I can’t help getting a bit excited when I need Google Translate to understand a game’s title, especially when it’s Latin. Dark Picture, or Tenebris Pictura, promises a thrilling adventure full of paranormal secrets, parallel universes, and pretty paintings. My first thought upon firing the thing up, though, was, “huh, this controls weird.”
Those were my initial moments in the suave shoes and cascading silver mane of protagonist Magnus Blom, a detective specialising in the supernatural who packs some serious psychic abilities of his own. We’re talking telepathy, clairvoyance, and most importantly, a superhuman wit! No, while he does come out with some genuinely good lines, it’s his astral projection that plays the crucial role.
Blom’s old mate Fred has requested help investigating the disappearance of his artist daughter on a foggy, isolated island straight out of a Goosebumps episode: abandoned log cabin, eerie mansion, dusty Victorian streets, all present and correct. These locations, accessible via the map screen, serve as independent areas for the meat of the gameplay to take place.
Coincidentally (wink), just prior to your arrival, cursed paintings began to appear around the island, which are being used as convenient little portals between worlds by all manner of slithery, toothy ghost demons. So there’s your core gameplay loop: pick an infected site, puzzle your way through the traps and obstacles, send the ghoulish nasties back to hell, and find a handful of hidden aether gems along the way to unlock new locations. All in a day’s work for Magnus Blom. Literally — you can get through about six of these ghostbustings before in-game Tuesday rolls around. All using naught but the proton pack of your mind.
So, those controls. I mentioned them up-front because they really did grab my attention before anything else. They’re not terrible but can be described the same way many of the game’s foundational elements can: rudimentary and a bit rough around the edges. If you tap the analogue stick briefly in one direction expecting precise positional adjustment, Magnus won’t move an inch. He’ll start his setting-off motion and then indulge in his laboured stopping animation, making it all the way from A to A in the process. Despite allocating so much time for realistic inertia, the movement still looks and feels clumsy and sluggish.
Still, Tenebris Pictura is, at its core, a puzzle game, meaning precision movement is rarely a requirement. Combat is the exception, but thankfully has its own superior control scheme — we’ll come to that. Developer Pentadimensional Games mentions exploration as a highlight on the Steam page, but that’s where those rough edges really start to snag.
While none of the map locations could be mistaken for sprawling open worlds, some start out with fairly wide areas, like central town squares or courtyards. As I type that, I realise it doesn’t sound expansive at all, but in Tenebris Pictura, it was enough to have me slump back in my chair and huff like a teenager at dishwashing time. The trouble is, while these environments are fully 3D, the single camera angle for each screen, with minimal panning to track the character model, gives a very similar impression to the pre-rendered visuals of Resident Evil games some 25 years ago. A limitation that was embraced to add tension back then serves only to drain life from the scene here.
You’ll often feel compelled to run up to every door in sight in case it’s one of the few that open or interact with every box for fear of missing a climbable one. Follow that with some shuffling up against invisible walls to be sure you’ve found all of the playable areas, and you might just be ready to go and scrub some plates as a bit of light relief from the chore of exploration.
Not a glowing endorsement so far, but the picture brightens up with the puzzle design. Each area introduces a handful of concepts or gadgets and develops them over a semi-linear series of rooms, corridors, forest clearings, and the like. In one location, you’ll block radiating transdimensional rifts with Baroque bookshelves, in another, you’ll deflect death lasers with hulking mirror cubes. Fair to say there’s variety, then. Solutions are never brain-melting in complexity, but in many cases, there’s enough challenge to make you feel like a right smarty-pants when you crack it. A couple of the ideas are stinkers that I couldn’t wait to flush from my memory forever, but luckily they don’t linger for too long.
Tenebris Pictura’s puzzles benefit from an extra degree of freedom arising from the game’s central mechanic: astral projection. At the press of a button, you can abandon Magnus’s physical form, leaving it a frozen, vulnerable husk while you glide around as a twinkling being of pure consciousness. In out-of-body mode, you can float over gaps and hazardous floors, throw flurries of punches, dodge out of danger, and unleash psychic spells you find hidden around the map. The greatest benefit, of course, is the momentum-less movement. The punches are a touch slow, but let’s charitably interpret that as adding weight and strategy to combat, à la DARK SOULS or something.
You can allocate three psychic abilities to the face buttons at any given time, and they’re great fun. Boss fights usually involve a bunch of ghost critters that launch ectoplasm and melee strikes without reprieve, so you’ll need to split them up using your astral barriers and shields to stand a chance. You can smack the afterlife out of them with jabs, but real incorporeal men find ways to lock their foes in place and destroy them in seconds with bombs and beams of lethal ethereal light.
This deadly repertoire is something of a double-edged sword, though, in that it offers a satisfying and powerful approach to combat, but one that’s easily abused to completely remove the challenge from most fights. That guilty pleasure will be familiar if you’ve ever exploited an RPG’s character progression system to effectively break the game, but here the loophole is far too obvious.
Tenebris Pictura’s plot is told primarily through conversations with NPCs and short cutscenes. It dips a toe into some reliably engaging, grandiose ideas, like the many worlds theory and the nature of reality (nothing too heavy, then), with a more personal story tying it all together. There’s enough substance to sustain the game’s roughly 10-hour runtime, but I hoped for a little more depth. Conversations that dig deeper than basic descriptions of these lofty concepts tend to get lost in arbitrary world — or universe — building that feels like it could have been made up on the spot.
Despite feeling a bit outdated, Tenebris Pictura’s graphics convey the game’s message fine enough. It’s just a shame there’s no commitment to any particular style, especially considering the overarching themes at play. You might notice screenshots that resemble an impressionist painting, with swirling brushstrokes and all that cool stuff. That effect appears briefly when Magnus leaps into a painting (a lesser-known psychic ability, clearly), and it looks fantastic. Sadly, it dissipates after a few seconds, plonking you right back in Drabsville. Maybe the developer felt the swirly filter would be too distracting; I’d argue it should have been a defining feature of the game, one that could help it stand out from the crowd.
Apart from a couple of backing tracks that do a wonderful job of heightening the mystique in an area, my ear parts were generally unimpressed throughout my Pictura playthrough. The soundscape is dragged down by some pretty bizarre choices. As an example, diving into artwork triggers an odd, liquidy fizzing sound. I can only imagine this is intended to represent paint in some way, but it just made me want to grab a Pepsi.
So Tenebris Pictura certainly has its issues, but the puzzles and combat are good fun, and the story will keep you interested. There’s a lot to like, but little to love. It’s that landscape painting at the gallery that’s nice enough to earn its place but ultimately lacks the finesse and conceptual depth to draw a crowd.
Tenebris Pictura (Reviewed on Xbox One)
Game is enjoyable, outweighing the issues there may be.
Tenebris Pictura’s creative puzzles and novel psychic abilities are held back by frequent design flaws and a lack of atmosphere. Fans of anything puzzly and occult will find plenty to enjoy here, but there are many more refined alternatives out there.