Reviews: Someone SAVE me!
Most gamers can invoke the memory of an ambitious game that, while innovative or entertaining in some respects, ultimately failed to live up to its potential. Many would argue Assassin's Creed falls into this category. Dementium: The Ward is another example. This first-person horror shooter received numerous accolades for the visuals and sound it manages to pump out of the Nintendo DS. It is these technical achievements that make Dementium a genuinely frightening game. Unfortunately what may have been a groundbreaking title is mired by cumbersome controls, repetitive game play, and an infuriating save system. These factors result in an experience that is more tedious than fun.
The game features a simple story. The protagonist wakes up in a hospital to find it overrun with a menagerie of hellish creatures. Throughout the game he experiences flashbacks that allude to his past. These visions appear as well-rendered and creepy cut-scenes. While the tale is not particularly memorable, it nonetheless contains enough freaky elements to satisfy any fan of survival horror (particularly Silent Hill, a series from which Dementium draws heavy inspiration).
Dementium quite effectively throws the player into its terrifying world. Much like Silent Hill or Eternal Darkness, the player's dread stems from the game's well-crafted atmosphere. The effectiveness of the hospital's horrific ambiance is due to Dementium's excellent visuals and sound design. The game features some of the Nintendo DS's best graphics to date. The hospital is 3D rendered and features a surprising amount of detail, from the decayed furniture to the enemies themselves. These monsters' animations are much more fluid than those of other handheld zombie themed shooters like Touch the Dead. As previously mentioned the cut-scenes also look terrific.
The graphics would almost be beyond criticism if the in-game environments weren't so repetitious. Much of the player's time will be spent traversing blood soaked hallways that are almost indistinguishable from one another. While this adds to the game's labyrinthine and claustrophobic atmosphere, it also makes running from place to place a rather mundane activity. Thankfully the excellent map saves navigation from being needlessly frustrating.
By comparison the sound design is flawlessly executed. If the grunts and rasping of unseen zombies do not make you jump, rest assured that the childlike shrieking of the game's cocker spaniel-sized leeches will cause your hair stand up on end. The music also effectively adds an ominous atmosphere to the proceedings. Earphones are recommended to achieve total auditory immersion.
One of the most suspenseful game play elements comes from Dementium's pervasive darkness. Most of the facility's lights no longer function. As a result the flashlight is required to see more than three feet ahead. While this works great as a suspense-inducing tool, the flashlight mechanics are a doubled-edged sword. Much like Doom 3, players cannot use the flashlight and weapons simultaneously. Since everything is so dark, this limitation makes it virtually impossible to eliminate enemies from afar. Instead the player must creep up close to enemies, thereby giving them ample opportunity to unleash melee attacks. It is clear that by necessitating close quarters combat that developer Renegade Kid was attempting to notch up the suspense. While the intent is admirable, it ultimately leads to frustration since the game allows players to possess a ranged weapon but not really able to use it as such.
The game also grows repetitive. One reason is the aforementioned fact that each level looks virtually the same. Another is that Dementium does not feature enough enemy variety. Get ready to fight dozens of nearly identical leeches and zombies. Counted together these foes make up roughly a third of the bestiary. While they are terrifying at first, fighting them eventually becomes so routine that both suspense and fun are flushed down the proverbial toilet.
To Dementium's credit, it does avoid some of the more clich?d enemies found in horror games like mutant bats, rats, and alligators (all coincidentally featured in Touch the Dead). Additionally the bosses are genuinely unique and never wear out their welcome. They range from a machine gun wielding, wheelchair-bound madman adorning a gas mask to a large naked brute who looks like King Hippo from Punch Out! with a mean case of leprosy.
Combat is unnecessarily cumbersome due to the controls. Outwardly the set-up would seem effective. Players move forward, backwards, and strafe with the D-Pad. The L-Button is used to shoot/activate weapons. Almost every other function is delegated to the touch screen, including looking, aiming, and weapon/item selection. This set-up is tiring because it forces the player's right hand to be totally free. This often necessitates supporting the DS solely with one hand, or laying it on a table. Clearly the latter option defeats the portable experience.
All that being said, the touch screen is very responsive. Aiming and turning both respond flawlessly. The control's main issues instead lay with the movements mapped to the D-Pad. It almost seems like the protagonist wears lead shoes when he moves. He doesn't run or strafe nearly fast enough. Moreover strafing is usually ineffective since most of the game is spent in narrow spaces. Avoiding enemies is very difficult short of walking backwards.
Perhaps Dementium's biggest issue is its poorly implemented save system. At first glance the system seemingly functions well. The game auto-saves the player's progress each he or she enters a room. From here the player can turn off the DS and later return to the exact same room to continue playing. The problem is that the game does not allow players to use this save system when they die. Instead of returning them to the last room, the game restarts to the beginning of the current chapter. This occurs even if one dies during a boss fight. To make matters worse, dying overrides the last auto-save. Players will be brought back to the beginning of the chapter even if they try to reload the last saved game. In short the player is forced to to trek through the level and fight the same enemies all over again. This huge blunder by Renegade Kid serves to make their product nearly unplayable.