Last year wasn’t a great one for me personally in terms of gaming. My wishlist was bursting at the seams with upcoming releases I’m looking forward to playing, but many were delayed due to COVID-19 and challenges faced with remote working.
Things are beginning to look up though. Not only are lockdown restrictions now easing in the UK, postponements in the gaming world are coming to an end too and I’ve been able to get my hands on some great games recently. The Dark Side of the Moon was a fun full-motion video (FMV) title with a science-fiction storyline and I can’t wait for the sequel; and Hitchhiker took me on a mysterious journey into the unknown which stayed with me for long after the credits rolled.
I jumped at the chance of a review key for Strangeland after being kindly contacted by Emily Morganti as I’ve enjoyed everything that Wadjet Eye Games has had a hand in creating or publishing. Adventure fans are likely to remember Wormwood Studios’ 2012 release Primordia, a well-received point-and-click set in a post-apocalyptic world where a robot wants to find out what happened to the humans. Now after ten years of work, we’re finally able to play its spiritual successor this month.
The story begins when you wake up on a rickety wooden bridge suspended in the sky with no memory of who you are or how you got there. In the distance is Strangeland, a nightmarish carnival filled with traps and riddles, where you witness a golden-haired woman fall down a bottomless well before you have a chance to save her. Somehow you know that until you destroy the Dark Thing lurking at the top of a towering rollercoaster, it will keep happening over and over again.
I don’t want to give too much away but it should be fairly obvious from this summary that it isn’t a game for children. As advised on its Steam page: “Strangeland deals with mature themes involving grief, mental illness, self-harm and self-destructiveness. It has some horrific but surreal imagery. Some players may find such content triggering.” While I wouldn’t necessarily say the title is scary, it certainly gives off a heavy atmosphere and there are some rather creepy moments.
For example: at one point you’ll find yourself trying to come up with a way to charm the eye out of a ten-legged teratoma, and at another you’ll have to discover the real name of a mermaid made by men. And lets not forget the ride to the edge of oblivion on the back of a giant cicada. Metaphors are liberally scattered through both the environments and conversations, and commentary is provided in an annotation mode for those interested hearing more about the references woven throughout the game.
Halfway through my playthrough, my other-half asked me whether I was enjoying Strangeland so far and I told him that I was because it reminded me of Sanitarium. It was therefore a nice surprise to come across an old post on the Steam news hub the following week, in which a member of Wormwood Studios discussed the game’s influences. They wrote: “We found inspiration in games like Sanitarium and Weird Dreams, shows and movies like The Prisoner and Eraserhead, religious and mythological works.”
A point-and-click is nothing without puzzles so let’s move on to those now. Like Primordia, those within Strangeland can be solved in several different ways and non-player characters (NPCs) remark on the actions you’ve decided to take. For example, one player might win a carnival game with good mouse skills and sharpshooting, while another might notice the electrical panel next to the machine and choose to make some changes to its engineering instead.
The carnival almost wraps back around onto itself as you progress and you’ll be placed in situations similar to those you’ve already experienced. For instance, early on you’ll have to figure a way around a vicious dog; then later, you’ll come across the beast again – but this time it has your face and you’ll need to tweak your previous solution. It’s an excellent way of reminding the player that unless the protagonist can break out of the cycle, they’re doomed to keep repeating the same fate.
There’s no fear of getting stuck though. You can use the payphone found at the entrance of the carnival to make a call to the operator – who sounds strangely like the protagonist – for a nudge in the right direction at any time up until the final section of the game. I made use of this feature twice and was pleased both times because, rather than being cryptic clues, the hints given were direct yet succinct. This meant I could move on without becoming frustrated or the storyline being spoiled.
It’s not only the puzzle structure which is reminiscent of Primordia; it’s the visual style too. The setting for both titles may be very different but the graphics show off the same retro-styled pixelated art in a muted palette. It’s easy to tell that Strangeland has been made by the same creators and you can see the influence of Wadjet Eye Games’ releases too. As mentioned above, there are a few creepy images featured during cutscenes but they aren’t overly gory and are more of a surreal nature.
This doesn’t mean that Strangeland is going to be a game for all adventure fans however, because I can see its subject matter deterring some players. I’d recommend being aware of the topics touched upon before starting and checking out the ‘mature content description’ on the Steam page. At no point are these handled in a gratuitous manner though, and many discoveries made by the protagonist are shared in metaphors so they’re somewhat open to individual interpretation.
What this title does brilliantly is present a cast of strange characters who speak in riddles. I usually don’t enjoy such conversations because I’m impatient and like straight answers; but there were enough clues given in each discussion to prevent frustration, yet enough obscurity to make every encounter feel mysterious and foreboding. At every moment during my five hours with Strangeland, I found myself wanting to progress to find out what had happened to the protagonist, yet fearful (in a good way) of where his journey would take him.
In their Steam news hub post, the developer wrote: “Strangeland began as a way for me to process the sadness I felt about [a personal situation]. What it means to watch the slow-motion destruction of someone you love, thinking you can save her, but not being able to.” That last line sums up the entire feeling of this release for me. You can feel that the teams’ personal stories have seeped into the storyline and it’s been a while since I experienced so much atmosphere within a point-and-click.
Strangeland is a game of mind, monsters and metaphors. It won’t be to everybody’s taste, but I can’t wait to see what Wormwood Studios come up with next.