Indietail – Saturnalia

I love Indie Games. Let’s lead with that. I love the way they’re crafted and how much thought went into them… and more often than not, they’re so unique and odd that I have a hard time describing them. It’s not a matter of whether they’ve got a high budget or not… Rather, it’s a matter of how well they’re crafted and how interesting their core principles and mechanics are done that determine whether or not an Indie Game is good or not.

In the case of Saturnalia, the game I’m reviewing today, I’m not exactly sure what to say, actually. It’s a Horror-Mystery game with some Roguelite mechanics that made me want to close the game on many occasions but at the same time, it also made me want to come back.

Developer: Santa Ragione
Publisher: Santa Ragione
Genre: Indie, Horror, Mystery, Exploration, (Roguelite)
Release Date: October 27th, 2022
Reviewed on: PC
Available on: PC
The Copy and a Press Kit were provided by the developer.

I’m not good with Horror at all but there are games that make me want to jump over my shadow to try them out. I was provided with an incredibly cool Press Kit by the developers of Saturnalia that had lots of cool stuff in it… and I was excited about the release ever since I reviewed Milky Way Prince back in 2020. That is not to say that I’m biased or anything… but I figured I should lead with these statements before I continue with my review.

With that out of the way, Saturnalia tells the story of four different characters that arrived at or came back to the fictional Sardinian city of Gravoi for one reason or another. There, they quickly become outsiders, again for one reason or another, and they find themselves trapped in a mysterious fog with an unsettling sound coming from deep below. Something is amiss and… Oh, no, what’s that? Is it chasing me? Quick, run!

In Saturnalia, you have to figure out what exactly is happening in town. After the Winter Solstice Festival took place, something changed within Gravoi… something dark came out… and it’s not safe to freely roam the streets. Armed with but a match stick, you’ve got to explore the town, open up shortcuts, fulfil quests, and figure out what the heck is transpiring here. And above all, you’ll need to survive the masked creature that will hunt you down if it spots you.

As unsettling and creepy as Saturnalia is, it is also incredibly beautiful. Something that will catch your eye as soon as you load into the game is the unique and interesting art style that accompanies this work of art. Saturnalia makes use of 3D models but the game is using “its own rendering and lighting pipeline”, applying all colour “through shading and post-processing”. (No, I’m not smart. I got that from the press kit.)

So, colours aren’t actually part of the world but rather added after the fact based on context… in real time! In simpler terms: The world looks cool and the colours change based on what’s happening right now!

Meanwhile, I had to get used to the character design… The four playable characters look amazing in theory but the unique “paint etching and animation that repaints their textures and meshes 12 times per second” (Yes, I’ve got that from the press kit, again) frankly weirded me out initially. I wasn’t sure if the game is not running smoothly or if something else is amiss. Everything looks pretty but the characters appear to move at limited frames… and well,… they do. It’s intentional. It’s certainly a choice but I was quite bothered by it initially and it took me a long time to get used to that fact.

Speaking of the characters, by the way, they each have their own powers and backgrounds which makes the exploration aspects of Saturnalia rather interesting. Anita can memorize places well, Paul has a camera, Claudia can squeeze through tight fits, and Sergio has a satellite phone that works nearly anywhere which is super cool… in 1989!

These different powers can then be utilized to explore the city and piece together the big puzzle of what is exactly going on and how the fuck do we get out of Gravoi without dying? Paul’s camera comes in handy to take pictures of graffiti and murals while Anita’s map knowledge makes travelling in the mines a lot easier. On top of that, you can find tools that allow you to trespass access new areas, like an emergency hammer or a smouldering iron. And then, you also manage basic resources like match sticks, coins and firecrackers.

At its core, Saturnalia is all about exploration – and occasionally, you’ll hear an unsettling rattle sound that indicates that the monster is nearby… in which case you run or you hide or you give up – but there’s more to the core gameplay loop than just that of course. Exploration, Survival, Resource Management and Mystery Solving are the biggest elements of Saturnalia – but when all four characters in the game die, the town of Gravoi has shuffled around, meaning that places are connected in a different way and you’ll have to completely re-orient yourself.

Personally, I wasn’t a fan of this at all. I liked the initial layout a lot and didn’t enjoy not finding anything for another while. A lot of it looks similar, after all, and well, getting lost or finding yourself in a dead end is not exactly great when you’re being chased by a bloody monster.

And there are also a few other things I didn’t enjoy. The fact that the characters are animated at 12 times per second may be something you get used to… but it made my eyes hurt and I would have loved to see an accessibility option here to turn that off. Similarly, I would have loved better keybindings and a duck button. Walking into a wall to duck isn’t intuitive and it also didn’t work most of the time.

The story, soundtrack, and art are astonishing. There are a few rough edges here and there with dialogues happening too early or a little delayed, meaning that you can’t exactly orient yourself as to where a person is talking from. But I think that Saturnalia is just charming enough so that people overlook those small edges that may need more polishing.

Saturnalia is a truly unique and frankly fabulous horror experience that isn’t too rough on the nerves. More than anything, I loved just how “authentic” (for the lack of a better word) the game is, utilizing Sardinian and Italian words and having been made by a team that took a lot of time studying Sardinian folklore and villages and conceptualizing this fictitious town… Amazing!

The atmosphere is generally unsettling and this game made me scared of the dark but I liked how the story unravels slowly in an “Outer Wilds”-like manner and even though I’m a huge scaredy cat, I enjoyed my time here. I believe that “true” Horror fans won’t get scared all that much in this game (if at all) but people like me who don’t really play Horror titles might find this to be spooky enough to not close the game down forever… and intriguing enough to actually want to return. Great game!

This post was first published on Indiecator by Dan Indiecator aka MagiWasTaken. If you like what you see here and want to see more, you can check me out on Twitch and YouTube as well.

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