Whoever coined the phrase “they don’t make ‘em like they used to” obviously didn’t play Theresia, an unabashed old-school throwback to the late 1980s. Then again, surely very few have played the 2008 DS adventure that was given a limited release with zero publicity, largely failing to reach even the hardcore audience it would most appeal to. And make no mistake: Theresia is indeed a niche-within-a-niche title that hearkens back to the early text/graphic hybrid days of yore. For those who aren’t immediately turned off by such a retro disclaimer, this dark, disturbing game is a lengthy, mature, and richly atmospheric adventure unlike any other available today, though like its subject matter, the experience is hurt by traps that trip you up painfully all too often along the way.
Much like the ICOM games of decades past, Theresia is a full-fledged adventure, but blended with some first-person dungeon crawling sensibilities. Oh, there are no monsters to fight, yet there’s plenty to fear from the many dangerous challenges opposing your progress. And you’re not in a dungeon, though the more rotting corpses, coffins, and swarming bug infestations you encounter along the way, the more you just might wish you were.
In fact, at the start of the game, you really don’t know where you are. In the time-honoured (read: horribly clichéd) tradition of amnesiac protagonists, you wake up with no memory of who you are or how you got in your present circumstances. You’ll do that twice, actually, as Theresia consists of two distinct scenarios entitled “Dear Emile” and “Dear Martel”. The latter is a prequel chronologically, though it can only be played after completion of the first segment. There are some notable differences between the two, but the gameplay remains essentially the same, and the storylines are loosely connected.
For what it’s worth, the protagonists are a young girl and an adult male, respectively, though since you never see them onscreen, these details are largely irrelevant. Much of the game takes you through an expansive underground complex, designed for scientific experiments with all the necessary staff amenities, but also equipped with prisons, torture rooms, and various religious symbolism. Occasionally you’ll emerge into an above-ground mansion, an outdoor garden, and even a large cathedral before plunging back into the oppressive labyrinthine hallways. Wherever you go, the objective is twofold: recover your memories and escape if you can. But that’s easier said than done, and what you learn is one of the most tragic stories ever to grace the genre.
Without being a real horror game in the usual genre sense, Theresia is nevertheless a horrifying tale; a twisted family “love story” of suffering, abandonment, torment, and murder. It’s clear from the outset that something has gone terribly wrong in this place, and you soon discover it’s based around a lethal disease and the pursuit of a cure that could be deadlier than the virus. Memories are regained in the form of fragmented flashbacks, each revealing a new piece of the evolving puzzle, along with scattered diary pages that fill in further missing details. As Japanese adventures are wont to do, this background is conveyed in an obscure, surreal fashion, frequently mixing narratives and perspectives, always teasing at revelation and yet continually lingering on the fringes of comprehension. This approach is at times – or perhaps at once – both compelling and frustrating, always motivating you to continue and yet rarely feeling very rewarding.
If there’s one other concern about Theresia’s story development, it’s that the memories are often redundant, typically repeating more of what you already know than offering anything new. Perhaps that’s unavoidable, even advisable for a handheld game in which periodic refreshers could be useful, particularly since it’s possible to miss some memories and still continue. Put any concentrated time into playing, however, and you’ll find yourself wishing the game would get on with things, and since exhaustive observation is so crucial to progress, it’s unlikely that you’ll overlook many flashback triggers. It’s still powerfully emotional material, just stretched too far for its own good.
This sense of overkill extends to the gameplay as well, both literally and figuratively. The game is essentially split into two distinct elements: movement and interaction. When navigating through the many winding corridors, you’ll guide your character with the +Control pad. Motion is simulated in freeform 3D, but really you can only turn and move in the four cardinal directions, and as if walking on an invisible grid, you advance fairly slowly, one small square at a time. Nothing can hurt you in this mode, but nor is there anything to look at or do except head towards the next accessible search point or room. When you do reach an interactive area, conveniently highlighted by a floating icon, the view switches to a pre-rendered image, where your exploration really begins.
In these interactive scenes, the main view area occupies the bulk of the screen, but along the right and bottom edges are the inventory bar and action icons. To examine or attempt to use something in the environment, you simply click the appropriate icon and then again on the object onscreen (buttons and pad can also be used instead of the stylus, but it’s far more cumbersome). Usually you’re given a text description of what your character sees or accomplishes, though occasionally you’ll get a close-up for further inspection. It’s not the one-click format adventure gamers are now used to, and it isn’t as efficient as an onscreen action menu, but it’s simple enough to grasp and gets the job done. Its implementation, however, leaves more to be desired.
