It’s sad to say, but the place that I have found the majority of my adventure games over the past few years is in the bargain/discount section of my local Wal-Mart. These 2am treks are usually good for a mediocre title or two that I missed the first time around at a cost of ten bucks or so. But every now and then I stumble across something good – or even great. On my most recent venture I stumbled on a true rarity – Sanitarium - and not to sound like an old-time musical, but sometimes dreams really do come true.
I passed on this when it first came out, due to the “Wake up and try to find your identity storyline” – and regretted it ever since. And when I saw that XS Games had released an XP-friendly version of the game, I decided to right the wrong and finally dig into it. And dig into it I did – after a 20-minute ride home with my wife telling me to stop giggling like a schoolgirl.
There isn’t much that can be said about the story without spoiling major plot points along the way, and bravo to Dreamforge for making it that way. The game starts off in familiar movie territory – a speeding car on a wet road, a snatch of conversation, a cut brake line, and the resulting crash. When you come to, you are in your room at a mental institution, wrapped in bandages with no idea who you are, and a fire breaking out in the ward. It’s a simple beginning, but from there things take one strange twist after another as you try to regain your sanity and find out what has happened to you.
Playing Sanitarium is like playing a David Lynch movie. From minute to minute you have no idea what is real and what isn’t, and the simplest of conversations can have impact down the line. ASC did a great job taking a simple premise and weaving it into such a fascinating story. The game never gets boring, because plot points are delved out in small chunks throughout the eight chapters, giving you just enough information to make you want to keep playing. And despite its clichéd beginning, it is a powerful story as well. From the haunting little girl’s voice in the menu, to a trek through a house where the spirits go about their daily business, this is a game that will stick with you after you are done playing. This is the first game in a long time where I sat through the closing credits just to make sure I didn’t miss anything else.
Most of the time, when I boot up a game that is more than a few years old, I am pretty disappointed by the graphics quality. But Sanitarium was ahead of its time graphically, and – while dated – the five-year-old graphics still look pretty good today. Backgrounds are creepy and fit the atmosphere of the game perfectly, but the character sprites tend to be a little on the grainy, pixelated side. Cut-scenes are spooky, emotional, and well done – especially for the time period.
Sound in Sanitarium is a mixed bag, and one of the few down points of the game. The music is perfect for the game, and the atmospheric sounds creeped the hell out of me – especially in the dark with headphones on. But the voice-over work was like nails on a chalkboard to me. The main character’s voice is okay for the first hour or so, but over time becomes very grating as he repeats the same phrases over and over. This was bad enough, but you can actually tell that the character voice was recorded over different periods in different locations, as the tone, reverb, and sound quality vary from sentence to sentence – not a good thing at all. Supporting characters – and the main character when he is in different forms – varied from laughable to decent.
One thing that I remember disliking from playing the PC Gamer demo way back before Sanitarium came out was the method for controlling the main character, and years later I still don’t like it. To move your character, you have to hold down your right mouse button and maneuver the character to the desired point – sometimes literally dragging him to the location step by step. This is annoying in the adventure portions of the game, but downright unforgivable in the few action sequences in the game – and luckily there are very few, but we’ll cover them later. A point and click system should have been a no-brainer for this game, and it did detract from the game at times. Inventory on the other hand is well done – click on the character and all items are displayed in a circle around him for choosing. This was a great way to keep the screen uncluttered while allowing for easy access.
Puzzles are the typical adventure game fare, but because of the varied subject matter the game is able to mix and match from different adventure genres. By the end of the game you will have done the obligatory fetch-and-return quests, solved word and clockwork style puzzles, and navigated the only maze that I have ever enjoyed in an adventure game. Whew – a mixed bag of tricks, and all well done.
One thing that players will need to watch for when solving puzzles is, that due to the intricate backgrounds, some items are very hard to see. I spent an hour banging my head against the wall over one puzzle only to find out that I had missed an inventory item that was laying on the ground almost right in front of me. Items will glint when you run your mouse over them though, so this doesn’t turn into as big of a problem as it could have been.
There are four action sequences in the game, but nothing to worry about, as they are all short and fairly easy to complete. And if your character is killed completing these sequences, you are transported right back to the beginning of the sequence to try again.
Some games that I wait for years to play seem to build themselves up to the point where they were a lot greater in my head than they turn out to be once I get my hands on them. Sanitarium was an exception to the rule – with a few reservations. This is a game that would have ended up in my very small classics collection – LSL, Day of the Tentacle, Sam and Max, etc - had the voice acting not driven me so crazy, and the control scheme been better. But if you can deal with that, with the new release running at around ten bucks, there is no reason not to own a copy of this game in your library.