Review by Matt S.
It’s rare for a single feature to really let down a game, but unfortunately Dementium: The Ward, one of the few attempts to do a classical survival horror experience on Nintendo’s handhelds in recent years, is an example of that. Even more unfortunately, the remastered version of it on the 3DS doesn’t fix that one issue, and so, while the game looks great on the console and makes good use of the 3D effect, it is an intensely frustrating game to play.
Related reading: The developer, Renegade Kid, was also behind the Moon Chronicles games. You can read our review of that one here.
The feature that lets Dementium down so badly is the fact that it’s so dark it’s almost impossible to see around without a torch. So it’s a good thing that you have a torch. Unfortunately you can’t use the torch and another item at the same time. This means that in order to fight an enemy, you need to switch between the torch (so you can see) and the weapon (at which point you can’t see any longer). So you can imagine what happens when you have a gun and want to shoot at an enemy from a safe distance away – you’re either firing precious bullets into the emptiness of space and hoping they connect, or you’re going to have to let the enemy get too close to you (and likely damage you), just so you can see what you’re fighting against.
This is a frustrating, irritating mechanic. I can completely understand why the developer might have felt that it was a good idea; after all, one of the most common fears is fear of the dark. The dark makes everything beyond the immediate surroundings unknown and when you’re aware that there’s something hostile in that inky blackness, you’re going to start to feel tense when you can’t see what the threat is. That tension is a handy emotion for a horror game to tap into… especially when the idea of the torch is that you do get a glimpse of the monster, before having to pull the weapon out and lose sight of it.
Done well that idea could have been intense stuff. Imagine a scenario where there was a single enemy stalking you, and it was smart – ducking and diving around in the dark, leaving you with the challenge of either using the torch to try and figure out where the creature was, or, after pinning it down, trying to take it out before you lose sight of it again.
Unfortunately that scenario would rely on a certain scarcity of enemies, and for each individual one to be smart, in the vein of the Alien from Alien: Isolation. Dementium’s enemies are frequent and, well, demented. For the most part they behave to very predictable patterns (i.e. beeline directly to the player’s position), and their AI is weak enough that I would regularly see them caught on scenery and the like. This is a product of the game originating on the DS and I don’t actually hold the AI against it by any means. As a simple splatfest game it could have worked, it’s just that when it’s coupled with the torch mechanic the enemies really let the experience down. This is a game that wants to be a slow-paced tension horror house, and instead it went with the Resident Evil approach of jump scares and action combat, which is not a combination that gels well at all.
The setting itself is generic to the point of being a sin, but is entertaining nonetheless. You know all those horror films set in decrepit hospitals or asylums? Yeah, that. The hospital setting works for the game because it focuses the action into corridors that can get away with having minimal decoration. Despite that the level design is a little arbitrary – there are an awful lot of storage cabinets and surgeries placed in random spots around this hospital, for example. It doesn’t take long for it to feel less like a hospital and more like a series of levels. And, because there are so many doors, there is also plenty of room to have locked doors, and often the game degenerates into a key hunt. I intensely dislike this way of introducing additional challenge into a game. While I appreciate that’s how the genre classics did it, and Dementium is ultimately a throwback to those games, it’s also dull and actively detracts from the atmosphere the game otherwise tries hard to evoke.
But with all that said, Dementium is still creepy and the enemy design is gruesome enough. It’s also a suitably difficult game when it wants to be, and there were more than a few times that I knew I didn’t want to open the next door, because I had too little health left and I knew something unpleasant was behind the door. And, as generic as it is, I did enjoy uncovering the mystery behind what happened to this particular facility.
The upgrade to the 3DS has done the game real favours on a technical level, too. The 3D effect really helps to give depth to the enemies and environments. Because the action is so focused on tunnels, the “looking into the box” effect of the 3DS’ brand of 3D helps to reinforce the rigid and focused design of the levels. The ability to use the C-stick on the New 3DS models is a nice addition too, for those of us that don’t find aiming using the touchscreen to be particularly comfortable.
Dementium really does have the potential to become a genuine underground horror franchise. Its sequel, which I have not played, but have seen in footage, addresses my main concern above (it’s possible to carry the torch and a pistol), and seems to have been enough of a success that it’s even seen a HD port. Unfortunately, should Dementium develop into a franchise, all the first game is going to be is a scrappy little curiosity showing us where it all started. The game doesn’t stand up especially well by itself, and the Remaster has only addressed the superficial issues with the DS original.
– Matt S.
Find me on Twitter: @digitallydownld