RMB to slowly walk didn't work that well and the character often ended up moving in the wrong direction. This takes me to the next issue: stairwells. *Screams*. Whenever the character walks in the wrong direction and gets close to a stairwell, he will go into the 'stairwell animation' and you have to wait for him to finish walking up or down. Many stairwells in the game plus awkward movement controls equaled lots of frustration for me.
Deuce Traveler: Heh. I didn't find the interface nearly as rage-inducing. In fact, I thought it was beautiful in its simplicity. If I had issues with anything, it was the lack of solutions to puzzles. There was always a certain item that had to be used in a certain way to progress, which admittedly is a frustrating staple of such adventure games. For example, I couldn't electrocute a creature with jumper cables, but had to find an artifact to use as a conduit. Said artifact was in a small pool of water and looked to be within easy distance of an adult arm, but the game forced me to locate a fishing rod in order to retrieve the object.
Unfortunately, the pathfinding in this game is nearly non-existent, so when I try to talk to someone the game often tells me I can't reach him or her to do so, even if I am standing next to them. This is because the game's animation requires the conversation to occur at a different angle from where I made the attempt.
The Visual Trips
Deuce Traveler: Now let me speak to whether the game was pleasing to the eye. I felt the graphics were quite well done, even by today's standard. The game may be more than a decade old. The graphic artists are to be commended for the haunting Gothic architecture used throughout the sanitarium, and the disturbing images you encounter as you traverse the game. The use of color schemes were also well chosen. Dark halls provoke feelings of dread and desolation. Vibrant swirls of colors in some stages unsettle the viewer. Flesh colors in another chapter cause revulsion. You would think that such a disturbing game would depend upon dark shades to a point where it would become monotonous, but the sights are smartly changed up. Although I admit I enjoyed the writing, I really do believe that it was the cleverness shown by the graphical artists that made the game the success it is.
I did have to suffer through some graphical problems though, which sometimes caused a rainbow of colors that reminded me of an old VGA screen. This was normally followed by crashes when transitioning between cinematics and gameplay. A reload normally helped in letting me move on, but I sometimes missed little details, causing me once to have to ask VioletShadow for help because I couldn't properly see an item I needed to progress.
VioletShadow: I agree with Deuce that the visual presentation is superb, reaching brilliance in a few locations and consistently solid throughout. For a game made in '98, I also think the graphics aged quite well and I enjoyed the use of symbolism in the environments' architecture. The isometric perspective is an interesting design choice and not commonly used in adventure games. It worked very well for Sanitarium and I especially appreciated it because it adds a lot to the unconventional nature of the game's visuals. Even though I didn't encounter the same graphical problems as Deuce, I did have to deal with some occasional pixel hunting due to the level of detail in the backgrounds combined with the small size of some of the items you need to pick up. Thankfully, it didn't happen frequently enough to become an annoyance.
Deuce Traveler: I thought the game's music was done well enough, setting the appropriate tones during the right moments in the game's various stages. The music maintained a creepy vibe during the entire unsettling experience, but also had some whimsical notes when the player went through some of the more surreal chapters. The sound effects during some key moments in both gameplay and in-game cinematics stand out, with cringe-inducing noises playing out during the more disgusting scenes and disturbing wails when you encountered groups of the suffering. The weakest part of this category was the voice acting, as the actors' performances normally fell somewhere between poor and adequate. On a positive note, there is a stage that required some very hammy voice acting that is pulled off well and a few of the Sanitarium inmates are convincing in their insanity, but the actors for the main protagonist and antagonist did little for me.
VioletShadow: Yes, the music always felt fitting to the situation, accentuating the specific theme and mood of the location or event. Tracks are very varied and inspire a wide range of emotions such as fear, horror, revulsion, sadness, disgust, pity and disturbed wonder. The voice acting was average, but I did like the VA for the protagonist. I thought the fact that it was flat and ordinary was fitting for an amnesiac character with an equally ordinary name; the character is supposed to be a blank slate for the player after all. The Sanitarium OST, composed by Stephen Bennett and James C. McMenamy, is one of those that stays with you and haunts you, making you go and search for 'that one track' you just want to listen to again. My favorite was the one for 'The Innocent Abandoned'. Seriously, what a brilliant chapter that was!
Sanitarium Doors Close
Deuce Traveler: Sanitarium is a worthwhile purchase, as it costs only a few dollars from GOG.com. It took me about fourteen or fifteen hours of casual play over the course of five days to beat, and was a visual experience I appreciated. It does nothing groundbreaking in regards to gameplay or in the solving of puzzles, but it had a deeply psychological story to tell and does that job well by taking the player on a fantastic journey easily walked, but not as easily forgotten.
VioletShadow: Despite its flawed controls and easy puzzles, Sanitarium is a gem of the genre with a very well crafted nightmarish plot, excellent visual presentation, bizarre locations and unsettling psychological themes. At about sixteen hours, it offers solid playtime for an adventure game, which offsets its low replayability value. Ultimately, it is a story about a journey of torturing grief that looks inward for a resolution instead of outward which is something that not many video games have done.