Lovecraftian Ludonarratives: Mini-Reviews for SUNDERED, DARKEST DUNGEON, and CONTROL

I needed me some vidyagames, but not just any vidyagames – ones like Bloodborne!

They’re not other Soulsborne titles but love letters to the various works of H.P. Lovecraft (minus the virulent racism, thankfully!) along with those who followed in his stead, as far back as August Derleth and Robert E. Howard (yes, that one) and as recent as Brian Lumley and Stephen King. Though Lovecraft in videogames is neither uncommon nor recent, when considering Alone in the Dark or the point-and-click adventure Shadow of the Comet, it’s often difficult to gamify the author’s work without cherry-picking elements and creating an original story around them. The fact Dark Corners of the Earth tried to be a first-person shooter where you incinerate Starspawn with a flame-thrower, mow down Deep Ones with a machinegun, blast Dagon in the face with a ship’s cannon, and take on a Flying Polyp with a retro-futuristic blaster is more than enough to prove why faithfully adapting Shadow Over Innsmouth as a videogame is impossible without ruining the source material. Though, even as a videogame, it failed miserably…

These games, on the other hand? It depends – but let’s get the worst out of the way first. May as well start with the bad news before getting to the good stuff.


Sundered

Sundered®: Eldritch Edition

There’s nothing as disappointing as wasting so much talent on something that’s otherwise lacking in quality. One can never fault Sundered‘s developer, Thunder Lotus, for their art direction and design along with the graphical fluidity of its character animations – imagining the painstaking work required to achieve such and how that, by itself, is admirable. Regardless, it’s not enough to carry the rest of the experience.

It is, ostensibly, a Metroidvania title with procedurally-generated dungeons upon each death – which carries no penalty, save for wasted time – and attained abilities for both combat and mobility to proceed. I’ve played enough games that use procedural generation to know that it works best when you can differentiate between each individual run and, if you’re unable to, suggests the developers should’ve used a specific level design instead. It’s done incredibly well in games like Enter the Gungeon where there’re innumerable combinations of rooms and challenges making every iteration feel unique, helped by its fast-paced quarter-munching arcade cabinet vibe, as well as Rogue Legacy with its addition of a procedurally-generated lineage of monster hunters invading a haunted shape-shifting castle (huh, that sounds oddly familiar…). When it doesn’t work, as evidenced in both Let It Die‘s Tower of Barbs and Bloodborne‘s Chalice Dungeons, it feels like the same three or four areas that’re sequenced in a different order each time yet can’t tell the difference after a while. Sundered is in the latter category and worsened by how badly the game already is at directing the player to the next objective.

As if the terrible navigation wasn’t frustrating enough, the frequency and intensity of spawned enemies make it a war of attrition as wave after wave comes after you with no end in sight. This isn’t difficult or challenging combat – it’s just being bombarded at every angle and given little room to react properly. You don’t die numerous times due to a hostile non-player character being smart enough to attack when leaving yourself open, as most of them are little more than cannon-fodder but, from being so over-stimulated by the visual clutter that you give up and let them kill you. The treks through nearly identical-looking procgen’d levels might be boring but, Jesus fuckin’ Christ, at least they weren’t assaulting my eyes and almost giving me a headache.

I regret not heeding George Weidman’s warning about the game and, being unusually gullible (’cause Lovecraftian horror), assumed the problems he brought up would somehow be fixed in future patches – because, unfortunately, that didn’t happen and it only makes me happier over the recent Cyberpunk 2077 controversy. At this point, it’s hard to defend any game with the possibility patches might fix issues when you know that such issues could’ve already been dealt with beforehand. Thunder Lotus, as much effort as they put into their graphics, didn’t put nearly enough effort into polishing the gameplay – they gave us a videogame we can enjoy gazing upon but at the cost of interactivity, and it’s just not worth it.

