Dementium: The Ward
Dementium. It may not be a real word, but it doesn’t take a genius to realise that it’s a derivative of both “dementia” and “demented”; two words that describe a state of intellectual deterioration and the characteristics of manic behaviour, respectively. Can you feel the darkness already?
You awake one night to find yourself holed up in a decrepit room, part of some hospital ward which you don’t remember being admitted into. It’s thundery outside. You can hear the roof tiles groaning as they are battered by the relentlessly pouring rain. There are faint echoes of voices on the other side of the room’s door and every so often, an ear-splitting scream pierces the unsettling ambience. Within the first few seconds of Dementium I was already sitting bolt upright and casting nervous glances all around me. I was actually in the library at the time, catching a break from study with some portable DS time, headphones jacked in and everything. But damn, I had never felt this scared in such a public place before!
Why are you stuck here? You feel like you’ve lost your mind, but you’re still sane enough to know that getting out of this dreadful place is priority number one. You take your first few steps outside and you feel a prickling chill run down your spine. The walls are drenched with blood, the corridors are littered with tossed furniture, and most of the lights have gone making it impossible for you to barely see even three metres ahead. Luckily for you, a torch light is found early on and this allows you to view a small coned window with increased clarity. However, outside of this window, anything could be lurking in the shadows.
This is a DS game and simply put, the attention to detail is incredible; something which you’d normally expect out of a more souped-up console, not a handheld whose core franchises include Mario, Zelda and Pokemon. Renegade Kid has done a great job of exacerbating our worst fears. The flickering lights, the disarray of the wards, the high-pitched shrieks when an enemy approaches; they have crammed so much creepiness into this DS game that you’d swear that the console was pissing its pants.
The sounds – oh, the horror. Dementium is like a classic horror film in that doesn’t rely on cheap shocks for its scares. Instead it creates an atmosphere of tense paranoia. Amid the crackling thunder heard outside, you will catch instances of a little girl giggling maleficiently and constant moaning as foul experiments gone wrong make their way towards you. Even your own heartbeat can be heard thumping throughout and this makes things even more nerve-wracking especially when you’re running for your life when low on ammo (as is the usual case in the survival-horror genre).
“The walls are drenched with blood, the corridors are littered with tossed furniture, and most of the lights have gone making it impossible for you to barely see even three metres ahead.”Sound is so important that it is usually your first indicator of an enemy being close by; after all, the stark darkness and limited viewing potential of the torch light doesn’t make for ideal visibility. When screaming floating clown heads are able to hurtle towards you faster than you can offload a few pitiful bullets, you’ll be glad that their tell-tale sounds, however freaky, immediately put you on red alert mode. Unfortunately, many enemy designs do repeat later on and it is soon predictable as to where they are placed. You know another zombie is hiding in that room; you know that those flying heads inhabit the bridge walkways (and that they can only move in straight preset paths); sooner or later, you won’t be scared as much anymore because of this, especially since you know you can just run past them to avoid any risk of taking damage.
The main goal of Dementium is to make it out of the hospital compound. It does get a bit old having to traverse the five or so floors (with both east and west wings) of the same blood-stained corridors. You’ll eventually become desensitised to all the goriness and soon realise that underneath all the repulsiveness lies a basic dungeon-crawler of sorts. There are heaps of doors dotted all over, but most of them are locked. The map looks quite complex, but if you were to unravel it, you would see that it’s quite a linear piece of string with a few side rooms that hold health packs and/or ammo.
There are a few puzzles to solve; no block pushing like in Resident Evil, but the number-based conundrums are equally as strained. Most of the time, though, you’ll be wandering the relatively empty corridors and bringing up your baton or chainsaw (no need for pathetic firearms except for in boss battles) whenever you hear a shrill cry of any sort. Initially, the intense atmosphere may make you overlook these plain contrivances, but after a few hours in and you’re seeing the same thing over and over again, it frankly becomes boring.
There are just a handful of enemy types: zombies, flies, wall-crawling mutants, flying clown heads and the dreaded larvae. As I’ve said, you don’t really need a firearm to take them down, and with the lack of ammo strewn about the place, that’s a good thing. But even buzz-sawing gets old with overuse. The boss fights are pretty lame as well. There are really only three of them, two of which you’ll have to repeat later on (and second time around, you’ll absolutely cream them due to 1. their stupidity; or 2. cheesiness with the sniper rifle). Seeing as the game isn’t very focused on combat, the fights aren’t exactly mind-blowing; the loss of eerie tension makes them play out as rather one-sided affairs, too.
There is one battle where you have to destroy about twenty larvae nests with those little buggers appearing as you cause turmoil to their habitats. This is quite possibly one of the most frustrating experiences I’ve ever had to endure. It’s hard enough seeing where the larvae are as they crawl on the walls, the ceilings or else, wriggle around your feet, but it sucks when they deal out damage faster than a zombie who knocks you for six. Clearly there’s some very broken enemy balancing here, but the ‘boss’ battle is nonetheless something which may cause many gamers to stop playing entirely (it took me about ten unforgiving tries).
“Renegade Kid has done a great job of exacerbating our worst fears.”It’s amazing how this review began with much praise and rapidly deteriorated into this somewhat “demented” state, isn’t it? I have to give credit to the three (yes, THREE!) guys that essentially created the entire game themselves. They managed to churn out some impressive graphics moving along at a silky-smooth framerate with nary a glitch (not seen in a DS FPS since Metroid Prime Hunters!) The things they have done with sound to make you stay wide-eyed are just as amazing; I seriously did not think I would ever be remotely frightened by a portable game (play this with headphones everyone! Trust me, it helps with identifying enemies too!) However, their lack of experience shows up in the meat of the game.
Trekking through endless corridors with hardly a semblance of a story to push things forward does not constitute a good time. Add to that some dim-witted enemies, lame bosses, and one of the most terrible save systems since the dreadful multi-iconed passcodes (it’s on auto-save here, but should you die before you can reset your DS – a highly advisable loophole – you’ll have to restart at the very beginning of the chapter!)
Dementium sounded good on paper, it looked promising in previews, and it played like an amazing horror movie during the first hour or so. It sought to be one of those games that scares the hell out of you by gently rubbing your shoulder (e.g. Silent hill) instead of yanking you whole (e.g. Resident Evil), but at the end of the day, it reached the godly status of neither. It makes a brilliant case of “show, don’t tell”, but unfortunately, it just doesn’t show a heck of a lot.