Sanitarium (Windows)

ESRB Rating
Critic Score
100 point score based on reviews from various critics.
User Score
5 point score based on user ratings.
Written by  :  Dr. M. "Schadenfreude" Von Katze (589)
Written on  :  Nov 01, 2003
Platform  :  Windows
Rating  :  3 Stars3 Stars3 Stars3 Stars3 Stars

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A bizarre graphic adventure with great potential. One of those games worth a remake.

The Good

The man just found the missing link for a project he's been struggling with for several months. He makes some urgent phone calls to spread the news, and then flees towards the parking lot.
The excitement of the man is contrasted by the night, stormy and full of awful premonitions.
After driving for a few minutes, the man loses control of the car and gets out of the road, falling off a cliff. It all fades to black.

Suddenly, a siren goes off and a harsh voice starts yelling, much like the warden of a prison. The man wakes up in a small cell. The door is not locked, so he gets out into the hall.
He finds himself at the top of some ancient-looking tower, with several cells in which other people are being held. Chilling screaming sounds in the background, coming out of the cells. Clearly, all of these people are mad.
The man's suit and white lab-coat have been replaced by green scrubs. His face is covered by bandages. He can't remember who he is, he doesn't know what he is doing here. He's now another patient at the sanitarium.
The persisting sirens keep ringing, something bad is happening.

From this moment on, Sanitarium will take the player through a journey in which nothing seems to make sense. The very moment it seems like it would, the whole world is suddenly changed into something totally different.

Sanitarium is a point n' click graphic adventure, shown from an isometric perspective. The typical old school use "this" with "that" kind of game.
Gameplay is spiced up with some classic mind-breaking puzzles, and a few action scenes.

The game is divided in ten chapters, and each of them takes place in a totally different location. Sometimes even the character is transformed into someone else. The atmosphere is very surrealistic and will have you totally confused for the first three chapters, at least.
Throughout the ten chapters that form the story, you will have to accomplish several missions which don't seem to be related to one another at first, but slowly start to interconnect, while also giving out hints on the character's background, to finally understand what is all this about.
Supporting the storyline, there are a total of 40 pre-rendered clips, adding up to around 750MB of full motion video storytelling.

The "adventuring" is pretty simple, you can only perform one action per object, and the inventory never grows so large that you get lost. Worst case scenario, if you reach the point where the only solution on sight is the good old try everything on everything, this can be easily done in a few seconds.
The puzzles are cleverly designed, and while they ARE mind breaking, they are also logical enough so they can be figured out with some thinking, no need to be some kind of mind-reader to understand what the hell the developers were into. In fact, the puzzles were one of the things I liked the most of the game.
Finally, as I said, there are a few points of the game in which you will have to fight, but these fights are pretty simplistic, and hardly pose any challenge. It's a way of offering some variety to the gameplay, more than anything else.

The graphics are nothing to write home about, but they do their job correctly, specially considering the unfortunate perspective chosen for the main portion of the game. More on this in a minute.

Hands down, the best part of the game is the atmosphere.
Some people said they were disappointed because they expected a horror story, and as such they think Sanitarium turns too silly near the middle of the game.
Me, on the other hand, I never thought of Sanitarium's genre as horror, but rather as bizarre or absurd; and as such, the more impossible and ridiculous a given situation got, the more I liked the game. All in all, granted, this is a game for a very special kind of public.

Through its surreal ups and downs, the constant premise of the game is "save the children". Every mission starts with children under some kind of inconceivable peril, and you will have to make your best to set them free; the real story is about saving children from something; and a certain child's death marked the main character's background.
The situations the children are put through in the different levels create a very disturbing atmosphere, even though there are no explicitly gore scenes or anything similar. Children are doubtlessly an effective resource in any story which wants to be scary or disturbing.

The background story, once uncovered, is not exactly ground breaking, but it's good anyway, and it has a few brilliant points. The ending itself is pretty smart, holding a slight sense of irony.
I found the story very enjoyable, specially the way it's told, all the twists and turns until the plot itself is fully uncovered.

In my book, this is one of those games that deserve a remake with modern technology. The potential to make an awesome game is all there.

The Bad

The worst flaw of the game is doubtlessly the isometric perspective. I find it inadequate, to say the least, for two main reasons:

First, everything looks too small. Since this is a graphic adventure we need to pick up a number of objects to use; and more often than not you will be missing things because you just didn't see them. Because of this, every time I got stucked I found myself scanning the scenario with the mouse, millimeter by millimeter, to see if I missed something I was meant to pick up. Needless to say, this is really annoying; specially since the character can't run, so walking back to "scan" the places you already been to can take quite some time.

Second, and even worst to my eye, I agree with Coldbringer's review when he says that this perspective puts characters so far away that you can have a hard time getting involved with them. At times it feels like you're watching the scene across the street; something IS happening, but it happens to other people.
There are a couple of points in which the story turns quite emotional, and the atmosphere that the brilliant storytelling tries to create is slightly spoiled this way. At least dialogues should happen in some window which shows the characters closer —come on even the first MONKEY ISLAND had that feature to enhance dialogues.
The dialogue window which shows the faces of the characters is not enough, specially since the faces are totally immobile.
Also, the moments where the game should turn mysterious and even scary get plainly ruined by the perspective.

The other important flaw is the voice acting. Some of the voices sound pretty well, some not that much, but not one single character is convincing enough: they all sound like they were recorded while reading the script for the first time.
On top of that, voice acting for the main character is simply awful. The worst of the whole cast, by a fair margin.

The Bottom Line

Sanitarium is a strange game from its very conception, and for this reason, many people might even hate it: it's not exactly horror, it's not exactly suspense, it's not exactly drama... it's just strange. It can —and will— go from disturbing and terrifying to utterly silly in a split second, before you understand what just happened.

The choice of isometric perspective is unfortunate, to say the least. It makes hard to see the items you need to pick up, at times it makes hard to get involved with the story; and it just doesn't fit the game, period.

However, in my personal opinion, bottom line is the game is totally worth playing for whoever cares about a nicely-told storyline. Not only that, this is in fact one of those oldies which deserves a remake with all the power of current generation PCs.
Once uncovered, the plot itself is not exactly brilliant, but this is one of the cases in which the smart storytelling stands over the storyline itself. It's crafted in a smart way, starting in a confusing nonsense and slowly interconnecting parts and making more and more sense. With a more adequate perspective, a few dramatic changes of cameras, the game has everything else to grow to the extent of a must-have classic.