Horror and mystery, when set in a different country or location than those which are familiar, is always something of a plus for me. Horror games set in traditional mansion houses, abandoned industrial units or disused asylums feel a bit too acquainted and at times quite cliche.
With Saturnalia though you’ll feel completely wrong-footed, uneasy in a good way. Most of that is because of the visual design, the unfamiliar setting, and the Sardinian location. I don’t think I’ve ever played a survival horror game like Saturnalia before – it is truly terrifying.
Saturnalia is an ancient Roman festival held in honour of the Roman god Saturn. Set in a small village in Sardinia, the game involves multiple playable characters and has been inspired by those unusual Italian horror movies and Sardinian folklore. Your village of Gravoi is the star of the game, with its strange twisty turny streets and maze-like qualities. In a game like Silent Hill, you have the fog that keeps you guessing about location, but in Saturnalia it’s all about the darkness and shadows.
The first of the four characters you play as is Anita, a geologist coming into town to explore the mines for a prospective buyer. She is pregnant with the child of a local, but also holds a secret about the whole affair. Then there is Claudia, the daughter of a bar owner getting over the death of a relative. Sergio is a drug-addicted guy, haunted by his past romance. Lastly we have Paul, a guy who grew up in the village and is a photographer. Each of the characters come across as very well-rounded, nuanced folk with great stories and personalities – even if there is no voiceover to convey this.
The game is played in the third person and doesn’t like to hold your hand at all. A little icon will appear above your head and when it does so pressing B will help you to read your thoughts. This will give you options about what the character thinks their task might be, or what they should go and do. Their other options are limited to a run button and the ability to light a match to see in the darkness; it’s all pretty simple. You can interact with items and pick things up, but there isn’t any combat nor any of those traditional things like inventory management to worry about.
As you get acquainted with Saturnalia, the game begins to introduce the creature in the darkness. At night a masked creature lurks on the streets looking for victims. When it gets near you – signified with a creepy audio cue – the only options are for you to hide or to run. Running in the semi-darkness is hard as the streets of the town are so maze-like and full of twisting lanes that it becomes extremely tense. If captured you have the chance to run as one of the other characters, hoping to revive your captured hero.
Saturnalia is an extremely stressful experience, hyper-intense but in a good way. The story, narrative, and whole world are intriguing and unique, yet at times can feel a bit of a slog, as you head off across town again and again – all before the monster appears again. But the rest of the puzzles feel interesting and intuitive and nicely there’s a great little feature that allows you to remember a route around town, selecting where to go and your character will walk there unaided.
The visuals are unique and very beautiful, employing a hand-drawn animated style. It’s this which helps create the feeling of dread and darkness with its cramped style. But, there have been times during a Saturnalia playthrough in which I have felt sick with the motion of the character’s movement and that of the animation.
That said the sound design is incredible, with a title screen delivering a demonic chant to your living room. The noises around the village are amazing, especially when the creature appears. If you can, make sure you play Saturnalia with headphones on.
Saturnalia is a truly original survival horror game. It’s almost an arthouse game in which the narrative and characters are brilliant, even with the claustrophobic location. The creature is terrifying, the world alien and unusual and the horror theme great. It does feel a bit relentless and occasionally a drudge – and personally I got motion sickness – but on the whole Saturnalia is a brilliant game that survival horror fans should lap up.
Saturnalia is on the Xbox Store