The next game is proof that you don’t need to be photogenic when you provide a far more fulfilling ludic experience…

Darkest Dungeon

Darkest Dungeon: The Crimson Court - How to Get a Courtyard Invitation |  AllGamers

In the cosmicism of H.P. Lovecraft’s work, humanity is not important in the grand scheme of things. How could we be? It’s nearly impossible for us to truly comprehend the vastness of space and time like Yog-Sothoth, with what we do know is infinitesimal in comparison. At best, we’re pawns in their incomprehensible machinations and can’t do much about it besides play along. At worst, we’re completely useless. You can always try to prepare for the worst, to avoid the pain of a severe loss, but they’re inevitable – though, at the same time, it only makes those small victories against overwhelming odds far more meaningful as result.

Darkest Dungeon has this theme woven into its game mechanics and manages to instill a great sense of player disempowerment with its punishing difficulty, something Bloodborne (as good a game as it still is) could not entirely achieve as an action title. Though its endings are fatalistic in nature, as even the player character attaining godhood makes them little more than a monstrous infant, it’s still a game where – with enough might and perseverance, and death rendered a minor inconvenience – you can still attain godhood. None of the player characters featured in Darkest Dungeon will ever reach that level of cosmic power. They will defeat many a beast and have moments of heroism, of course, but they are all nonetheless vulnerable and suffer permadeaths.

You are expected to treat each recruit to your cause, fighting back the otherworldly abominations of an abandoned palatial estate, as expendable. Each class of player character even looks the same, save for a limited selection of palette-swaps, further entrenching their interchangeability and disincentivize attachment to any one individual. There’ll always be another caravan of treasure-hunters and mercenaries with a death wish to send to their doom, yet the longer any of them manage to live – the more attached you become anyway…

They may be the digital simulacrum of people but, as any good ludic experience should, seeing these player characters go on one expedition after another and building them up to become legendary adventurers makes it all the more tragic when they do finally fall. Though some of their personality quirks grant benefits, others can often be detrimental to themselves or their comrades, but – unless you have the means to suppress those bad habits entirely (you usually won’t until later on) – you learn to live with their flaws and work around them, just like you do when interacting with other people in reality. Even those fireside chats, as procedurally generated as the dungeons themselves, make you care for them despite being little more than a proxy of a person made of computer code.

As someone who despises real-time combat in role-playing games and shoehorning stats into otherwise action-heavy titles relying more on hand-eye coordination skills, games like Darkest Dungeon remind me of why I appreciate turn-based combat mechanics in RPGs and utterly thankful when indie developers implement it into their games. Complaints about how it “looks silly” come off as wildly superficial when, honestly, the empty spectacle is just as silly-looking yet far more aggravating (if not just boring) to play. I greatly prefer an element of strategy over having poorly-programmed friendly AIs who only impede my progress or chiseling away at bullet-sponge enemies with an interminable health bar until it finally falls over, instead of making every move matter and where each successful attack hits hard – putting you in situations that cannot simply be won by turning off your brain and mashing buttons.

The row-based combat is similar to that of many Japanese RPGs but each party member’s position is integral as certain actions can only occur in a specific space and it noticeably differs with each character class. An Arbalest or Musketeer, for example, tend to gravitate being last in line as their primary attack focuses on sniping but can also serve as support – like minor healing and debuffing hostiles – while Crusaders and Hellions are best left at the head of the line with their powerful short-range attacks and high defense. Even then, there’re more versatile classes like Jesters and Shieldmaidens, whose attacks involve moving backward or forwards in a line-up and can complicate certain party line-ups when handled poorly.

It really helps the game emphasizes party management over inventory, which cuts down on so much monotonous busywork. There is an inventory system but it’s mostly for optional items, “Trinkets,” that grant bonuses – with more powerful pieces having a downside attached, to balance difficulty – but its most prevalent in the expeditions taken where, due to having a limited inventory space, makes preparation and collection a series of Sophie’s Choice scenarios. You *can* buy more food and torches just in case, but it means there’s less space to pick up valuable objects whether it’s currency, resources, or aforementioned Trinkets.

