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Sanitarium  
by Fairydgmther
March 11, 2004

 

A classic adventure game is one enjoyed by most, and holds a place in our minds as creative and unique.  Sanitarium is indeed a classic, by any standard, for its terrible beauty, and innovative story.  The concept used here of an amnesia victim is trite; the execution of the story is anything but.  Following a car crash, our hero, whom we later learn is called Max, awakes in what must be the worst clichť of a sanitarium: a tower of cold stone, disintegrating walls, an assortment of truly deranged people, and no one around to help.  One person is bloodying the walls by smashing his head against them, another falls to his death right in front of Max.  His awareness, despite his amnesia, quickly tells you he doesnít belong in this asylum.  His face is bandaged, and this makes him look scary himself.  He needs to escape this place as soon as he can.

As the story/game progresses, Max is teleported, by means of a magic statue in the asylum, into worlds that are bizarre, grotesque analogies of life as we know it.  He finds himself in a village, a hive, an Aztec civilization, and dreamworlds.  The village children are so misshapen and disfigured as to be gargoylesque in nature.  He needs to find the source of the problem, so these children can be helped.

We are shown snippets of his past life as they return to him in flashbacks, some of which reveal him to be a physician working to cure some unnamed fatal disease.  There are disturbing references to a colleague undermining his efforts.  There are also haunting memories of his sister, who died as a child, and for whom he feels some responsibility, though he himself was a child at the time.  Max is struggling to find what is real and what is hallucination through this turbulent journey back to sanity.

As we progress to other worlds, we will play as Maxís sister Sarah, as one of his boyhood comic book heroes, Grimwall, and as Olmec, an Aztec god.  Each of these helps us to understand more of the torment of his mind, and his fight to regain his memory and his sanity.  The darkness of this game is occasionally interspersed with some silliness, to lighten it up, but the overall feeling is one of despair, and the futility of life, coupled with the need to fight this debilitating depression.

Sanitarium is not for everyone.  Its disturbing scenes, though not truly realistic, are portrayed well enough to ensnare the player into its web.  Once caught, you need to find out what happens, and what it all meant.  What was hallucination and what was reality?  Some parts are like dream sequences where strange rooms are found, and long dead people are present and acting normal.  Sanitarium is not a horror game, though there are ghosts to be dealt with.  It is, rather, a trek through one manís mind, his dreams, his hallucinations, and his memories while trying to fight off drugs administered to him, and his efforts to regain his life.  One could argue that this might not be an appropriate subject for a game, yet Sanitarium handles this in an entertaining and somewhat educational manner.

There are many puzzles to be solved, and they run the gamut from easy to extremely difficult.  There is a maze, though perhaps thatís a misnomer, since it more resembles an Escher-like drawing of walkways, some of which go nowhere, but all of which are visible to the player.  The movement in this game, using the right mouse button is clunky, but acceptable in all but the maze and an area near the end, where fine control of movement is essential.

The story is linear, by necessity, though a few things may be done out of order without problems.  There are a few areas where you can die, but you are immediately restored to the beginning of the area, and what parts you have done neednít be repeated.  There are no pixel hunts or obscure puzzles to solve.

The menu screen, accessed by the escape button, brings up many choices, but the startling part is the eyes of the person in the center that follow your cursor around the screen.  As you mouse-over any selection, a childís echoing voice tells you what it is.  Inventory is minimal at any time, but the access to it is unusual in this game: you click on the hero (in whatever form he is playing as), and a circle of items surrounds him that can be used.

Music is minimally used, and non-intrusive.  Sound effects are well done.  Voice acting was mostly well done, but the main character needed more inflection in his voice to convey the torment he was going through.  Cut scenes blended very well, and were not overused.  The primary problem with this game was the movement.  Many hotspots were difficult to access because the character movement was not fine-tuned enough.

To summarize Ė Sanitarium is game for adults, though it bears a Teen rating.  While I do feel it should be considered an adventure game classic, I canít honestly say I liked the game.  Once started, though, I had to finish it.  It was compelling, intriguing, and without easy comparison to other games Iíve played.  The concept was disturbing for me as a subject for an adventure game, but I canít dispute the excellence in executing it.

Score 9.3/10

System Requirements:
Windows 95/98/ME/XP
P90, 16 MB RAM
4XCD
1 MB PCI video card
Windows compatible sound card
30 MB free HD space

Many thanks for Bacardi Jim's editing skills, once again.

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