Sanitarium, the classic 1998 point-and-click horror game from DreamForge Entertainment, is one of those games that's on a lot of "must play" lists. Despite being out for over a decade, and having had it recommended to me by any number of people who know my taste for the macabre, I'd never gotten around to playing it. Now, thanks to Good Old Games, this cult classic is available again on PC for old fans to enjoy, and a whole new generation of gamers to discover.
The night after making a great discovery, you're on your way home to your wife when your car goes off the road... or were you? According to the staff of the asylum you wake up in, you're simply a patient who managed to steal a car and nearly kill yourself in the process. And why shouldn't you believe them? After all, you can't even remember who you are, let alone why you're there. But there's something a little off about this particular establishment, as you'll soon discover, and maybe you're not as crazy as everyone says you are. At least, not yet. Maybe if you can discover the meanings behind the strange... "hallucinations" you've been having you can prove your sanity to everyone. Of course, that's assuming you aren't just a delusional nut case...
Right-click on the screen and hold to move the protagonist around, and left-click on an area to search there. A wagging magnifying glass means you've found a point of interest, a set of teeth means something you can talk with, and a hand means you can manipulate something or pick it up. Once you're carrying something, simply click on yourself to open a small context menu, and click on an item to select it. If the item you're holding can be used in a particular spot, the item will appear to "shine" when you place it over top of the area, and you can click again to use it. Of course, not every item works in every situation, so make sure you try everything to see what works. After all, it's not like you have to worry about anyone thinking you're crazy!
Analysis: Despite being billed as a horror game, Sanitarium isn't particularly scary. Most things are presented just slightly too cartoonishly to be really frightening. Sure, there are creepy moments, and a fair bit of unsettling imagery, but for the most part the story plays out like the sort of schlock horror films that were popular in the late eighties. You know, like it would have been introduced by Elvira and titled "TALES FROM BEYOND THE 5TH DIMENSION" and prominently featured a synthesizer in the soundtrack? In part, I also blame the lead character, who sounds less like a determined hero, and more like the sort of person who got taped into garbage cans a lot in junior high. (Or, strangely, a lot like Dr Egon Spengler.) This is not a bad thing by any means; there's a sort of ghoulish charm inherent in the occasionally cheesy dialogue or outlandish scenarios that makes the genuinely spooky moments all the more enjoyable.
The puzzle solving in the game is all fairly intuitive, provided you're the sort who typically goes everywhere and exhausts all dialogue options with everyone. The problem is never figuring out what to do with the items you've got, but finding them to begin with. Some of the items will give off a very small sparkle when you can interact with them, but it's easy to miss it and the items simply fade into the scenery, usually because they're fairly small. This can lead to a lot of mindless clicking and backtracking around areas as you try to find what you may have missed. Maybe it wouldn't be as much of an issue if your character moved at anything other than a sedate stroll. There are also a few action sequences where you have to fend off attackers that are implemented a little too awkwardly for you to be anything but relieved at how infrequently they happen.
Despite its age, Sanitarium still looks pretty good. The environments are big and detailed, and character models are unique. The voice acting is a little hit and miss, with some characters sounding more believable than others. Thankfully, even the worst of the lot aren't unbearable to listen to, and the whole experience is an atmospheric exercise in storytelling. The vivid hallucinations your protagonist suffers as the story progresses unfold in a clever way, and you'll soon discover there's meaning in even the most inconsequential of exchanges. The story is excellent at giving out just enough information to help you connect the dots, but also to hook you into playing further.
As a classic of the genre, Sanitarium still holds a lot of appeal for fans. In its time, it showed players that horror could be bloody but still cerebral, and as such elevated itself above the more common hack-and-slash scares. Despite some clunky missteps in its pacing and a few annoying gameplay decisions, it's a quality piece of work that shouldn't be missed by anyone who has any interest in a good story... or has a screw or two loose themselves.
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