Said resources go to developing the game’s hub area, the Hamlet, where player characters relax between each expedition – whether it’s relieving stress at the bar or church, curing a pathological disease at the local medical ward, or upgrading the adventurers under your employ. It’s necessary to develop each establishment past their baseline benefits and give player characters a better chance of survival with improved equipment and skills (in a, thankfully, linear five-tier leveling process), so choosing whether to acquire currency or resources during each expedition is an important consideration to take. What good is currency, when you cannot further upgrade the player characters? What good are those resources, when you don’t have the currency to pay for those upgrades? If the inventory system was unlimited in its capacity, so much of what makes this game fulfilling as a challenge would be lost.

There’s very little to complain about Darkest Dungeon without sounding like petty nitpicking. Even if the game’s setting doesn’t actually do much interesting or new with the material that influenced it, its strengths as a videogame overshadow such minor weaknesses. Being derivative isn’t necessarily a bad thing when given the right kind of presentation. The next game, on the other hand, is a game that brings us an interesting take on H.P. Lovecraft’s brand of horror but, Shoggoths be damned, it’s as tedious to play through as it was to read through the man’s worst prose…

Control

Haunted houses are a common trope in horror fiction. It is usually inhabited by a malevolent entity whether it’s a ghost, a demon, or something else entirely who torment the current tenants of the house until they die or run away for their lives. However, in more recent years, there’s this particular iteration of that trope where the house itself is the malevolent entity. I’m not aware of any term describing this sub-trope and decided to give it a name of my own: “The Living Architecture.” There’re obvious examples in videogames: Silent Hill 2 and its sequel, Silent Hill 4: The Room; the various indie projects of Kitty Horrorshow, but notably Anatomy; and, now, we have Remedy’s Control.

The Oldest House is obviously not a house, given its appearance as 33 Thomas Street in New York City, but it’s not a piece of Brutalist architecture either. It’s alive. Even then, it’s not just a living Brutalist building…maybe. It’s connected to an upside-down black pyramid that exists in a pocket dimension appearing as little more than blank space, as well as a group of entities who’re collectively called “The Board of Directors” that occupy it and a Finnish janitor who is not actually a Finnish janitor (played by Martti Suosalo). All of them may, in fact, be the same being taking different forms much like the titular creature from Stephen King’s It where Pennywise the Dancing Clown is but one of the monster’s many avatars. All that we really ever get to know about them, technically, is that they aren’t the two antagonistic forces within the narrative: The Former (exiled from “The Board”) and The Hiss, both of whom are just as inscrutable. Then, it gets more surreal.

This scenario’s wild card takes the form of Jesse Faden (played by Courtney Hope), who acts as the conduit for another entity – one she’s named “Polaris.” Like its namesake, it guides Jesse to the Federal Bureau of Control and, by proxy, her kidnapped twin brother which usually appears as a shimmering fractal spiral to highlight checkpoints and mission objectives. The thing is, though, I honestly can’t determine whether it’s Jesse or Polaris who is the actual player character. There’s something off about Jesse, though that does apply to the rest of the phenomenally characterized cast, with her reactions towards the extraordinary and inexplicable as either slight bemusement or stoicism bordering on apathy. As if she’s not really there, that something else is in the driving seat and she’s providing commentary while watching from a Cartesian theater. Nothing suggests Jesse has any firearms training and each superpower she gets is new to her, but nonetheless uses both rather proficiently upon receiving them. If Jesse Faden is simply a puppet of Polaris, does that make the players themselves Polaris?

I don’t know. They never explain it and, by Cthulhu’s tentacle-beard, I love that!