The first problem is that there’s nothing to indicate interactive from non-interactive objects. The screens are very dark, and often you’re forced to scour unrecognizable areas just to see what they are. There’s also no way of knowing where one “object” ends and another begins. A bookshelf may be treated as a single item, or each shelf might be individually defined, so you’ll need to grudgingly click through the same actions, same responses until you’re sure. What’s worse is that some necessary objects are simply too hard to see at all, even impossible at times. Missing a barely-perceptible crack around a doorframe or failing to click on the exact right spot of a grate to see its completely invisible opening will stop you in your tracks on more than one occasion, especially when the text deliberately misleads you. That door with the crack around it? “This door looks sturdy”, observed my not-so-observant protagonist.
Fortunately, each character comes with a mystical item that helps them sense relevant details about the current room. At first I considered this an optional “hint” system, but really it’s a practical necessity. Often it reveals an element you could easily miss otherwise, sometimes with general helpers to alert you to something useful left in the room, or with more pointed tips for how to proceed. That’s all well and good, but the hint object is a permanent part of your inventory, and since you’re almost always carrying many items, you’ll need to constantly scroll through the excess to find it, then drag it to the “body” icon to enable it, and then tap your way through the same three or four lines of dialogue each and every time. It sounds like a small inconvenience, but it won’t be the hundredth time you do it. Surely a single icon click would have served the same purpose without all the hassle.
You might be tempted to skip all the “examine” commands to minimize the tedium, but then you’d be unprepared for all the traps. Yes, traps. Not just a few; a LOT. Justified by the flimsiest of reasons in “Dear Emile” (and apparently not at all in “Dear Martel”), many rooms conceal hidden perils just waiting to for you to blunder into them, eager to splatter your blood with knives, arrows, poisons, and fire. Most are avoidable if careful observation has alerted you to their presence, and a few require actual reasoning to disarm, but way too many depend on trial and error. A “shiny piece of metal” could very well mean a trap to avoid, or it could be one of the many keys you’ll need to locate. Better stick your hand in and find out. Slice!. Even when you know there’s a trap, occasionally you’re given four-way directional arrows to choose from, and you’ve got a 25% chance of picking the right one. Hey, that chair needs to be moved… maybe to the left? Rip! Oops, wrong choice.
At least there are bottled elixirs to find, which heal a portion of your injuries, as gauged by the ever-present life bar. It is possible to die, mind you, so players should be sure to save frequently, since some traps are more deadly than others. Even so, I typically had far more elixirs than I needed, as the traps are generally more punishing than they are fatal. The trouble is, the punishment is far too random to be “enjoyable” (in that masochistic way that horror fans can appreciate). I love the idea of traps that you can outsmart, and even welcome repercussions for mistakes, but too many of these are simply arbitrary obstacles to outguess or overcome through attrition. And this ultimately works against the game, as I found myself getting angry at the traps, not ever more apprehensive of the dangers around me.
The rest of Theresia’s puzzles require slightly more brains than blood, and almost all of them are inventory-based. There are a couple changes of pace, like a rotating spatial challenge, some code numbers to decipher, and chemicals to mix, but largely you’ll be finding and using everyday items in fairly logical ways, sometimes combining them first. The game settles into a nice rhythm when its puzzles become the focus, though here too there are inconsistencies that tend to squander momentum. Some items can only be used in certain ways at certain times, but without any rhyme or reason why. You’ll be forced to search high and low for a match to light one object, yet miraculously your character will spark stones (which you aren’t carrying) to light another automatically. Several puzzles require specific combinations, and yet you can’t combine an empty gun and a bullet. Such discrepancies aren’t enough to ruin the experience, but they can certainly bring progress to a screeching halt, and they happen often enough to remind you that you’re playing a game by someone else’s rules.
Never is this more apparent than in your endless quest for keys, as locked doors are the primary staple of Theresia. Each key is naturally located in the least likely, least accessible place, launching your next quest to retrieve one, often demanding a great deal of backtracking in the process. It’s a perfectly reasonable obstacle, but it’s so overused that it’s long since worn out its welcome by game’s end. Sometimes you’ll need to find alternative methods to proceed, but these also fall into repetitive solutions. I lost track of how many cracked walls I knocked down, boulders I smashed, or rubble I shoveled out of my way, none of which offered any entertainment value beyond the first time. And yet the hallways stretched ever on and on, with one repetitive blockade after another.
