What is a “walking simulator”?
It’s a loaded term, at least in my opinion. I’ve seen it used derogatorily and neutrally, but very rarely positively. I think the reason for that is that no matter what angle you’re using it at, at the end of the day, the usage to describe a game is reductive at best. This can be best shown by the wide range of games brought under the broad umbrella “genre,” from Layers of Fear all the way to Firewatch.
I bring this up because although the term can be inane for describing the genre of a game, it can sometimes be useful when trying to get across the rough gameplay loop of a videogame to someone who isn’t too familiar. This, in a roundabout way, brings us to Saturnalia.
Although Saturnalia is described as a survival horror (and don’t get me wrong, it is one) it is also undoubtedly a walking simulator. There are only really two things you do in the game: you walk, and you hide. It was designed from the ground up to be that way, not only because you have no means of defending yourself against the baddies, but also because the gameplay loop is precisely crafted around navigation and the fear of not knowing where you are. These two aspects are also big points of criticism in other games in the assumed pantheon of walking sims — for many players, trying to figure out where to go is actually a point of detraction for the experience of playing a game.
The genius of Saturnalia, is that wayfinding is the inseparable core of it all. Without it, the game would simply not work.
I may sound as if I’m being reductive, and to be fair, I am just a little bit, if only for the sake of the point. There’s obviously a good bit going on under the hood with this game, and if there weren’t, it wouldn’t have carried me through my 10 hours or so of playtime.
As mentioned previously, Saturnalia is a survival horror — in the most classical sense of the term. There are no weapons or upgrades; no combat whatsoever. Your survival depends on your stamina and on your hearing — if you can hear the monster early, you’re in a much better position to survive. This dance of mechanics mixes with the other key point of the game, which is investigating. As you pick up more clues you’re led onto different paths and trails that give you more and more information relating to the four playable characters and the town they reside in. Some plotlines require the use of particular characters where others do not. The actual plot of the game is not something I’m going to go into with this review — as I believe it’s best to experience it blind. It’s fair to take that as praise of the game, because I think the story is very unique and intriguing despite a lot of the particular cogs of the narrative machine being reused from other media.
The four playable characters have an even gender split, and as aforementioned, all have their own thing going on. Paul is looking for traces of his birth parents, while Sergio has returned from Manchester (My turf!) to find out what happened to his former lover in the town, Bruno. The character you start with, Anita, has returned to the town to inform her boyfriend, Damiano, of her pregnancy, and finally Claudia (the only one who has stayed consistently in town) lives with anger and disdain for the town, for reasons unveiled during the narrative. They’re all distinct and have their own personalities, and you’re able to bring everyone along in a trail — which can sometimes lead to unique dialogue and interactions. The clues you find also get comments written by particular characters below them, which adds to the richness of their personalities; you get more of a sense of their past.
One of the games strongest points is the setting. Although the game’s town, Gravoi, is not an actual place in reality, according to the developer (Santa Ragione) it was heavily derived from location scouting in Sardinia, hence the use of Italian names and words in the game. The masked carnival featured in the game is based on real life traditions in Sardinia. As well as making me wish I’d kept up my practise of the language, the architecture and aesthetic is outright gorgeous, and the tight roads and the mix of Pagan and Christian iconography at night make it even more tense than you’d expect. It gives the game a very clear visual identity away from its influences, which is always something to be praised.
Graphically the game is very stylised; were I more artistically inclined I’d be able to describe it better, but it mimics a hand drawn aesthetic with only one or two colours used at a time on screen. Despite the stylisation, the character models are honestly quite realistic — they look like actual people, which is genuinely really impressive for the game’s bold artistic direction. The characters also move at a slower frame rate than the actual game, which is initially jarring but fits the sort of old timey look the developers were going for.
Speaking of framerate, one of the few problems I encountered was that the game chugged at seemingly random intervals where others would run just fine, seemingly unrelated to where I was or what was happening on screen. This never affected me in important situations (such as running away from the monster) but it was worth noting because of the game’s seemingly undemanding graphics.
One final point I’ll highlight is the excellence of the music — the game is set in 1989 and the composition takes heavy cues from that. Much of the ambient and musical tracks have a lot in common with your classic John Carpenter horror films or synth-based soundtracks of the time period, but with a mix of local flair — fitting with the games setting. The archaic music also doesn’t overpower the game’s feeling, it’s used relatively sparingly for fitting moments and for the most part you’ll be experiencing the natural sound of the town or rustling of papers to find clues.
I really did enjoy my time with Saturnalia, and I do recommend you check it out for yourself if you’re in the mood for a narrative-based horror. Whilst the gameplay isn’t ground-breaking, the interesting visuals, story and atmosphere are great draws, and fans of the genre will definitely find something to love.
Saturnalia (Reviewed on Windows)
This game is great, with minimal or no negatives.
An intriguing little game with a great setting and aesthetic, well worth experiencing blind.