The concept of survival horror isn’t uncommon among console games. Ever since the inception of Resident Evil there have been numerous games that aim to scare the pants off of gamers. This has not, however translated into the portable market, that is until recently. With the recent release of Silent Hill Origins Sony’s portable gaming machine has one and now thanks to the folks at Gamecock and developers Renegade Kid the DS has a game that somehow manages to instill terror and fear into the palm of your hand.
Dementium: The Ward is a mixture of action and adventure set in a first-person perspective that has drawn comparisons to Doom 3, Silent Hill, and of course the grandfather of all survival horror games Resident Evil. From the outset of the game you only have a flashlight and a nightstick which only intensifies the sense of terror. Once you obtain the pistol though the game changes pace and becomes more of a first-person action game and surprisingly it works extremely well with the DS’ touch screen.
You begin the game with a quick cut-scene of being wheeled into a dark hospital and from here you begin to unravel the mystery. While the storyline can feel hackneyed early on the payoff is worth the tedium. As you slowly traverse through each chapter in the game, which usually coincide with each floor of the hospital you will begin to learn who you are, why you have been placed in this nightmare of a place, and of course why you are battling hordes of demons. The levels range from ’blink of an eye’ short to as long as thirty minutes, but for the most part are paced well enough that you never grow tired of moving from one area to the next. The only downside here is that there is very little variety to the environments which will begin to wear on you by the end of the game. Couple this with the fact that the game forces you back to the beginning of each chapter upon death and a host of respawning enemies and you have unnecessary tedium in an otherwise well-paced game.
Most of the gameplay consists of straight run and gun action. Your protagonist will eventually obtain access to five different types of firearm as well as two melee weapons. While some of the weapons are rather large and require both hands for some reason our avatar doesn’t have the dexterity to hold a gun and the flashlight at the same time. This resorts to frustration and what I like to call the ’Doom 3 Syndrome’. Outside of that small hindrance though there is little to complain about here. The game runs at a blistering 60 frames per second with several enemies onscreen at the same time.
There is more to Dementium than just run and gun action though. Throughout the game you will run across some rudimentary puzzles that mostly involve locked doors and combinations scribbled onto walls and small pieces of paper scattered about the environment. One of the cooler aspects thanks to the DS hardware is the ability to jot down notes in your virtual notebook such as these puzzle solutions and other random bits of info. These small brain teasers are a nice diversion from the core game, but make no mistake this is still predominately a first-person action title.
We always preach that gameplay always makes a game, but having impressive visuals and sound can enhance the experience just as much. For Dementium the folks at Renegade Kid have gone above and beyond the call of duty creating one of the most impressive games currently available on the DS hardware to date. As I mentioned earlier the game runs at a crisp 60 frames per second regardless of the onscreen action. The enemy designs are excellent and the lighting and effects are levels beyond other titles on the system. The audio is equally impressive requiring you to play the entire game with headphones on to fully appreciate the quality. Each enemy makes a unique sound, the score is a creepy arrangement of melodic piano, and the ambience is unmatched. Needless to say from a presentation standpoint no other game on the system even comes close to what Renegade Kid has been able to achieve with Dementium.
Even with all of these positives even Dementium cannot escape the curse of mediocrity in some areas. For starters the map system is abysmal. Every map you find in the game is based on original floor plans, which is nice for authenticity, but a giant pain when you consider all the changes due to destruction and other obstacles. The game could have remedied this by allowing players to make notes on the map similar to the notebook system, but alas this feature is unacceptably absent. The second major gripe comes from the fact that the save system is all but broken. Even though the game saves progress at each new opened door you are still forced back to the beginning of the chapter after perishing.
If you add this to the fact that when you return to any previously visited room every enemy has respawned the frustration sets in. This type of artificial longevity may have been acceptable in the past, but with so many advances in games of this type it is a bit disappointing to see it rear its ugly head in such a well designed game. The frustration continues when you soon realize that even though the game delivers an endless supply of enemies there is not an endless supply of health and ammo. Each item you pick up is a one time deal meaning when you have to retrace your steps to previously visited rooms (and trust me you will have to more often than you want to) if you have already snagged the goods they will no longer be there. While this never really presents a huge issue because the game does provide plenty of these items, it is still annoying.
The best part about Dementium though is that even with these minor faults the game is still one of the top titles on the system. The FPS genre is extremely rare on the system which means that the amount of quality titles is even rarer. Dementium sets a new standard on the system for presentation and visuals as well as delivering the first truly engrossing horror title for Nintendo’s micro-console. If you are a fan of Silent Hill and/or Doom 3 then you owe it to yourself to check out Gamecock’s latest DS title; I promise you will be creeped out, but certainly not disappointed.