The Number of the Beast
Though the DS hardware has been proven capable, survival horror and first-person shooter titles are incredulously few and far between on the Nintendo handheld. Instead, the system is rife with casual games and kid-friendly content. Change is in the air – in the form of bloodcurdling screeches and the whine of bone saws – as Renegade Kid and Gamecock have stepped up to the plate to offer-up Dementium: The Ward, an intense and horrifying trek through the depths of insanity.
An eerie and oppressive atmosphere is a crucial component of any good survival horror adventure, and the dark, blood-soaked corridors of Redmoor Hospital do the trick nicely. You’ll awaken in a hospital bed amidst nightmares of being tied up and wheeled down a hallway past terrifying images of dismembered bodies and zombie-like creatures. The room is dark and quiet, save for the sound of rain and occasional flashes of lightning which provide brief moments of illumination. As you set out further towards the heart of the abandoned hospital in search of clues to your identity, what has happened, and why you are there, unspeakable slithering atrocities and walking medical experiments wait in hiding. Unlucky enough for you, they’ve developed at taste for human flesh.
Stumbling through the inky blackness of the derelict facility in first-person perspective makes the experience all the more unsettling. By design, your natural vision only allows you to see few steps in front of you, and most of the time you’ll be relying on the dim flicker of a flashlight to light your path. The developers proficiently play on people’s natural fear of the dark and the unknown to ramp up the intensity and scariness of the situation. The unsightly creatures you’ll face in game are creepy indeed, but not knowing when or where they’ll burst forth from the surrounding darkness is what makes the gameplay more terrifying. Often the only thing alerting you to their presence is the sound of heavy breathing or growling from a dark corner. While there may only be a few moments in the game likely to make you jump, the overall feeling it evokes is one of tense anticipation. Audio plays a crucial role in creating a chilling atmosphere in Dementium. The game’s 3D sound positioning places sound effects in their corresponding direction and the sounds get louder or quieter depending on how close you are to them. Creepy music filters in and out at times while some rooms are dead silent. The frantic beating of your heart is a constant. Earphones are definitely the way to go to get the full effect.
Dementium’s polished visuals are gruesome and effective. There’s practically no room untouched by grime and spattered blood, overturned chairs and other items block off some passages, and randomly scattered broken medical instruments seems to be the decorative motif of choice. Though the hospital hall environments do look similar after awhile, you’ll stumble across many different rooms which change things up. The small details add up, and the overall presentation is first-rate. The wide-screen cutscenes used to advance portions of the story and introduce new twists are sinister and slick.
The action runs at a steady frame-rate without any blips or slowdown, even when battling multiple on-screen foes. Everything plays out on the top screen, with the stylish touch screen interface used for weapon selection, interacting with objects, doodling notes to help with puzzle solving, and looking around. Players will use the d-pad to move around and the touch screen to aim. The L trigger is used for turning the flashlight off and on, firing weapons, or swinging the police baton.
The fluidity of the “mouse look” control scheme makes exploration and combat a breeze with one exception: you’ll be forced to choose between actually being able to see your attackers as they approach or blasting away a few shots before they get within close proximity.
Most players will rely so heavily on the flashlight for exploration that, after enough encounters with the drooling denizens of dark, switching over to a weapon with split-second timing becomes second nature. It would have been nice to have the capacity to use the flashlight while you’re firing or swinging away, yet it’s a minor issue. Unless you feel up for a good melee – a dangerous prospect in many cases due to constantly re-spawning creatures and limited health pickups – you’ll be forced to make pot shots into the dark. Your crosshairs turn red when a foe is in your line of sight, and the temporary illumination afforded by firing off a round is helpful for adjusting your aim, but it’s difficult to hit your target if it’s moving.
Initially, the flashlight is the only tool at your disposal, aside from an unsatisfying police club picked up shortly afterward. Most of the weapons you’ll come across are standard fare including a pistol, shotgun, machine gun, and a few others. One of the most powerful – and coolest – weapons is a bone saw found relatively early on. Obtaining it is no easy feat, however, but the rewards are hefty. Once guns and other weapons come into play the game starts to feel slightly more first-person shooter oriented, but it never fully devolves into a blast everything that moves mentality. For the most part, emphasis is always on navigating the various areas of the hospital to progress the story. If flesh-eating creatures happen to get in your way then so be it, sucks to be them. The air of mystery about what’s going on in the story is strong enough to keep players moving forward to find out the next chunk of the equation.
Even for such a well put together – and greatly appreciated – horror title, there is still room for some improvement. The puzzles in Dementium are not overly difficult, yet it’s exciting when you locate one simply due to their infrequency. Foul creatures, on the other hand, are a dime a dozen, but they begin to lack variety after a point. There are zombie-like creatures, slithering maggot things, flying insects, screeching heads, and a few other nasties to deal with. The boss battles are quite thrilling, but a few are recycled at various points. It’s disappointing since beating them once was enough in some cases. The biggest frustration comes not from the gameplay itself, but from a basic element most players take for granted. The save system is somewhat flawed – or simply designed to provide a greater challenge, depending on your perspective – since being killed will force you to restart the current chapter over from the beginning. In some cases, this means having to replay huge sections of the maps you just slaved through. You can circumvent this issue by turning the DS off right before you think you’re about to die, but this method is simply a pain in the ass. None of these problems really hurt the gameplay much.
On the whole, Dementium is a riveting title which expertly straddles the line between survival horror and first-person shooter – two genres vastly underrepresented on the DS. If you’re up for a good scare, a lot of blood, and worthy horror experience, then look no further. Renegade Kid not only did their homework, they passed the exam with flying colors.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.0 Graphics
Highly impressive for the DS. Dark and totally eerie. 4.3 Control
Just the right level of tightness. Works great. 4.2 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
Creepy sound effects and music are good on their own, but the 3D audio positioning makes them even better. 4.0
Not much replay here, but it’s easily one of the best FPS titles on the DS.
4.3 Overall Rating – Great
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.