Review for Eleusis
Before I lost interest in the whole affair, I used to spend a bit of my free time wading the primoridial ooze of Steam Greenlight listings, looking for anything that merited my rather fickle attentions. One of the games I stumbled across in this process bore the cryptic title of Eleusis, which ostensibly fell into the increasingly popular sub-genre of “scary” adventures. Although the game had been previously released through smaller online stores, it hadn't crossed my narrow radar until that point, so I gave the demo a twirl and came away with two distinct impressions: 1) it was rather pretty, and 2) the gameplay seemed a bit boilerplate and unremarkable but held promise. And so, I gave the game an optimistic thumbs-up vote and pledged to revisit it if it ever cleared the Greenlight gauntlet. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one intrigued, as it was Greenlit soon afterwards and has now been formally released through Steam.
So having played the full release, does Eleusis manage to live up to its promise?
At the very least, it’s still pretty. The presentation of Eleusis is top-notch, especially considering it’s largely the work of a three-person development team. The graphics are well done, and while they won’t be confused with a big budget commercial release, they can hold their own against most anything in the indie world. The downside, being made using the Unreal Development Kit, is that everything tends to have the engine's characteristic otherworldly shininess, as if the entire world’s had a onceover with a coat of lacquer. There’s also not much in the way of variety, as most every texture in the game is a variation of rock, dirt, grass or wood, but it works okay given the game’s rather limited scope and setting.
The sound design is similarly minimal. On occasion, a bit of spooky music pipes in when you hit certain locations or trigger an event, but it’s generally pretty subdued, and most of the time you’ll likely only hear your footsteps, some crickets or running water. There’s nothing remarkable about them, but the environmental effects are fine, and the game isn’t really worse for the general lack of mood music. Variety notwithstanding, the graphics and sound work well together and do a fine job of establishing a general sense of creepiness.
The game is presented in the first-person perspective, offering the full range of controls associated with typical 3D engines. You can walk, run, strafe, duck and jump, some of which become, for better or worse, necessary at various points during the game. Eleusis makes use of physics to an extent, meaning that certain items in the game can be physically “picked up”. The targeting reticule turns into the standard hand cursor when you come across an interactive object. As opposed to a regular inventory object, however, clicking on a physics-enabled object (e.g., bottles and rocks) and holding down the left mouse button will let you pick up and carry the item (i.e., magically levitate an object in front of you) as you stroll about, for as long as you feel like holding down the button. Right-clicking while holding the item will let you give it a spirited toss. Once I discovered this, I naturally felt inclined to fling about everything that wasn’t programmatically nailed down until the novelty wore off, but these objects are all composed of an indestructible, rubber-like substance. Regrettably, this feature remains a novelty (with one unfortunate exception) and isn’t put to use to solve puzzles or otherwise interact with the world.
The game starts promisingly (if not routinely), with a nameless protagonist driving through the (presumably, based on the title) Greek countryside on his way to an estranged family reunion, when an untimely (or is it?... cue spooky music) rockslide smacks into his SUV, stranding him in the proverbial middle of nowhere. Armed with a backpack of infinite interior dimensions (aka an inventory), a flashlight and journal, you set about finding some manner of roadside assistance, which inevitably escalates (as is tradition) into a grander mystery of epic and dire proportions, with the fate of the world eventually hanging in the balance.
In the beginning, I got a rather pleasant vibe reminiscent of some of the better “traditional” horror-tinged adventure games, such as Scratches, Dark Fall and Barrow Hill. Eleusis provides a similar atmosphere, dropping you into a remote setting with a rather simple goal, where you can practically choke on the threat of lurking horrors presumably hiding behind every rock. Leaving the safety of my car behind for a wooded trail with naught but faint moonlight and my pitiful flashlight illuminating the way and the wind whipping the leaves gleefully about filled me with a fantastic notion of anticipatory dread. Pity it couldn’t last.
The tricky part with horror or suspense-themed games is maintaining the nail-biting without resorting to hair-pulling. Tension is a fickle mistress and quickly gives way to irritation when you get stuck on that one damnable puzzle for half an hour, or boredom, since the spooky hallway isn’t quite as spooky when you’ve been forced to backtrack through it a dozen times. It takes a pretty tight design to sustain tension without falling prey to adventure game design tropes.
The game is divided into three chapters: Chapter 1 provides the introduction and setup, Chapter 2 comprises the bulk of the gameplay, while the final chapter provides a brief climax. Eleusis comes pretty close to getting it right for the first chapter of the game. The pacing is relatively tight, and a fine balance is held between nudging you along in the right direction and letting you explore a bit and solve a few puzzles without becoming a slog.
Unfortunately, the second chapter, which I’ve dubbed “The Quest for Keys”, takes a few too many pages from the Adventure Game Design 101 Handbook. The puzzles in Eleusis are mostly inventory-based fare, consisting of the standard “use x on y” template, the "x" being a key and the "y" being a door for approximately 90% of the puzzles. If I had been able to just kick in a few locked doors or hop over a couple of rather small yet insurmountable gates, the game would have been done in about 20 minutes. At one point I was able to craft a lockpick, but in traditional adventure fashion, it only worked on the one specific lock of the dozen-odd such in the game. This also meant that part of the challenge in a few instances was just sorting out which damned door I was supposed to unlock, which exposes another of the shortcomings of the game design.
