Gray Dawn review
‘Tis the season to be seriously creeped out and yet equally enthralled by the religious themes and beautiful, imaginative world in Gray Dawn.
Guilt. Overwhelming guilt. Reliving-every-moment-of-your-worst-deeds guilt. How do you deal with all-consuming shame, especially if you are a priest? And what if you didn’t actually do what you’re accused of? In Interactive Stone’s colorfully surreal first-person 3D adventure Gray Dawn, you’ll get to experience one man’s harrowing journey through horrifying memories of the terrible things he may or may not have done as he attempts to prove his innocence. The game will push you to the edges of taste with irreligious imagery, all while also offering up scenes of great beauty and immersion as backdrop to some light enjoyable puzzling.
It’s deep winter, and black crows caw and fly through swirling snow. The tinny sounds of radio Christmas music fill the air. In this cozy setting we meet the game’s protagonist, the priest Father Abraham Markus. He appears to live in a gorgeous mansion, filled with ornately decorated rugs, expensive fixtures, and delicate Victorian furniture. Religious artwork adorns the walls. A fire crackles in the fireplace.
My first instinct was to explore all of the nooks and crannies, using the WASD keys to move through this beautiful home. The cursor is context-specific to show when you can interact with a hotspot or pick up objects. To open things, you’ll need to move your mouse around to twist knobs, push or pull down to press levers, and slide back or forward to access drawers. The game also gives you the option to play with a controller, although I played with a mouse and keyboard. Sadly, the mouse controls were quite frustrating and imprecise at times. Trying to turn a wheel all the way around was an exercise in sheer frustration (not to mention painful on my old wrists). Sometimes I would find myself wildly swinging a gear the wrong way or not at all because I wasn’t making small enough or large enough circles with the mouse. At other times, I would try to open a door only to find that I had slammed it shut in my face instead.
It’s not these sometimes clumsy controls that keep you from fully exploring at first, however. When you’re introduced to Father Markus, he seems to be happily ensconced in his holiday-decorated home. However, hints that things are not quite right soon appear when you discover a door draped not in Christmas bunting but in golden chains and locks. The radio interrupts your shock at being locked in by announcing that an altar boy as well as seven children from an orphanage are missing and that the killer priest from the black tower is the one under suspicion.
Well, you’re a man of the cloth, but hm...what does this have to do with you? A letter from the missing altar boy, David, tells you that he’s not gone, just waiting for you at the end of the world, whatever that means, and he’s left you a key. Father Markus seems surprised that he’s alive, and sets out to find him. You’ll only just have begun to poke around this opulent mansion before you open a door to see a central room flooded with water and a bed... covered in blood. Try walking into the water, and a voice warns you that something or someone lurks there, so you may want to go a different way – yikes! With most of this room off limits, you’ll end up at a door that takes you not into a side hallway, which the shape of the house appears to indicate, but straight outside.
Here you’re met with a bucolic forest surrounded by the soothing sounds of falling water and tinkling music. It’s a place, in the words of one character, of “peace and purity.” The disembodied voice of David beckons you to explore and complete a seemingly insignificant task. I wandered around quite a bit, admiring the beauty. Small, subtle changes to the landscape (a white owl here or a sheep in the distance there) called me to venture to particular areas.
After solving a small puzzle, I found my way back into the mansion. After this Gray Dawn swaps regularly between the grim manor and calming outdoor spaces, with young David acting as guide through welcome respites that occasionally take you to a beach filled with strange statues and a wooded area with a cemetery and church, along with the usual forest. Once back indoors, however, I discovered that the central hallway had now been flooded not just with water, but also with a plague of frogs. A disgusting fat frog statue sat atop a pillar asking me to feed it the blood and flesh of Christ while actual frogs fell continuously from the ceiling and hopped leadenly across the floor. In Markus’s own words, was I going crazy?
I’d like to take a moment here to talk about the gorgeous artwork. Later on, the scenery devolves into blood and grotesquery, but for much of the game you’re wandering through jaw-dropping scenes of beauty. The developers have used the Unreal 4 engine to great effect, allowing you to freely roam this exquisite home and surrounding grounds. The environment feels massive, and so much of the graphic design is a stunning study in detail and contrasts. A bedroom full of the macabre is adorned with fine furniture and porcelain figurines as well as paintings of butchered sides of beef. An absolutely eye-popping cerulean church, ornately decorated in Romanian fashion, with brilliant blues and swirling reds and golds, is just as lovely on the inside, with swirling clouds hovering above you against the church ceiling.
Much of the world you explore is seamlessly integrated with small cinematics, like a murder of crows bursting forth from an open door or blood suddenly filling delicate china tea cups and saucers. One memorable set piece has you wandering through a dining room filled with floating china, wine glasses and silverware. As you push through the room, the dishes flow around you, and you’ll hear the clinks as they bump into each other behind you. In another scene, you walk toward a crystalline stream, wondering how you’ll cross it, and as you get closer, rectangular plaques with images of religious figures swim and rotate upward to form a series of steps for you to cross, each one appearing before you as you step forward. I could go on and on with these descriptions, including a somber library that suddenly bursts into life with thousands of dragonflies, as Gray Dawn has so many vivid and wildly imaginative settings to admire.
The audio also does a great job of deepening immersion. The sounds of a boys’ choir singing Christmas carols serves as a contrasting backdrop to images of sin and debauchery, glass clinks and cracks as a mirror shatters, and cricket chirps interplay with wind rushing through leaves in the woods. In addition to the ambient effects, you’ll encounter a variety of old-fashioned radios throughout, and much of the strange story – or one version of it anyway – is revealed in a hyper-sensationalised manner via the airwaves. The radio host seems to accuse the priest of shocking crimes in a very personal tone, actually calling out the Father by name and speaking to him as if he were chatting with him on the phone, leading me to question Markus’s sanity (well, that and the fact that he’s walking through a room full of frogs, has blood-hazed visions, and hears voices calling out to him).
