It will take you about 7 minutes to read this flashback review.
A mix of fine art detail and comic book exaggeration, Paolo Eleuteri Serpieri’s Druuna series is something of an anomaly in the graphic novel medium. Even among his European contemporaries, Serpieri’s work exists in a realm outside what one would consider “comic art.” The care in constructing every single body and page is remarkable and arguably unmatched in the comic book world. One could spend hours scouring the composition of each and every panel, dissecting the fascinating, horrifying, and erotic world in which the eponymous heroine finds herself trapped – or you could just enjoy it for the... anatomy. However you slice it, Morbus Gravis is a masterpiece.
Artematica’s Druuna: Morbus Gravis, on the other hand, is nothing short of a disaster. Unfinished in every way, it's amazing Microïds gave the OK to put this game on store shelves. Those who look closely will see glimmers of inspiration, the framework for what could have been a great adventure worthy of the source material. But make no mistake: this is among not only the worst comic book games ever made, but also simply one of the worst video games ever made.
The interactive adaptation of Morbus Gravis chronicles the story of a woman named Druuna who lives in a sprawling, ruined city decomposing into a mess of stone, metal, and sludge. Much of the city’s population has succumbed to an ailment known as “the sickness,” turning them into mutants. A sect of priests control what little order remains, dispatching guard patrols and doling out serum to combat the plague. Those deemed free of disease are promoted to the Upper Levels – a supposed paradise.
While the game takes its inspiration from the first volume of Druuna’s saga, the broader setting is extended all the way to the series’ fourth book, Carnivora. The protagonist resides with a spacefaring expedition whose ship has come under attack by a mysterious interdimensional threat. The vessel’s science officer, Doc (modeled after Serpieri himself), is searching for a way to save the crew by examining Druuna’s memories for clues regarding the threat’s origin. Here in Doc’s lab, the game begins.
At first Doc can only access certain blocks of Druuna’s memory, though these flashbacks can be played in any order. The first memory block begins where the comic book does, with Druuna committing to retrieve extra doses of serum to help her lover, Shastar, combat his mutation. With the city segregated into secure zones, Druuna must brave security forces, crumbling infrastructure, and violent mutants on her way to the clinic.
While some scenes mirror the source material, the game regularly diverts by adding in new characters, events, and plot devices. Some of these changes were undoubtedly spurred by the comic’s graphic nature, which if included likely would have landed the game an AO rating from the ERSB. However, many of the rewrites still raise questions, as the game doesn’t totally shy from violence or nudity. Druuna loses her clothes and has courtside seats to a mutant attacking a guard in the serum clinic, just like in the comics, but later, in an original scene created for the game, she confidently speaks in riddles to a puppet master and his merry mechanical friends as if suddenly she’s a MENSA member stuck in a Disney movie. A keystone of Druuna's character in the comics is her gullibility and general soft-headedness. If she had a catch phrase, it would be “I don’t understand” (curious that Artematica decided to make a puzzle game with such a character, but I digress). Such radical changes in tone come off as disjointed and hastily written, failing to mimic the rich suspense of the graphic novel, or even tell a cohesive story.
As memories are relived and items are acquired, new blocks open for exploration, numbering twelve in total. Sometimes players will have to return to past blocks to progress the story, though unlocked memories can be examined at one’s leisure (or stress). Of all the game’s underdeveloped ideas, this one is actually pretty clever. While the story is best experienced in a straightforward manner (whatever that’s worth), this open-ended narrative approach proves interesting, even if not utilized to its full potential.
While an adventure game at its core, Druuna blends platforming and action elements with puzzle solving, all to varying degrees of failure. The game resembles survival horror with its fixed camera angles, item collection, and enemy evasion in a semi-open environment. However, Morbus Gravis is not Resident Evil, and there is no combat system to speak of. In-game, Druuna’s only means of defense is to run.
