In 2022, I do hope developers learn to properly pair narrative genres with gameplay mechanics. Horror is a difficult genre to get right; it’s not just about having ugly monsters and creepy houses. It requires a carefully creative hand to guide players on a journey. It requires a mastery over pacing so that the narrative beats have the right impact. It needs to be an efficient experience lest the audience becomes desensitised to it. The roguelike, meanwhile, allows for none of these things, and that’s where Theatre of Sorrows falls down. It could have been good, but the combination of a horror theme with the randomisation of roguelike elements leaves it with no atmosphere, and saying nothing worthwhile.
Theatre of Sorrors wants to be Lovecraftian cosmic horror trip. You play as a dude whose twin sister has been kidnapped, and you need to head on over to a creepy island reminscient of an Innsmouth-like locale to undertake a series of missions set for you by the cult that kidnapped her. They promise they’ll let you both go after you complete a series of rituals… but whether you keep your hero’s sanity intact to that point is very much up for debate.
In execution what this means is that you’ll be traveling across a map of the island (with the island being broken up into a series of “nodes” like you might see on a board game) to collect resources, craft talismans, and then head over to a grotesque shrine to complete a ritual. You’ll do this over and over again over the course of a few quests. It’s not an entirely linear journey through the thin narrative, though as you can make some key decisions at key points, and that will affect how the narrative plays out, but it’s a pretty straightforward pathway through the objectives otherwise.
Mechanically it’s all about resource management. As you collect the resources to make the talismans, you’ll also have three statistics to manage for your protagonist-victim: sanity, body, and energy. Each of those statistics depletes as you journey across the map (and occasionally encounter eldritch denizens or nasty hazard environments). They can be replenished by finding resources in abandoned buildings along the way. This is the first issue with Theatre of Sorrows. The setup and location is intriguing enough, but what you’ll be doing after that is a dull grind. You’ll move from node to node, heading into each house and exploring every room within it for both the resources to help your statistics up and the crafting items to complete the ritual with. It’s not necessarily easy, but because these resources are randomised and you need so many of them to win against the war of attrition, you’ll end up spending so much time wading through menu item after menu item, repeating the same gathering actions, and then using those items on yourself to recover your character’s stats, as, at the same time, you scrape together the resources that you’re meant to be collecting.
Narrative elements, meanwhile, are brief. There’s a short cutscene to introduce your latest quest at the start of the “day,” and then you’ll usually have one additional cutscene midway through that’s related to the ritual you need to complete, and finally a description of the ritual itself that rounds out a chapter. There’s a certain pulpy thrill to these, which is entirely appropriate to the Lovecraftian aesthetic. I particularly loved the narrative arc in which you need to explore the house of an alleged mass murderer while a masked sinister someone acts as your guide. But there’s no depth nor surprises to these. The narrative is entirely predictable within the genre, and really only acts as a frame… to a game that is very shallow and limited in execution.
Most galling of all, however, is how little variety there is. Random events will occur as you explore the island, but within an hour you’ll be cycling through those event descriptions quickly, because you would have already seen them before. The presentation side of things is lovely, with the backgrounds and key scenes being particularly evocative. But those don’t quite have the impact that the developers were probably hoping for when you’re mashing the buttons as quickly as you can so you can get on with the endless task of menial resource gathering.
Theatre of Sorrows isn’t worth your time. It’s dressed up nicely with some good art and the occasional sinister moment to dwell on, but underneath that is little more than a basic resource management experience, with such egregious repetition through its “roguelike” elements that it becomes rote well before you’ve even finished the game for the first time. As a carefully-planned, linear and focused experience, Theatre of Sorrows could have been something creepy and evocative. Instead, it’s like reading the same snippets of Lovecraft over and over again. Do that, and it doesn’t take long at all for them to lose all meaning and value.
– Matt S.