This is the second time in very recent memory that I’ve spent time with a game centered around the world of cultists. It’s a fascinating genre to explore in the gaming universe, with a mixture of the real and the fictional stories to draw upon. Sagebrush comes about via a very small development team as they attempt to take us into the inner workings and ideology of a cult group, set in the desert of America and run by Father James. Do we dare try to find out the real truth? If you’re with me it’s time to buckle up, but please don’t drink the kool-aid… yet.
Sagebrush is set in 1993 and you arrive at a disused compound in the middle of nowhere; a place that has obviously been locked up and deserted some time ago. We are told straight away that something terrible once happened here, but that’s all the information we’re going to get, except for a few words from a woman at the beginning. You see, what happens next is up to you.
The game is played in the first person and you can walk around to explore to your heart’s content, all while looking for things to pick up or examine. It’s a simple point and click adventure game at its heart, but don’t be fooled as there is much more to this game than just that. The point and click gameplay elements are pretty simple to action – find a key to open a door or use some bolt cutters to cut a hole in the fence. There isn’t ever a real combination of items to be utilised either, nor an obtuse puzzle to solve. Instead Sagebrush is all about the narrative, and the exploration of a strange land where the ghosts of something shocking hover in the air.
The story of Sagebrush is told through several letters, journals, VHS tapes and audio tape recorders. When you start the game there are no instructions about what to do next, nor are there any mission guidelines or markers. Like I mentioned before, it really is up to you to just enter the madness and see what happens. Thankfully the game gives you enough clues and items to vaguely point you in the right direction, and because there are only a small number of areas in total to take in, it’s easy to not get too lost.
It helps that there is nothing is out to kill you too; there are no demons or monsters around the corner. It really is just you walking around.
For some reason though this makes Sagebrush a little terrifying. Exploring deserted buildings, seeing clothes scattered or mouldy food left by the deceased residents mentally scarred me more than any Resident Evil jump scare or VR horror experience. It’s the imagination of what might have happened there that got the hairs on my arms standing to attention. For example, at one point in the game you walk into a bedroom bathed in red light, with an altar at one end of the bed, a cross hanging from the wall and a VHS camera pointing at the mattress. Something about that room scared the bejesus out of me, but I guess that is the aim and ultimate success of Sagebrush.
The whole experience will take you just a couple of hours to complete and if you like a good story then you’re in for a belter. There are a couple of moments where you will no doubt feel a bit lost at what to do next, and occasionally it does become a little frustrating rather than being entertaining – I’m looking at you, cornfield – but as an overall experience, I loved Sagebrush.
The visuals help hammer that love home, employing a fantastic retro pixel art style that is adorable. It must be said that I’m normally a bit ‘meh’ about anything that harks back to the old days visually, but the developer has taken an old visual style and created something new and wonderful with it. The sunsets, the little attention to detail in the building, and right through to the amazing dream sequences work on every level and deliver brilliantly throughout.
The soundtrack which accompanies it is played mainly on ‘80’s style synths, creating a mood that is atmospheric, reminding of the music from ‘The Shining”. It’s not played throughout but appears in magical moments at the perfect time in the game’s story. Sagebrush on Xbox One is quite sparse in the effects department actually, but that has obviously been done on purpose in order to create the empty desolate atmosphere. Getting freaked out by creaking doors is par for the course with this game.
In all, Sagebrush is a remarkable piece of storytelling and game design, employing a retro technique to tell something truly original. It’s intriguing and beguiling throughout and that leaves you with a satisfied smile at the end. The big bonus is that it’s very cheap too, and so for the price of a craft beer you too can unlock the mysteries of Sagebrush.