Whereas Chapter 1 keeps you confined to a relatively small section of the world, the second chapter throws the gates open (literally) and turns you loose. This is all fine and well, as the game is at its best during the tense moments of revelation when you’re creeping down a trail to parts unknown and happen across an undiscovered point of interest. Unfortunately, you’re not given much direction in either the literal or figurative sense during the middle chapter, so while you may have an idea about what you’re supposed to do next, you’re not certain where that might be. You may very well end up exploring the entire map before you find the particular door you were meant to unlock, and once you’ve opened all your presents, it’s not quite the same if you try to re-wrap them and do it again.
Perhaps this isn’t such a terrible thing in itself (although it’s a bit of a mood-killer), but the other problem with games done in a realtime 3D environments is that to get from point A to point B, you actually have to walk there. In Eleusis, the handful of buildings and points of interest you’ll need to frequent are scattered far enough apart that the oft-necessary backtracking becomes a chore. I suppose it can be argued that a fast-travel option may spoil the tension, but by the time I was sprinting carelessly through the ominous woods and parkouring over small enough fences, the mood had sufficiently expired.
One of the traditional ways to retain tension in an open-world setting is to toss some baddies in the mix to keep you on your toes. When I saw an option to toggle “NPC Threats” in the game’s settings, I was a bit apprehensive, since making it an option means that it’s not (presumably) considered to be integral to the gameplay experience, which in turn means it’s most likely going to be some manner of half-assed distraction. Nonetheless, I kept the option checked, and even though I knew they would show up eventually, the first time I actually happened across an “NPC Threat” I was quite pleasantly startled, and instinctively turned around and ran like hell. Although the game helpfully suggests that throwing something at the approaching menace is a fine strategy for keeping them at bay (and justifying the otherwise useless inclusion of physics), I found that taking the time to stop, pick up a rock, turn around and toss it in their general direction usually just gave them enough time to close in for the kill. As such, I found running for the nearest sanctuary was generally the best strategy.
Unfortunately, this added tension didn’t last either, as it doesn’t take long to see the strings being pulled and the baddie encounters soon become predictable and a bit of an annoyance. Being caught results in an instant game-over, exposing the game’s other critical design flaw: the lack of a manual save option. I’ve made a tenuous peace with checkpoints in console and action games, though I would classify it as more resignation than acceptance. Nonetheless, I consider it a violation of sacrosanct game etiquette not to provide a manual save option for a PC-based adventure game. To be fair, the autosave in Eleusis is mostly effective, kicking in after events of significance, although it seems to be somewhat inconsistent, as there were a few instances where I lost a bit of progress after exiting the game or dying. In most cases, restarting from my last autosave just meant sprinting across the map to wherever I had left off, which characterizes my impressions of the better part of the game: running from one point to another. Again, once the initial charm of exploration wears off, the game becomes a decidedly less-romantic exercise of running back and forth between locations to use this on that.
The story, such as it is, is primarily pieced together through the handful of journals and books sitting on tables behind the various locked doors, as well as the journal that the protagonist dutifully maintains. Naturally, the naïve search for roadside assistance or a phone (which the protagonist is conspicuously without) gives way to a doomsday cult, made abundantly clear when the second (of approximately two) characters you happen across is wearing the requisite black-hooded robe, as mandated in the by-laws of the Fraternal Order of Doomsday and Elder God Sects, and so on. The tale is fairly rote and most seasoned adventurers will probably be able to predict the remainder of events after reading through the first journal you find.
It bears mentioning that the game originally launched with a number of bugs and technical issues, the most common (according to various forums) being poor performance. Thankfully, I didn’t run into major technical issues on the Steam version I played, although the game doesn’t play well with the “hot corners” in Windows 8. My mouse cursor would often (behind the scenes) hit one of the corners, which would dump me to the desktop. Once I disabled “hot corners”, this ceased being an issue. Although I didn’t notice any performance issues, I have a ridiculously overpowered PC (for an Unreal game, anyway), so your mileage may vary.
My experience with Eleusis can best be summed up thusly: During Chapter 1, I was intrigued. During Chapter 2, I was mildly annoyed. During Chapter 3, I was mentally composing my grocery list for the week. While playing Eleusis, I couldn’t help but feel as if I were playing a glorified tech demo. The graphics and physics and such are a fine thing, and while the game doesn’t feel unpolished (relatively speaking), it does feel unrealized. I managed to finish it in about four hours and change, and that included a significant bit of screwing around and being mauled or bludgeoned, so don’t expect more than 3-4 hours of gameplay. If you like pretty things (and who doesn’t?) and scary games, you can do better, but if you feel compelled to try it, wait for a sale.
The very last scene of the game either teased a sequel or mocked me for having done everything in vain. I’m not certain which, but if it’s the former, I’m cautiously optimistic (if it’s the latter, it would simply be another page in the story of my life). I wouldn’t mind going back to Eleusis, but next time, I would like more of a game to go with it.