Review by threetimes
"A chilling concoction of blood, death, and tainted love."
There are no zombies after your brains, no monsters trying to chop you up, no aliens intent on mass reproduction, and no battles. Yet Theresia is a fascinating (point and click) horror adventure, that kept me playing for hours at a time, until I had uncovered all its secrets and reached the very satisfying ending of two complex stories.
I didn't expect much to start with, as the game begins with a seemingly conventional cliche' of a girl who is alone in a huge building, from which she must try and escape, and find her lost memories as she goes. The place is riddled with various traps, and she has nothing but a pendant to help her. Okay, I was thinking, been there, done that: traipsing around long corridors, toting a huge inventory of stuff that might be useful, despite having no bag or team-mates to carry everything. And yes, you do wander around finding various items, though the first person view means that you never get distracted by thoughts of backpacks and the like. However, you also find pieces of a journal that tell a sad and disturbing tale of war, chemical weapons, child abuse and love. It was this story, and the way it is told, that captivated me, for the game makes wonderful use of the DS.
There are stunning FMVs which mainly use black and white or sepia tones, and the colour red. Red flowers are a continual motif, and when this restricted colour palette is set aside and vivid colours (such as those in a stained glass window) suddenly appear, the effect is all the more impressive. Text is shown clearly in either red, or white, and sometimes both the top and bottom screen will be flooded with sentences that make a deep impression, while telling a particular part of the story. At other times, there will be just a few words that slowly appear in red against black on the top screen, or the bottom. This use of colour and varying speed for textual information, to convey both mood and emotion, is brilliant, and the intelligent design also is evident in the menus and organisation of the game.
Despite the potential for problems in the mechanics of the game, (never seeing the protagonist, for example) the controls are simple to manage, and you can use a combination of the directional buttons and stylus as you see fit. I tended to use the directional buttons for movement, which involves four arrows on the bottom screen, and you simply point in the direction you want to move when in corridors or large areas. All your inventory items are shown as icons down the right of the screen and it's faster to just tap the ones you want to use. You can also access hints by moving the pendant to your body icon, and this prompts the character to reflect on the current situation. (Preceded by a static noise and a blood red screen which adds to the overall uncertainty.)
Each area you explore has a map on the top screen. There is no fuss made about the map. You find it right from the start and it's with you all the way. For the first story you only see areas that you have accessed, and rooms are not labelled until you have entered them. In the second, the area is smaller, and you are shown all of it at once. Every room has a name, and you will be reminded of exactly what you found there and what you did in that location, if you check your map. This is crucial, in a game that makes you explore a huge area, with many rooms and passages that require various solutions before you can access them all. The only slight downside to this system, is that you cannot view all the additional information on the map unless you are inside a room. While in corridors or larger spaces, you only get to see the overview of the map. I found that I had to keep nipping into a room to check up on the map. Nonetheless, the fact that you are also shown exactly where you have explored is very helpful.
Another nice thing about the exploration is that every door, stair or searchable area is shown with a large icon, so there is never any danger of missing a possible doorway or access point. You won't run into a death trap without warning, as you always halt and have a choice of options about what to do should you, for example, come across a pit with spikes, or a land mine. The game is designed so that you survive, despite the frequent traps. There are even plenty of healing items in the form of elixirs, so unless you are completely foolhardy and decide to poke a mine with a stick (yes, I tried that), you won't die.
That's not to say that solving the puzzles and reaching the end is easy. It's not at all. Some of the puzzles are fiendish, and will tax your ingenuity and imagination, as well as search skills, but everything is solvable, and you cannot mess up, even if you have to backtrack to find some item that you completely missed when going through a room for the first time. Though that's another minor complaint. When inside a room, you see the whole area from your first person vantage point, including the door that you entered, so sometimes it's not clear which door you entered if there is more than one. Also, the things inside the room are often not easy to see (many rooms are dimly lit). But this is where the clever gameplay comes into play. You can tap an 'eye' icon and use this to spot check everything in an area. If you get a negative message, such as, you feel uneasy, or that there is something sharp, then you will know that there is a trap. If you get some useful information, then you can choose to use the 'hand' icon to investigate the item more closely. This combination of looking and feeling, is only the start of your options.
Some puzzles require you to combine items you have found, to make something more useful. This might mean adding a rope to a hook, a ball to a chain, or mixing chemicals in a bottle. You also have those handy sticks, for poking suspicious objects if you want to avoid getting stabbed or hurt by the traps. Generally though, you can just use common sense. After all no person in their right mind would want to put their hand in sink of blood, just for the hell of it. So it's obvious that you would first try and find a rubber glove. Right? Well, my excuse is that I didn't know there would be such a thing at the time...I'm making light of it, but actually there are some disturbing sounds as well as sights. Squelching through dark rooms full of corpses is not for the faint-hearted, and the screams when you trigger a trap and blood spatters the screen, is a bit spine-chilling.
Wooden floors creak, walls drip with a blood like substance, footsteps echo along the empty corridors, bugs buzz, and the music adds to the air of menace and fear. There are not many different tracks, though each floor will have a change of music. Fortunately, I really liked the sombre orchestral or church organ tunes that carried just the right amount of threat and drama. In fact, this is something else I appreciated about the game. Even though you know that you can heal with elixirs, and that there is no-one waiting around the next corner to attack you, the tension and dread is maintained. This is partly because of the constant narrative, that is seamlessly interwoven with each new discovery. The protagonist is injured and scared, and that makes you nervous too. However, the denouement is made all the more satisfying after all this suffering. Believe me, it's worth the effort!
Finally, after an adventure that takes around 15 hours to complete, dependent on how much backtracking you might do, you are treated to another story which uses the same techniques for survival, but with a different protagonist, this time a male, and is set in a new location. This tale predates the previous story, and gives you additional insights into both the events and characters. After completion you can view all the scenes and memories you collected during the game, and understand the chronology of events that placed these two people in such desperate situations.
Horror games that don't involve lots of weaponry and last ditch battles are not that common, but there is a long tradition of people trapped in huge abandoned buildings and desperately trying to make sense of some mystery, whilst trying to escape. This is an imaginative and accomplished addition to the survival horror genre: it's what Rule of Rose could have been.
Reviewer's Rating: 4.5 - Outstanding
Originally Posted: 12/12/08
Game Release: Theresia (US, 10/30/08)
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