Adventure Gamers Awards
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.