There's a very fine line between horror and schlock, and sometimes even the most gifted writers can't manage this delicate balancing act. When you throw sex into the mix, that challenge increases, particularly when delving into taboo subject matter. Such is the case of Movie Games Lunarium's erotic thriller Lust for Darkness, a short descent into sexual depravity that doesn't quite understand that perversion in and of itself isn't wholly terrifying. Sure, the game also tosses in Lovecraftian monsters, otherworldly locales, and a few well-timed jump scares, but the story isn't nearly as shocking as it wants to be. Which is a shame, really, considering the game's presentation (minus some wonky voice acting) occasionally comes together to create a truly disturbing experience. But alas, a horror title simply cannot exist on penis sculptures and vaginal portals alone.
Players assume the role of Jonathan Moon, whose wife Amanda disappeared without a trace. Although a year has gone by without a single clue, he hasn't given up hope of her return, despite the toll it's taken on his life. While wandering through his home late one night, a mysterious envelope arrives completely out of the blue – from his missing wife, no less. Amanda claims she’s been locked away inside a creepy Victorian mansion owned by a sinister man named Willard Yelverton. From the tone of the letter, it's clear that she's in grave danger, though she doesn't offer her husband any specifics. Instead, she gives him instructions on how to sneak inside the estate during what appears to be a meeting of a secretive cult. Since Jonathan recognizes his wife's handwriting, he assumes the letter is the real deal and sets out to stage a daring one-man rescue operation, but he soon discovers that something much more twisted – and unnerving – is taking place at that mansion.
The majority of Lust for Darkness takes place inside the cult leader's sprawling manor, a place filled with obscene sculptures, unsettling masks, and a wide assortment of self-pleasure devices from the days of old. Not surprisingly, this isn't the sort of game you'll want to play around children or those who are easily offended by such things, especially once the game sends poor Jonathan into another dimension called Lusst’ghaa, which he enters through glowing… er, vaginas. There, the cult's insatiable sexual desires become even more graphic, complete with rooms full of bloody orgies, mutilated bodies in the throes of ecstasy, and what appears to be penis-centric art installations. Visually, the game delivers plenty of horrific sights, though they soon lose their luster; even gratuitous sexual violence can only shock a person for so long. In fact, the game seems to think that coasting by on the sexual deviancy of its generic cult will serve as full-blown horror for the duration of the adventure. On the contrary, it just gets boring and predictable by the time you've seen every hideous thing on display. If doled out in smaller doses, these images may have had more of an impact.
You navigate the landscape in first-person using your keyboard and mouse (or a gamepad), with additional keys reserved for interacting with objects, picking up the occasional item, and running. You'll spend the vast majority of your time looking through drawers and examining countless trinkets and doodads sprinkled around the mansion. Tucked among random decorations are certain objects that unlock side stories, which provide a wealth of information about the cult, its religion, and the people who run it. Once you collect all the relevant pieces, you can access these stories via the main menu. They're essentially just animated audiobooks, but they do provide some interesting detail if you care at all about the game's mythology and lore. But while I do appreciate their inclusion, I wish the developers had incorporated this information into the base game, instead of forcing me to do three separate fetch quests to access the goodies. If you decide to skip over these side stories, you'll bypass a lot of background that helps flesh out (no pun intended) some of the game's narrative vagueness, but you honestly won't miss them. Unlocking them is probably more trouble than they’re worth.
Puzzle-wise, you won't have too many genuine head-scratchers to deal with. Most tasks boil down to finding an object and taking it to a specific location. However, sometimes it's unclear what, exactly, you need to do to move forward, bringing the story to a complete standstill. For instance, getting into the mansion early on proved particularly daunting, as the letter from Amanda said I would need to find another way in since I didn't have an invitation to the cult's shindig. I spend roughly 30 minutes looking for open windows, doors that were slightly ajar, or ways to scale the walls surrounding the property. Only when I decided to retrace my steps out of sheer frustration did I discover the solution to my problem. Without giving too much away, gaining entrance ultimately makes sense, but figuring out the solution didn't occur in an organic and satisfying manner. The same can be said for a few of the other puzzles; if you can't figure one out right away, just keep at it until something clicks, as most of them are straightforward enough to solve with some old-fashioned trial and error.