Many of the voices are quite well acted, though sadly that doesn’t apply so much to the protagonist, as Father Markus comes across as stilted and dry at times. As you play, you’ll encounter ghastly memories and images, and still the man narrates what he sees in a clipped and unemotional voice. You’ll hear from other characters, including David, the altar boy Father Markus may or may not have killed; his innocent voice serves as soothing balm at times from the madness and chaos. A deeply modulated voice in the lowest of timbres, which may or may not be the Devil, was genuinely creepy to me. The radio announcer is perky and yet also rather sinister, keyed-in as he is to Father Markus’s comings and goings. And recordings of a past mistress on phonograph cylinders reveal a darker side to the Father’s life. One of the most effective performances comes late in the game when a woman speaking in a different language carries so much grief in her voice that it brought me to tears despite the language barrier.
The sounds and impressive visuals all serve as pretty wrapping for a bizarre tale and some generally straightforward puzzling, with a nice smattering of innovative touches thrown in. I found the seemingly simple task of searching for plaques with images of Christ, given to me by David early on, to be surprisingly difficult given the sheer number of environments and volume of religious imagery available. At a certain point I gave up, as the story and exploration were engrossing enough that I simply forgot that it was an objective before me. It’s unfortunate that there weren’t more reminders about this puzzle, because as minor as it seems, it actually does have an effect on the ending you get to experience.
You will pick up other items along the way as well. The challenge is ensuring that you explore every bit of each setting you visit, since you will automatically pick up what you need when you encounter it. From feeding creepy frogs, to performing alchemy, to finding a way out of a locked room, most of the inventory obstacles are only a problem if you forget to open a cabinet or gloss over a corner of a room, which could be frustrating given the sheer amount of scouring you’re asked to do. In the forest, you’ll sometimes have to solve small puzzles, like rotating gears based on graphical clues nearby. Oftentimes you can only interact with these objects after you’ve found items that will complete them. Certain puzzles aren’t that well integrated with the story, like the strange machines you find in the woods, but others, like locating items that will allow you to perform an exorcism, are deeply intertwined with the narrative and even use clues that contain religious significance (holy numbers, for example).
Further into the game, you’ll get an additional puzzle in the form of a music box that you hold when you’re in the forest. Activate the music box and the setting changes season – from winter to summer to spring or fall. The change of season doesn’t just change up the scenery; it will also allow you to overcome obstacles you may have thought were insurmountable. If you’re stuck, try a different season to make your way through. I found this game mechanic wonderfully entertaining, and a really ingenious way to add depth to the puzzling.
Gray Dawn isn’t all traipsing through idyllic outdoor settings and wandering around a creepy mansion. I would be remiss if I didn’t touch on the religious themes and imagery that the game is drenched in. Markus’s journey through his guilt surrounding a terrible tragedy is heavily laden with holy icons and nightmare scenes, many of which scream out blasphemy. These images can range from the spooky to the absolutely appalling, dripping in body horror. One particularly creepy moment has you picking up a phone, the ringing of which has burst through a dead silence, only to hear a child’s voice on the other end reciting the Lord’s Prayer. Something so simple and seemingly pure is rendered horrifying because of the bloody backdrop it’s set against. If you’re very religious, you may be offended by the many profane images here, including a library with thousands of books, all with the same title: God is Dead.
Beyond just creepy blasphemy, the world eventually becomes more dark and hellacious. In his fever dream, Markus is asked to use the “Roman Ritual” to banish demons from David. This ceremony involves the removal of seven hearts from unbaptized children who have died. Is this metaphorical? Is it real? The further you get, the more surreal and demonic the imagery. Falling snowflakes turn out not to be snow at all, but ash from a monumental volcano, spewing an enormous plume of smoke and lit from below by angry red fire. A demonic-looking gigantic rabbit stares at you and beckons you to follow it.
If these descriptions seem disjointed, it’s because these revelations often appear in the game out of nowhere, and it was difficult to see how they all fit together. Though I had trouble following the details of the story, the main outline – a priest trying to prove his innocence while also re-experiencing guilt from past sins – managed to muddle through it all. Did Markus do all of the other terrible things he experiences? That uncertainty may have been the point. One scene wonderfully illustrates the question of what is real and not real. As you explore a house in the woods, looking in through glass panes, you’ll see children frolicking around a room. However, step through the doors, and the room is empty. Step back out, and there they are, pale reflections still playing in the room.
The horror magnifies almost to a level of delirium as you make your way to the end of the game. You will literally submerge through blood-soaked waters and make your way through the bowels of a church into a blood red brothel. This setting was the most upsetting to me, with female naked mannikins, bloody and brutally wounded in the most disturbing ways imaginable. The brothel scene has you interacting with a monstrous entity that almost had me retching at how grotesque the task was.
The final act of Gray Dawn, which it took me about seven hours to get to, will play out in two ways depending on whether you complete the task received from David early in the game. I didn’t, but I also didn’t feel cheated by the ending I got. I found the story hard to follow in general, and impossibly cruel and sacrilegious at times. Despite that, the world is rendered in an absolutely stunning fashion, often providing you with imaginative ways to interact with it. If you’re not squeamish and are okay with a horrifying yet gorgeous vision of one man’s hell on earth, check out this gut-churning rumination on sin, guilt, and innocence.