Saturnalia Review – Stylistic Horror Awaits
Developed by Santa Ragione
Published by Santa Ragione
Available on PC, Xbox, PlayStation, Nintendo Switch
One of my favorite hidden gems is the PlayStation 2-era Obscure. It’s this game where you are in a high school with your (kind of) friends, and there are monsters around. Of course, there is a lot more to it, but Saturnalia hit me with nostalgia for it based on that fact alone playing it. That and the weird intriguing art style excited me for this one.
Saturnalia is a rogue-lite horror game. First and foremost, every time all your characters die, the village gets rearranged, so no two playthroughs will be the same. Although you start alone going through the town, you can free up to three other people, each with their unique abilities and tools also helps shake things up each time you find yourself re-entering the village.
The upside to the rogue-lite style is that even if you die and the word changes, you get to keep your progress through the puzzles and story. Which is a nice change-up and one that I enjoy more than losing everything starting from the beginning each time style we see in games like Spelunky.
The visual art style is most likely the first thing players will take away from Saturnalia. It is very visually striking, with a lot of colors and purples and pinks that just pop out at the player. However, mixing this with the somewhat off-kilter animations reminds me of rotoscoping. That and every time we are present with tight corridors reminds me of the razor wire room from Suspira. Its first hour was incredibly intriguing with this style, but overall, it strained my eyes a bit and felt like it could have used a little less vibrancy.
This goes in hand with the horror of it all. Because of this weird vibrancy, you would expect it to need to be in your face with the scares in order to provoke anything. But the way it creates this sense of claustrophobia is fantastic. This is in part due to the labyrinthian layout of the town and the fact that the Creature, as it’s known in-game, can and will be lurking around potentially any corner.
You are tasked with discovering a way to survive in Gravoi, the city where Saturnalia is set. It is challenging as a survival horror game. It puts pressure on the matches one can find in a run. These are used to light the way, and once you run out, it gets pretty challenging to find your way around the town. While there is no combat, there is a stamina meter which is used to basically run when you see the Creature. Once this runs out and you are caught by the Creature, it is game over for that character. Running through the game twice, I was never successful in having all four characters make it to the end, once in part due to a collision error where Sergio seemed to get stuck on an invisible wall which was quite infuriating. Other than that one wall, though, Saturnalia ran wonderfully.
Speaking of the characters, there is Anita, who is visiting the town for work. During that time, has an affair with a man from the local church and gets pregnant. Paul is Anita’s housemate and friend who is back in town to try and find his birth parents. Claudia, who is a resident of the town but wants out after the death of her aunt, and lastly, Sergio, a former resident who was sent away once they discovered that he was gay, who is coming back to take care of his dying father.
The characters each have these immensely heavy and dark backstories. My issue is that they mostly seem like set dressing to the gameplay. Don’t get me wrong, escaping the maze-like town while solving puzzles and trying to elude The Creature is excellent. I wish they would have stuck with the character’s personal struggles more after setting them up with such heavy stories.
Overall I’m two minds with Saturnalia. The minute-to-minute gameplay is enjoyable and engaging, if a little slow paced. But this is due in part to the style of stealth horror that it is, and it does a good job of getting that across. But the story here is a little lackluster for me. However, again there is a great fun game to play here, especially if you’re into the rogue-lite genre.