The 1960s provided a mixed bag of the good, the bad and the ugly. On one hand, it was a decade of innovation in space, science and the arts. On the other, you had some terrible fashion mistakes, the Vietnam war and the emergence of the cult. The Church in the Darkness takes the idea of these cult groups before taking us forward to the 1970s where one such gathering, fuelled by a heady mix of Christian values and socialist ideals, is hidden away in the jungle. What happens if you infiltrate such a group? Not good things, I can tell you…
The cult in The Church in the Darkness is heavily based on a lot of groups that were set up and went off to live their own existence, with their own rules and completely isolating themselves from where they were living before. Here this mob have settled in the jungles of South America, and you are left to play out proceedings as the uncle or aunt – it’s up to you to choose the sex and race of the person – of a nephew who joined the cult and hasn’t been heard of for a while. You arrive at the compound and are tasked with the job of trying to find him, all without getting killed or captured. Easy, yeah?
You start The Church in the Darkness by choosing from a range of difficulty levels to enjoy, before being allowed to take an item with you on your adventure. This could be a gun, a med pack, or sharp metal shards to cut the wires of alarm towers. You’re then thrown into a randomly generated place, to play through things via a sort of top-down adventure. It is here where you see your desperate figure walking along jungle paths, leaving you to navigate the area you’re venturing into. It’s all about the use of the stealthy approach in The Church in the Darkness, almost like a level of the Hitman series, where you creep along trying to find your target without being caught or seen.
However, the members of the cult are all around and you can see their direction of sight and which way it is pointing, along with understanding whether they are a guard or just a cult member. Your job – if you take the stealthy approach – is to weave in and out of these guards and followers, examining the interiors of dwellings and gathering up clues to the whereabouts of your nephew. To help you out there is a map of the world and the compound buildings, and by taking in specific tasks, visiting certain people in an area and gaining information, you will gather up further clues which take you ever closer to your nephew.
It’s not all about sticking to the shadows though and you can creep up behind guards, choosing to subdue them for a short while with a quick neck choke. But they will wake up quite quickly so you’ll want to swiftly be on your way – unless you decide to kill them. The problem with taking the latter route is that the more you kill, the more desperate and angry the two heads of the cult become. If you get captured or shot, you normally end up locked in a cage and one of the preacher leaders starts to lecture you about your infiltration and morals. You can quickly escape this cage, get your stuff back and continue on your journey, but if you’ve been on one of those mindless killing sprees then you will be executed there on the spot. That’s where the end of the game kicks in and you are left to start things again from scratch.
The atmosphere and world that The Church in the Darkness contains are both fascinating. As you walk through the compound you begin to notice little glimpses of narrative, via the inner workings of the cult through audio announcements and multiple notes and items. A cute playground for children will sit in direct comparison to a kill area, where recent executions have just taken place. The main problem though is found in that of the gameplay itself and the structure. For instance, I don’t understand why it needs to be randomly generated every time you start. Why not use the area and the great world that it obviously contains to allow for more missions and side quests focused around the same place? See, after you’ve died multiple times and had to restart things over and over again, you begin to question the motives and why you are still doing what you are doing. And that is a shame, because there is a lot to like in The Church in the Darkness.
Visually the top-down style of the game works well, with everything nicely drawn and animated. The little graphical details and scenes captured throughout the camp create a wonderful storybook that is so enjoyable to discover. The comic book cutscenes of the characters are nicely drawn, as are the pamphlets and items you might pick up. The audio side of things is good too, with it all accompanied by voice overs that deliver great performances and good writing throughout.
At the end of the day though, The Church in the Darkness on Xbox One has me divided. On one hand, I love the concept, writing, and visual style. On the other, I pretty much hate the randomised elements, the permadeath, and a number of small gameplay annoyances. There is a very good game underneath some of these problems though and the world the development team has created is unique and engaging enough to warrant a bit of time with The Church in the Darkness.