Games can sometimes be a strange mix between serious storytelling and some sort of toy. We want to have fun while playing but on the other hand we eventually expect stories of the same quality as in other media. In the vast majority of cases, we can look past issues regarding themes and storytelling if the gameplay itself is fun. After all, it seems as though the number one priority of developers is to entertain its player base. This is why we tend to raise our eyebrows when a developer creates a game inspired by a real tragedy.
The Church in the Darkness might not be directly based on a historical event but it's heavily inspired by the People's Temple and the tragedy of Jonestown. Set in the 1970s you play as Vic, who's travelled to South America to catch up with his nephew Alex and make sure he is doing okay. Alex has been travelling with the religious cult called the 'Collective Justice Mission' and helping them to create an independent community in the jungle called 'Freedom Town', founded by preachers Isaac and Rebecca Walker. As a player, your mission is to infiltrate the cult and find your nephew but how you get the job done and whether you decide to bring him back home or not is up to you. The game prides itself on having a dynamic and open narrative design where the characters' motivation is different each time you play and where the story evolves depending on what approach you take. The idea is interesting and ambitious for a small indie game, but does it work? Well, the answer to that is both yes and no, but we'll get back to that shortly.
The game is an isometric 'acton infiltration game' that at first glance looks like a mix between the old pre-3D GTA games and strategy games like those in Commandos or Desperados. You can choose to either sneak through the city, shoot your way through everyone, or deploy a mix of the two. The guards have a coloured cone showing their field of view and as long as you stay outside of them, you're safe - unless you start making noise, of course. The small community of Freedom Town is very suspicious towards strangers so if you're seen you may set off an alarm, unless you're shot on the spot or taken prisoner. You can kill enemies in various ways and the game leaves the options open from the start, and there's no penalty or reward for choosing one method over another - on the contrary. As we mentioned earlier, the game's characters and its narrative reacts to your choices, making you want to pursue different methods to experience different outcomes.
However, you can't avoid having to sneak around to a certain extent. You can find various weapons, but ammunition is limited, so if you shoot everything that moves it won't be long before you run out of ammunition with half of the city's inhabitants after you. Therefore, you have to be prepared to improvise and think twice about your plans, especially when things are going well. Worth mentioning is the fact that the aiming isn't super accurate when it comes to ranged combat. It works fine as long as you just run around but we had issues with guards having all the time in the world to shoot us in the head with their shotguns only to aim in all directions but the correct one.
You quickly find that you can run around pretty freely between the enemies as long as they don't see you. You can breathe down their necks or even go straight through a large group of them without alerting anyone. You can strangle one person right next to another and if the visual cone points in a different direction they won't detect you at all. It sounds unrealistic, which it is, but in the context of the gameplay, it doesn't matter. You quickly learn what the rules are and it's the rules that provide the challenge.
It's not specifically an AI problem but more a definition on how to play, telling you what options you have. Occasionally, however, it can seem a bit ridiculous when you repeatedly lure a group of guards with a thrown rock, strangling them one by one without the rest suspecting a thing (but then again, games like Hitman and Assassin's Creed are quite similar in that regard). In one playthrough, we killed 207 of Freedom Town's residents. The game eventually told us about that number, but no one reacted to it. NPCs returned to their jobs in the fields and the guards continued their mumbling conversations. This does remove some of the game's credibility.
Overall, The Church in the Darkness is fun and full of possibilities but after five or so hours playing, you start to notice the lack of depth. You end up using the same tricks over and over and, unfortunately, there's nothing in the environment that you can experiment with. We would have like to see more opportunities to trap enemies, cause "accidents" or use other Hitman-like tricks.
What the developer has been pushing a lot is the open story of the game. Each time you start a new run you are asked to make some decisions. This means you have the option of choosing between assigning your character a random personality or picking up where the one you chose before left off. The first time you play, you have no idea what that means, but, in short, it means that different things can happen in the game depending on the personalities of Isaac and Rebecca Walker. The first example of this comes when you're captured.
You have no HP bar in the game, instead, every time you die, you wake up in a cage and here, either Isaac or Rebecca appears before you to have a chat. Depending on their personality and your actions in the game up until that point, they'll display a reaction. When we sneaked around without killing anyone, Isaac just let us sit around, training our cooking skills for a while in the cage, but when we killed the 207 people, both guards and civilians, Isaac simply uttered the words "call this self-defence" and put a bullet in our fragile head.
Isaac and Rebecca may also have different motivations aimed at each other. This can trigger sudden turns in the story. We, for example, heard Rebecca proclaiming that Isaac had been killed and that everyone should come to the church through the speaker system. We didn't kill him, so we became suspicious. After a while, we discovered that all the NPCs had disappeared, so we went to the church and found it ablaze. Rebecca had killed everyone - and that was just one of the 19 different endings the game has. We definitely haven't seen them all.
This is not the first time we've sailed on a sea of possibilities and The Church in the Darkness is an easy game to overlook. The different endings seem to mostly offer differences to the epilogue text. The endings can't even be defined as endings, really, as they're not in-game happenings and therefore not expressions of a differing story. Still, the dynamic narrative is the element that lifts the game from just being okay to actually being interesting. When the end credits roll, you want to start the game over again right away to see how things differ in response to different choices made at the start. Had the story itself and the characters gripped us more, the game could have been something very special. Instead, it ends up with the label 'interesting', but not much more.
The Church in the Darkness follows the classic survival game trend of telling a lot of its story through documents and records that you'll find throughout. This is, without a doubt, a cliché within the gaming world, and it feels somewhat lazy. The game really excels through Isaac and Rebecca, mostly because of the actors portraying them. You hear their propaganda constantly through the speakers in and beyond Freedom Town. This lays the foundation for the whole universe. The speeches change according to their personalities and your actions in the city. Occasionally, they also play songs of protest which, although they sound bad, seem authentic, placing Freedom Town perfectly in the '70s counterculture.
The presentation of the game, however, never feels flashy and the graphics are simple. The colours create a good atmosphere, like a sunset with a dark night looming, but the fact that all buildings and all the inhabitants look just alike feels a bit dull. It could have used a bit more depth and detail to add to the visual experience. Besides the protest songs, there's no real soundtrack other than the occasional guitar. This does work really well, however, and creates a great atmosphere.
As we played The Church in the Darkness, we forgot all about the issues we found along the way, and this can only be attributed to one thing: we were entertained. That said, the game has no particular commentary on the cult phenomenon or the '60s and 70s counter-movements. It only delves superficially into the psychology of religious sects, fanaticism and ideology, but on the other hand, it captures the eerie mood and merciless propaganda that, on the one hand, preaches unity and equality, but on the other is controlling, violent and manipulative.
We think that the story should have offered more dilemmas for the player to ponder. What happens when you find yourself in a position where you have to get a person out of a cult who doesn't want to get out? Should you force them out of the place that they call home? Is it liberation or kidnapping? These questions should have taken up more place in a game with such a grim premise. The gameplay keeps the adrenaline pumping, making you want to experiment more as you decide where you want to take the story. After a while, however, it starts to wear thin and you could easily lose the desire to achieve all the different endings. All in all, The Church in the Darkness ends up being an okay game with some interesting action sequences and, while it didn't wow us, it's definitely worth a try.
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