It starts on the title screen. The fear. A woman whispers in a language I don’t understand. Strange sounds move around her voice. I haven’t even started playing yet Saturnalia, and I’m already confused. At this point I know this game is going to be something special.
Jointly developed by Santa Ragione and Big Trouble Game Studio, Saturnalia is a unique take on the survival horror genre that blends roguelike elements with incredible art design and an ambitious narrative to create a game that’s quite unique – even if it may not seem so at first.
Saturnalia is set in Sardinia, a culturally rich region of Italy known for its unique folklore incorporated into the storyline. The story takes place in the fictional mining town of Gravoi. First, we follow Anita, a geologist who has spent the last year surveying the mine to see if it can be reopened at the behest of a potential buyer. Unfortunately, the mine’s reopening has awakened… something the town is beginning to haunt. I won’t say more because I don’t want to spoil anything; You really should go in with as little information as possible.
As time goes by you will unlock more characters until you eventually have four in total. Everyone has a different ability. As a geologist, Anita has a map of the mine and can memorize the way to any point in the city that you have visited before. Paul is a single-camera photojournalist who can take clues and stun the creature stalking the city with the camera’s flash. Sergio has a satellite phone – Saturnalia takes place in 1989 – and can call for reinforcements from the other characters from almost anywhere. Claudia, small and thin, can squeeze through gaps other characters cannot.
Each character also has their own story that drives them forward. Anita is having an affair with a married man and must decide whether to leave town or stay and try to raise a family. Paul returns to town to learn more about his late parents. Sergio is a former drug addict who left town years ago after ending a relationship with an older man and came back for graduation. Claudia is the daughter of a local bar owner who is dealing with the strange circumstances surrounding her aunt’s suicide.
Characters progress their stories independently, making it possible to complete the game with any combination of them – or with any combination of living characters. There are multiple endings depending on who lives and what you achieve. You’ll want to do them all, but two things stand in your way: the city itself and the creature that’s chasing you.
The creature is terrifying. His approach is accompanied by a rattling noise, like the loudest version of the world’s angriest raincatcher. It’s terrifying when you first hear it and doesn’t lose any of its power as the game progresses. As it gets closer, the sound gets louder and louder, and when it’s close you can see its silhouette in the dark.
It is frightening see the creature, but even worse hear it because you don’t know where it is. You just know it’s near you and coming. You can’t fight it; Your only options are to run and hope you lose it, or hide.
Being found doesn’t mean death – at least not immediately. You instantly switch to another character and only have a limited amount of time to rescue the one that’s been grabbed. If they don’t, they’re gone. And this is where the city comes in. Gravoi is a claustrophobic, sprawling place, stacked on top of one another and full of dead ends, side streets and confusing paths. Navigating feels like entering a maze no matter how many times you’ve walked it.
In the dark it is menacing and challenging. You can only see a few feet in front of you without striking a match, one of several limited resources you must manage. Some things help – maps are scattered around several street corners, and you can light campfires scattered around town for lights and landmarks – but every match and the coins it takes to buy them and other resources will almost always spent in the mines. where light is precious and rare.
This feeling of helplessness and limitation weighs on you as time goes by and resources become scarce. Each match you spend going across the map, each journey to acquire another resource is scary as you are not only spending resources but risking another encounter with the creature.
You can team up with other characters and travel together to gain access to everyone’s special abilities, but this makes more noise, as does opening doors and just about everything else. And the more noise you make, the more you risk attracting the creature. You must constantly weigh the risk of traveling alone and encountering an obstacle that your current character cannot handle and increasing the risk of attracting the creature. Both can be frustrating and set you back, but which trade-off is worth it is up to you.
In the further course, every ride becomes an endurance test. You’ll want to keep investigating the clues you find, but is another trip to the mines or the church worth the possible outcome? I often had to work up the courage to try to finish everyone’s story. Worse, memorizing the city’s layout means nothing; If you lose every character, the city’s layout will be completely reset. Luckily, if you’re that unlucky, you’ll keep all the clues – conveniently sorted in an interactive mission screen and connected by lines to show how they’re related – and story progression.
The whole thing is wrapped in beautiful art. Everything looks hand drawn. Heavy lines outline the characters and buildings, blending with the deep darkness of the night and the neon pink fog that covers much of the city. The visual design – a mix of inspirations from giallo films, theatre, stop-motion animation and roto-scoping – achieves an art-house style that feels effortlessly cinematic, and the excellent sound design that draws on old music and noises , make it possible Saturnalia an audiovisual delight, even at its most terrifying.
Saturnalia also deserves praise for its accessibility options. You can control almost every facet of whether or not the village resets on death, how aggressively the creature chases you, or whether or not you have infinite matches or an automatic path to the location system. You can even enable permadeath. This allows players to tweak the settings to their liking individually or via a range of presets.
Saturnalia Review – The Bottom Line
- Stylish visual and sound design.
- Captivating story and characters.
- Accessibility options allow you to overcome difficulties and fears.
- The weird audio or visual bug.
- Navigating the city can be frustrating.
- It may be too scary for some.
Saturnalia is not a long game; You can complete the whole thing in a dozen hours, and often less depending on how you play, but it’s still a memorable experience. It intelligently uses horror to explore social issues – the city’s isolation, resistance to change and outsiders, and the ugly social beliefs that shape those things.
These facets combine perfectly in a game that is not only terrifying because of the monsters that haunt us at night. It’s also terrifying because of the monsters we create – and the things we are capable of.
[Note: Santa Ragione provided the copy of Saturnalia used for this review.]