When you aren't prowling around inside the mansion and the nightmarish Lusst’ghaa, you'll engage in a few poorly executed stealth sequences that are as basic as they come. And when I say basic, I mean very basic. While trying to sneak into the mansion, for instance, you have to avoid a handful of lookouts who walk defined paths and follow specific patterns. They're also not very good watchmen; I hid from one poor sap who I swear could see me staring at him from the other side of a car window. Since I'm not very good at creeping in video games (I'm more of a "guns blazing" kind of guy), I didn't mind the simplicity of these segments. But if you're going to include stealthy bits, why not take the time to make them interesting instead of boring and tedious? Thankfully, there aren't too many such occasions, and when they do appear it doesn't take much effort to get through them. For a cult that seems to think pretty highly of themselves and their religion, they don't seem too bright when it comes to protecting their secrets from nosy outsiders.
The same criticism rings true when you're forced to run away from the game's collection of enemies. During a few sequences, particularly in Lusst’ghaa, you'll stumble across villains who want nothing more than to rip you asunder, requiring you to run like hell in order to survive. Instead of giving you intricate set pieces or an interesting maze to navigate, thus turning this breathless pursuit into a puzzle, you essentially just have to keep moving forward. There aren't many paths to take in Lust for Darkness, so your escape route is generally pretty well defined. Outwitting and outrunning bad guys in video games can provide a substantial rush, but that doesn't really apply here. As long as you can bob and weave, you'll outrun your pursuers and they'll eventually decide you're not worth the effort.
The only exception comes toward the end of the game when you're forced to square off against Willard as he chases you through the halls of this hellish netherworld. However, even this sequence turns into a series of frustrations when you're trapped in a room with your opponent and have to figure out what, precisely, you're supposed to do to defeat him. I finally managed to bring the big guy down, but only after lots of irritating trial and error. Thankfully, the game doesn't penalize you much for screwing up; you'll just be returned to the last autosave point, which are well spaced out. However, having to redo the same section over and over because I'm not clear what I'm supposed to do gets annoying. I don't necessarily need my hand held when playing a game, but knowing the rules definitely helps make things, you know, fun. After all, that's the point, right?
Despite the inherent schlockiness of the premise, Lust for Darkness looks pretty good. If you're in the market for sex, violence, and the kind of squishy, unsettling horror typically found in the works of Clive Barker and H.P. Lovecraft, you'll have plenty to occupy your attention. Yelverton's mansion looks incredible: the interior design, with its lush paintings and weird erotic sculptures, feels foreboding as well as lived-in. What's more, there are plenty of drawers, cabinets, and closets to dig through. Even though most of them don't contain anything worthwhile, it's always intriguing to play the role of the nosy neighbor and sneak a peek at what the cultists are keeping in their bathroom cabinets.
Lusst’ghaa is especially gruesome; every inch of this incredibly strange dimension appears to be covered with spoiled meat, congealed blood, and all sorts of deformed sex organs. One second you're looking at a purple penis protruding from the mouth of a giant, the next you're staring into an enormous vagina on the wall. The setting and atmosphere really deserve a better story that justifies their existence. Unfortunately, the character models and animation don't quite live up to their surroundings; the cultists move like mannequins brought to life by someone who doesn't quite understand the basics of human anatomy. Given the bizarre nature of the game, that occasionally works in its favor, but for the most part it comes across janky and unpolished.
The voice acting also leaves something to be desired; Jonathan sounds wooden and unbelievable, while Willard tends to chew scenery. The cultists themselves are wholly forgettable, though you won't spend too much time conversing with the believers for that to really matter. The sound design itself, however, manages to elicit some chills. Listening to your feet squish on the gore-soaked floor of Lusst’ghaa can make your dinner turn flips, and the score helps to build tension during the game's more intense scenes. Just prepare yourself for some very loud moments associated with a few effective jump scares.
Somewhere deep down in the guts of Lust for Darkness is a great game screaming to escape. The Lovecraft-meets-sex-cult premise has great potential, but uninspired writing and the tale's overall vagueness prevent it from really shining. It's the video game equivalent of an unrated straight-to-video horror film that takes its B-movie goofiness way too seriously. Some might brand me a prude or think I don’t appreciate sexually-charged horror, but that couldn't be further from the truth. The problem is that when you decide to take otherworldly elements and inject an abundance of erotic shock value for roughly three hours, it's important to give players something else to latch on to. It's possible to elevate schlock with great writing, but sadly that's where this experience falls short. Had the developers spent as much time crafting a genuinely enthralling story and engaging puzzles as they did putting thick veins on a monstrous penis, this could have been something special.