All those corridors quickly add up to a confounding maze of interconnecting passages, and it’s very easy to get lost, or at least forget where you first saw something important. That’s where the map comes in, but like just about everything else about Theresia, the map is a mixed blessing. Each area has its own map to discover, but once you do, it nicely fills in key details about what you discover in each room. Unfortunately, it usually doesn’t note rooms you’re prevented from entering or why, which is often the information that’s most pertinent to your goal. Only particular puzzles highlight a key objective, and it’s mystifying why those are the exceptions rather than the rule.
That’s not nearly as important as the fact that the map is a pain in the butt to open. Screenshots show a map displayed on the top screen, and there’s one there, all right. Except that’s not the one you usually need. It shows the floor layout and your position, but none of the useful room details. To open that map, you’ll need to dig it out of your inventory as well, and drag it to the proper onscreen icon. Even that’s not so bad, but you can’t access the inventory in movement mode. In other words, when you most need the map, you can’t have it. Instead, you’ll first need to find a room to enter, which makes the inventory available. It’s like going on a complicated road trip and being forced to pull off at a rest station just to look at your roadmap. There’s no reason at all not to have the fully functional map on the top screen, pulled town with a simple toggle. But no.
The top screen isn’t used for anything else, as all of the action takes place on the bottom. What you’ll see there is a visual presentation that – here’s a shocker – combines some bad with the good. Memories are displayed in stylish anime stills (curiously minus the oversized eyes, as no character’s eyes are ever shown in Theresia), and some impressive animations are occasionally sprinkled in. The interactive environments are moody and nicely drawn, if not particularly detailed, always washed in a heavy tint, from sepia-toned bedrooms to blue lab chambers, plus lots and lots of blood red, as many rooms are covered in mysterious “red beads”. Where the visuals fall apart is in the hallways, which are ugly, blotchy, pixelated messes that look like they came directly from the ‘80s themselves. You won’t spend long enough in them to really care, but there’s no denying they’re an eyesore.
Apart from a bit of repetition in the soundtrack, the aural experience is generally positive. The music is appropriately eerie and ominous for the most part, while the sound effects are effectively used, from creaking doors to splashing through liquid-soaked corridors (don’t ask if you have a weak stomach). Like many DS adventures, there is no voice acting of any kind, though the unintelligible whispers when accessing your hint item are deliciously creepy. The text includes some typos and errors, but it can be skipped ahead and does a pretty solid job of conveying the protagonists’ palpable fear, disgust, and confusion. On the other hand, it’s not nearly as convincing when reaching for deeper emotions as increasingly disturbing memories are uncovered.
There’s no happily-ever-after awaiting at the end of all this, and it’s not a spoiler to say so. I’m not referring to the characters’ fates, but there’s simply no way to reconcile the appalling backstory with a rosy, carefree outlook ahead. Players won’t feel uplifted walking away from Theresia, but rather solemn, reflective, and maybe a bit relieved. You won’t reach that point quickly, however. With all the repetitive obstacles, extensive backtracking, countless trap experiments, and finicky interface management, it should take a good 15 hours to get through the first installment alone. The second scenario should only take half that, as its design is somewhat more streamlined, offering the superior gameplay experience of the two. The story, conversely, has far less impact, the novelty being gone by then and the outcome already known. Had Theresia simply consisted of “Dear Emile” with the gameplay refinements of “Dear Martel”, it would have been a better, tighter experience overall.
With all the missteps on its often ragged journey, it’s certainly hard to recommend Theresia without some serious caveats. It’s relentlessly punishing for protagonist and player alike, both in style and in substance, and the gameplay experience can be more of a grind than a pleasure at times. And yet, the macabre atmosphere is delightfully creepy and there’s a tale well worth telling here: it’s brutal, it’s morbid, it’s downright uncomfortable… but it’s all the more memorable because of it. So if you’re feeling nostalgic for the bygone days of Shadowgate, or simply like your content dark and deep and don’t mind slogging through a world of hurt to get to it, Theresia may just warrant a look. Just beware the pitfalls, and don’t say I didn’t warn you.
An old-school throwback to the late ‘80s, Theresia unveils a dark, compelling backstory that might appeal to horror fans, but everyone else may simply want to throw this punishing DS adventure back.