Too bad playing the game is nowhere near as interesting as the setting, its inhabitants, or any idea explored within the plot. It’s confusing how Remedy can use all these high concepts in their story, yet it’s attached to this third-person shooter format – which made sense with the first two Max Payne games, what with all the homages to John Woo and The Matrix, but feels lazily implemented in a game like Control. You’d think, given all the shape-shifting rooms and Weird Fiction elements, it’d involve more puzzle-solving with aspects of survival horror but, no, you’re just mowing down a bunch of dudes in SWAT gear with firearms like so many other titles but with magic bullets and typical variations of telekinesis. Well, okay, there are other kinds of enemies but they’re incredibly annoying (especially the ones that fly) and, when combined with some environmental effects that overwork the hardware (causing graphical slowdowns or skips) and misleading visual overlays that don’t indicate if you’ve lost health but feel like such, turn battles into as much of a clusterfuck as they were in Sundered. Don’t get me started on the weirdly granular skill tree, resource-gathering for upgrades, and combat mods that’re so specific in their function they’re useless…

What made this unengaging gameplay loop tolerable enough to wade through, if anything, was everything else around it. Each collectible – which comes in a variety of forms – does a fantastic job at world-building; giving you a better understanding of the FBC’s function, those within its weirdly inexhaustible workforce, and what (very) little they know of the Black Pyramid/Oldest House/Astral Plane/etc. If them kidnapping Jesse’s twin brother isn’t enough to indicate their dubious ethics, an FBC psychologist (who clearly does not understand children) conceives the world’s most unnerving kids’ show. Y’know, to both “entertain” and educate the six-year-old orphan they hold captive about all the supernatural nonsense. Seriously, “Threshold Kids” feels like part of [Adult Swim]’s live-action line-up but with the disconcerting oddity amped up to even rival The Eric Andre Show.

There’re also awkward, badly-edited instructional presentations by Casper Darling (played by Matthew Porretta), who seems like a charmingly goofy tinkerer that wouldn’t be out of place in Ghostbusters, but it slowly becomes apparent that he’s actually a…mad scientist. Not akin to a comicbook supervillain or from Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, but fugitive Nazis hiding in South America to make clones of Hitler like The Boys from Brazil. Much like ally Emily Pope (played by Antonia Bernath), he seems too nice and that’s more alienating than Jesse’s cold demeanor, and one can’t help but wonder that they must be hiding something unforgivable under this obvious fa├žade of congeniality.

Though their function may be necessary, most of those employed by the FBC aren’t actually good people and more interested in getting the job done than anything else – they’re as if Hannah Arendt’s concept of the “Banality of Evil” physically manifested. Even the FBC’s previous Director, Zachariah Trench (played by James McCaffrey, the voice of Max Payne himself!), is more paranoid and ominously menacing than Joseph fucking McCarthy during the Red Scare, whose obsession with security and safety becomes more of a curse than a blessing as it consumes him. It’s rather depressing the most trustworthy person is the ghost of Alan Wake (yes, that one…also played by Matthew Porretta) and only a little of what he says makes any sense. It’s indicative of how the setting itself, along with the Brutalist architecture, is as atmospherically hostile to the player as Yharnam was in Bloodborne – the Oldest House may tolerate your presence, for its personal benefit, but only begrudgingly…for now.

There’s a lot more I can say about the game, for another nine or so blocks of text – including how the song “Take Control” by Poets of the Fall or Casper Darling’s creepy stalker music video for “Dynamite” is fucking amazing and why – but that’s the ultimate problem with Control: it’s more interesting to think about and discuss than as a ludic experience. That’s unfortunate, for its potential was about as vast as the Astral Plane itself…


The three-month delay is honestly quite shameful, on my end, but I do have a good reason: I’ve recently moved back to Southern California to take care of my dad, who’s recently had shoulder surgery, as well as doing some home improvements for his place – plus, like, I really needed the change in scenery and it was becoming too expensive to live up north. I’m still acclimating to my new environment, which is warmer and dryer than what I’ve gotten used to over the last seven years, but – now that I have a good deal less to worry about and depress me into another writer’s block – I intend to put out more content on regular basis and have a bunch of other pieces current in the works. Oh, and my birthday was eight days ago – so, yeah, happy (belated) birthday to me!

I’ll have a review of WandaVision by next week, or the one after that, as well as a (mostly) freeform rant/op-ed and another installment of Surfing the Netflix: Animation Edition on none other than Thus Spoke Rohan Kishibe, as a follow-up to my Non-Fan Review of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure.

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