Note: Review was originally posted March 13, 1998
Hello, fellow adventure gamers!
I'm sure that most of you are like me in that you must have every adventure game on the market. Personally, I have three different shelves for gaming--the bottom shelf holds the games that I tried briefly and will never play again (The Scroll, Myst), the second shelf is the games I will finish someday (Broken Sword 2, Monkey Island 3, Space Bar), and the top shelf is reserved for the games that I finished without interruption from the outside world (Amber, The Dark Eye, Zork series) and a part of my permanent collection. I have noticed through the years that any adventure game with a horror (not sci-fi) theme demands my immediate attention. Thus, even though Black Dahlia, GK Sins of the Fathers and a few others were too difficult or obtuse for me at times, they had to be played and finished even if it meant resorting to a walkthrough.
Now as it so happens, I am at the moment playing two very addictive nonadventure (gasp!) games: High Heat Baseball (I have my Pirates in first place) and Army Men (a great game). Will Sanitarium be game enough not only to draw my attention away from these two diversions, but to also occupy a place of honor on my top shelf? Let's find out together as we wend our way down the dark and dank moss-covered corridor that leads into the inner sanctum of the Sanitarium.
The Story: Sanitarium is the game that Harvester wanted to be, but wasn't. The plot, credited to Mike Nicholson and Chris Pasetto, is as good as or better than any I have ever experienced in over 15 years of adventure gaming. What begins as tritely as possible--"who am I, where am I?"--slowly transcends into a story of true horror. There are numerous macabre twists and turns in this game that constantly keep you from guessing too far ahead. Your character must, of course, solve a variety of puzzles in order to advance the plot development, but I have yet to run across a single puzzle that was not logical or did not advance the storyline. There are no extraneous puzzles meant to be filler for a skimpy plot (a la The 11th Hour). The story is broken out into very linear chapters, and each chapter is totally dependent upon itself. You cannot backtrack in this game, but there is never a need to as you can not advance to one chapter without completing the previous episode. There are some long load times between the chapters and when restoring a game, but this is only a minor annoyance. The plot itself (of which I really cannot say anymore without spoiling much of the fun of the game) gets a grade of A+.
The Graphics: The animation in Sanitarium is bitmap sprites based on a nontile system. There is total freedom of movement within each chapter, though your character is limited to an eight-way movement system. All movement is done by right-clicking on the mouse. This gives you a directional arrow mouse cursor which causes the protagonist to walk in that direction. This does occasionally cause a problem in navigation, but never anything major that affects the gameplay. The graphics are garishly atmospheric and colorful. Certain locations, such as the carnival, remain in your mind long after you have put the game away for the evening. The chapters in the sanitarium itself are reminiscent of the scenery from a 1930s Universal horror film. Within each chapter there are, at key points in the game, photorealistic full-screen cinematic cut scenes that are simply amazing. They convey a foreboding sense of atmosphere that slowly ties together the background of the game. The graphics in this game easily get an A.
Sound, Music, and Voice Acting: The sound effects for the most part are excellent. The squish of walking on grass gives way to the sound of gravel crunching under your feet. Squeaking floorboards, carnival carnies and some spooky sights and sounds I can't describe without giving away some of the plot! The music is unobtrusive. It is another piece of the puzzle that makes the game so good as a whole, but it is never overwhelming, never catchy. Finally, there is the voice acting. It is at times fantastic. The voices of the children in Chapter 2 are eerie. It is at times mediocre. The voice of the main protagonist is uninspired and insipid. It often sounds forced. But it is the voices of the secondary characters that shine. They add the little touches of being "over the edge" that make you squirm in your seat. Overall grade for this category is a B-.
Combat: Combat! In an adventure game! Egads! Well, actually this is the most user-friendly combat I have ever seen. It is initially awkward to control your character's aim in combat, but not to worry--there is no penalty for dying in combat. Not only are you not penalized, but any opponents you have vanquished stay gone. It is impossible to lose at combat no matter how bad you are (as I can attest to). We're not talking Tekken 3 here. Well, then, if it is impossible to lose at combat, then what was the purpose of including it in the game? I suspect it was to make the player feel more involved, more interactive with the game. I only ran across two areas where combat was involved, and it never lasted more than a minute. Combat rating is A.
Puzzles: There are lots of puzzles in Sanitarium, and their solutions always serve to somehow advance the plot. I did not run across one puzzle that I thought unfair or out of character. The majority of them are inventory based, though there are some noninventory logic puzzles that initially had me groaning, but they were so easy that I started to wonder if I was smarter than I am! Your inventory is easily accessed by clicking on your character, and possible inventory items are easily picked up with a left click of the mouse. Actually, I found the majority of the puzzles in Sanitarium to be easy for a seasoned adventurer (be forewarned, though, there are some sick and gross ones), but the overall effect of immersion in this game offset the low degree of difficulty. The puzzles in this game are involving, though, and receive a grade of A.
Final Grade: Sanitarium has already found a hallowed spot on my top shelf. Though I think the experienced gamer may find it a little easy and beatable in less than 20 hours, it is an excellent game for beginners, horror fans and anyone who just wants to play a solid, well-written adventure game. The negatives in this game--some of the voice acting, long restore times--are overshadowed by the many positives--the eerie atmosphere, the uncertainly of knowing what will occur next and the mature plot development. Let's hope Dreamforge has more games like Sanitarium on the drawing board. So turn out the lights and get ready to play the scariest, creepiest computer game you have ever loaded on your hard drive.
'Til next time--happy adventuring!
Final Grade: A
16 MB RAM
4X CD drive
16-bit sound card
30 MB free hard drive space