The protagonist does have life bars of sorts. Druuna’s nervous tension, cognitive restructuring, and cardiac activity all contribute to how long Doc can stay connected to one of her memories. These bars are depleted by running, getting too close to monsters, staying in a memory too long – basically everything you do in the game. When the levels sink to a certain level, Doc’s connection is severed, forcing players back to the beginning of the block. There is a manual save system present, but using it is not without risk. Trying to save your game when Druuna’s nervous tension is too high triggers a full cerebral collapse, dropping you all the way back at the game’s start.
Druuna also utilizes Quick Time Events. These sequences are saved solely for cinematics, and are prompted by a static fuzz blooming from one of the screen’s four sides. Frustratingly, these QTEs vary in their timing with interface cues inconsistently prompting input, the game often coming to a sudden and surprising halt after a seemingly correct button press.
With the implemented tank controls, platforming is perhaps the most unpredictable and frustrating part of the experience. Druuna supports both gamepad and keyboard layouts, though neither works particularly well. The sensitivity of lining Druuna up must be exactly right, making each and every jump a stroke-inducing test of patience. Unlike other games with fixed cameras and clunky mechanics, where players may continue to move even if hitting a wall or obstacle until they break free of it, Druuna will not move, let alone run, unless she has perfect line of sight free of any object. Readjusting her to line these jumps or sprints up with what has been referred to as her “duck waddle” is almost comically irritating.
The puzzle design varies throughout, with each challenge feeling unique. Druuna will be trading items, rewiring electronic door locks, map-making, and smart-talking her way through the city. Exploration is a puzzle in and of itself, with some routes leading to sudden and instant death, giving no clue as to how to safely gain passage – if safe passage is even possible via that route. Other puzzles must be completed under pressure, often with little to no explanation as to what is required, and with enemies hot on Druuna’s heels. Even the puzzles without enemy presence prove frustrating, being needlessly drawn out or complicated. The maze in memory block 11 is especially egregious, even after one has deciphered the code for traversing it safely. With the camera flipping angles upon entering each new room, it’s enough to induce motion sickness.
Occasionally Druuna will also have to talk herself out of trouble, navigating her way through dialog trees. One never really gets to know Druuna or her broader objective well enough to respond to these with any degree of confidence, making these segments more of a guessing game than a nuanced conversation.
If there is one thing Artematica successfully captured from the comic books, it is the setting. Druuna’s static environments look fantastic, and they are worth admiring despite all the frustration garnered from actually playing the game. The organic decomposition makes for a haunting and beautiful post-apocalyptic labyrinth. The music, painfully ‘90s as it may be, is also quite fitting. A mix of upbeat techno and cool trance, it maintains an aura of danger throughout, and is one of the game’s more pleasant aspects. Voice acting isn’t of quite the same caliber, being just above House of the Dead level, though the script could be partly to blame.
Sadly, the static renders stand in stark contrast to the blurry, low-poly character models. Apparently Serpieri oversaw the development of Druuna’s amply endowed character model, though it's unclear how and to what degree he was involved. At best she looks unfinished. This holds true for most other characters as well, with in-game models lacking any discernable detail while cinematic models animate with bizarre and stiff contortions, mimicking something out of the base Poser 2 library.
The transition to and from cinematics and gameplay is seamless, at least, with no load times or slowdown to speak off. There is one particularly humorous point in memory block 10 where the audio starts over just as the cinematic ends, but they otherwise work as intended.
Druuna: Morbus Gravis is so perfectly mangled in its execution, it’s hard not to stop and appreciate the accidental, almost pornographic artistry of its failure. The story lent itself so well to the genres of horror and adventure that it’s somewhat tragic more time and money couldn’t have been put into making this game right. Each and every element is half-baked at best, its disparate parts hardly enjoyable alone or in unison. From its butchered story to its non-functional control scheme, playing this game is a test of endurance for which there is no payoff. Fans of the comic may want to check this game out for its novelty, but for those unfamiliar with Serpieri’s epic, there are plenty of other space horror games better worth your time.