A hidden gem of late 90s Playstation horror
This review was originally posted to Twitter April 12, 2019.
Initial release: 2000
Platform: Sony Playstation
Up until the last decade or so, horror games have long been something of a niche genre. Most horror games in the late 1990s followed the Resident Evil model of clunky controls, an uncooperative camera and a gameplay that demanded careful resource management; while jRPGs weren’t unheard of (one of the earliest survival horror games is the cult classic Famicom RPG Sweet Home) they’re still rare enough even now to be considered weird… which is probably why they’re frequently given room to do weird shit that their more straightforward action/adventure brethren aren’t always capable of.
In the late 90s, with survival horror and jRPGs gaining popularity in the west, a composer for Squaresoft, Hiroki Kikuta, went to SNK with a list of what he considered to be several problems emerging in jRPGs at the time. SNK, sufficiently convinced by this list, gave him a studio and a staff, and off they went to try and make something that would dodge the problems Kikuta identified. This studio, named Sacnoth after a legendary sword in the stories of Lord Dunsaney, was populated by former Squaresoft staff, so there was plenty of experience in making jRPGs. But that might actually have been the problem. At first things seemed to go well during development, with Kikuta and company going to Wales for some on-location research (similar to how Remedy Entertainment would visit New York City during the development of Max Payne, an act that seems quaint now due to our heightened security and overall paranoia but was considered radical and revolutionary at the turn of the millennium… at least until 9/11 happened) But development soon became troubled. Kikuta and his staff were often at loggerheads over the direction of the game: Kikuta wanted to draw more elements from the existing titles in the survival horror genre, and the final product probably would have resembled Parasite Eve if he had gotten his way, but his staff were more jRPG-minded and overruled him. The end result is uneven at best.
It’s All Hallows’ Eve, 1898, and Koudelka, a psychic of Romani descent, is drawn to a monastery in Wales for uncertain reasons. After breaking in, she meets Edward Plunkett, a young rogueish type who heard of some debauchery going on that he totally came to put a stop to, honest. (Yes, it’s that Edward Plunkett, aka Lord Dunsaney, going off on adventures in the few years before his father dies and Edward has to come home to claim the title and become a famous writer of fantasy and weird fiction.) It’s soon obvious that something is wrong as both are attacked by a werewolf; they fight it off, but as they explore it becomes clear that a wide array of monsters occupy the monastery, some of them quite frightening. Along the way they meet the caretakers of the monastery, a kindly older couple who try to poison our heroes.
They also meet an Irish bishop named James O’Flaherty, who’s here on a mission from the Vatican, but is naive and authoritarian in the way only a religious official who doesn’t get out much can be. Nevertheless, he has personal reasons for being there as well, which he’s tight-lipped about. Also here is Roger Bacon, the 13th-century monk and supposed mage, who’s awfully spry for a living corpse, as well as the ghost of a young girl who was apparently murdered at some point in the monastery’s history. For a jRPG the cast is small, but quite colorful, which puts it in line with more traditional survival horror games.
There’s lots of little details that separate this game from most jRPGs, really. There’s no shop, for one: everything must be scavenged after battles. Your inventory is limited as well, meaning you’ll occasionally have to throw stuff out… assuming your weapons don’t just break. Weapons have randomized elemental qualities as well, which means that your arsenal’s effectiveness is largely down to chance. It’s also impossible to see vital statistics about your enemies — not their hit points, not their elemental defenses, not even their names. The battle system is the same kind of abstract battlefield that most jRPGs do, though it introduces an element of strategy by making it a 5x7 grid where positioning plays an important role in the fight. It’s not a robust tactical RPG like, say, Final Fantasy Tactics, but it’s fairly intuitive for its relative simplicity.
Most spells are available from the outset, and all three characters can cast them and level up. In practical use, however, you’re better off letting Edward focus on physical attacks and Koudelka on magic; James can go either way and he’s generally mediocre overall. And like with magic, any character can use any weapon, as well, though again you’re better off giving Edward the best ones and hoping they don’t break. Repeated use of a given weapon type or spell levels up that character’s skill in it, encouraging the player to not rely on any one thing.
In spite of the seemingly incomplete mishmash that is the combat and equipment systems, the game has a very shallow difficulty curve where an attentive player can easily conquer most battles without much trouble, even boss battles. This however has the downside of removing the “survival” from what’s ostensibly a survival horror RPG, in that with any sort of competence you’re never ever in any real danger, even if you’re several levels below a boss.
The “horror” aspect is awfully truncated as well. While there’s plenty of creepy and even horrifying monsters, there’s a distinctly budget vibe to everything that speaks to the haphazard, uneven development. The pre-rendered environments are mostly static and low-quality, for example, and where in other games an event might be shown, either in-engine or in FMV, this game simply prints out a text line telling you what happens. It’s the ultimate sin violating “show, don’t tell.” That said, it does have its scary moments. While the notoriously humorless German USK rated it “12+” there’s an element of the macabre, bordering on light Lovecraftian elements, that gives the game a delightfully goofy gothic flavor. To say nothing of the “bad” ending…
The fact that everyone has American accents despite ostensibly being from the UK also lends it a bit of a Roger Corman flavor; what’s surprising, however, is how good the voice acting is. It’s on par with the likes of metal gear solid, and really stands out amidst a game that’s otherwise pretty janky. For a game from 2000 this is actually very impressive, especially one that was never going to be an also-ran to the likes of Parasite Eve.
The audio design is mostly pretty quality. While music is minimal, and mostly in the battle screen, the rest is all creaks and wind and footsteps to give an unnerving, ghostly feel to the proceedings. Kikuta himself serves as composer, and his music, while good, is somewhat ill-fitting at times, however.
All in all, while the game can’t ever be considered anything more than mediocre, it does set the stage for a more famous series of Playstation 2 RPGs that enthusiasts might recognize: Shadow Hearts, a relatively unique series that was overshadowed immediately by square’s Kingdom Hearts. (Imagine putting all that work into a groundbreaking horror RPG and then your biggest competitor just drops Mickey Mouse on you and even has “hearts” in the title! Sacnoth was robbed, I tell ya.)
For a freshman effort that tries to do something different, however, I can’t help but give it credit; one can’t help but wonder what it would have been like without the troubled development.