Sanitarium (Windows)

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100 point score based on reviews from various critics.
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Written by  :  Unicorn Lynx (181424)
Written on  :  Dec 14, 2001
Platform  :  Windows
Rating  :  3.67 Stars3.67 Stars3.67 Stars3.67 Stars3.67 Stars

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Could deformed sisters torture cyclops in a Mexican morgue?..

The Good

DreamForge, certainly an underrated developer, mainly focused on role-playing games (Ravenloft series and others), with only an occasional adventure - such as the interesting Chronomaster - sticking out. Sanitarium is undoubtedly their best-known adventure, and probably their most famous game in general.

Sanitarium begins as a psychological thriller. You have lost your memory and can't even remember your name; all you know is that you are in a very bizarre place, surrounded by equally bizarre people. Piece by piece you must unravel the mystery, but at first it seems that it would become even more complicated as you advance in through the fittingly disjointed, nightmarish plot.

Right in the beginning there's so much suspense that it took me several attempts to actually start playing the game. You have no idea about what to do next or even who you are supposed to be. The beginning Sanitarium manages to be scary and very unsettling without resorting to cheap effects. There are very few standard horror elements in the game: minimum of violence, almost no gory scenes at all, and only a few creepy monsters making well-timed appearances. What is truly frightening is the psychological suspense and the madness surrounding the hero and torturing him from within. What is scary is the inability to tell dreams and hallucinations from reality.

The first real chapter of the game is also by far the strongest one. Everything is very quiet in a seemingly peaceful little village. But then you start talking to those children... and those deformed children were probably the single scariest thing I have ever seen on my monitor. I remember feeling physically ill just from playing that chapter. I couldn't put the game down afterwards simply because of some sort of a morbid curiosity that kept urging me to continue. But the game does much more than shock you with disturbing images: it makes you identify yourself with the hero who, in spite of surrounding madness, tries to control himself and act as normal as possible.

Not everything Sanitarium does is brilliant or even appropriate, but one can hardly deny that it tries very hard to keep us in the loop of perpetual psychotic ravings. And that is no small task - after all, there is only so much pressure human brain withstand when bombarded with mutated faces of innocent kids. It seems that the developers understood that and eventually went for color and variety at the expense of horror atmosphere. This is precisely what the game was berated for: it promises unbearable mental horror and ends with a horse-faced deity chatting with decent-looking Mexican spirits. But while it is true that, in a way, Sanitarium doesn't sustain its atmosphere well enough, it attempts to compensate it with diversity. Many of us lambasted the comic book or the Mesoamerican chapter post factum - but during the first playthrough, the change of scenery was certainly perceived as interesting and even strangely invigorating.

The Bad

Despite my defense of the later chapters, I won't try to deny that they cannot compare to the opening ones and even come close to ruining the game. In its aspiration to cram as much material as possible into the game in order to reflect the richness of human imagination (or whatever other reason, really), Sanitarium ends up choosing the path of gradual reduction of the horror aspect and its eventual replacement by mild and rather harmless fantasy adventuring. The dark and twisted images of the earlier chapters give way to nearly cheerful superhero adventures, culminating in the Mesoamerican chapter, rightfully regarded as the weakest one.

There is quite a bit of discrepancy between the atmosphere and the puzzles in Sanitarium. The few mechanical puzzles actually work well, and - unlike some other reviewers - I also didn't mind the primitive action sequences. In contrast, traditional inventory-based puzzles are rather weak and almost feel like an afterthought. I do not see anything remotely poignant or symbolic in riding a toy pig in order to proceed to a mysterious pumpkin patch controlled by a horrifying alien. It doesn't really get better as the game advances. You'll be forced to endure stretches of schematic gameplay with obsolete devices and a lot of backtracking, which clashes with the game's horror aspirations and renders the later chapters positively dull.

The conversations are, unfortunately, not better. You'll have to exhaust one dialogue tree after another to obtain vital information time after time; but these dialogues are not particularly interesting or well-written, lacking wit or any sort of extravagant element to match the game's original premise. There is something thoroughly mild and mundane in the entire gameplay system of Sanitarium, which feels very much out of place in a game with such strong imagery.

Finally, though the graphics are certainly good, I find the isometric perspective woefully unsuitable. The rooms are just way too small. This wouldn't be a problem in a RPG, where you have to overlook a large world with less importance assigned to each area. But here, every item is needed to solve some puzzle, so expect a good deal of the so-called "pixel-hunting". And the isometric perspective generally doesn't fit a game that emphasizes the protagonist's psychological suffering rather than world exploration. First-person view, for example, would have been much more appropriate. The control scheme is needlessly weird - why do I have to hold down a mouse button to move? The protagonist's walking speed is too slow, and he would often get caught in unskippable animations going up and down the stairs.

The Bottom Line

Sanitarium is unique and engrossing, and the first two or so chapters are truly well done. Unfortunately, it loses a lot of its atmosphere along the way, and its gameplay system is steadily a few notches below its captivating premise.