Feature: Diamonds in the Rough - Dementium: The Ward
Posted by Katharine Byrne
Worth a scare
Whenever we look back at a console’s lifespan, the first thing we nearly always do is remember the good stuff. We remember the Marios, the Zeldas, the hordes of Pokémon, and maybe even the odd Kirby game depending on your level of pink puff-ball persuasion. But we’re often so caught up in remembering what’s great that we very rarely remember the mediocre, though often it’s with good reason. Whether it’s a lack of polish or a frame rate so heinous it gives us slow, jagged nightmares, we often pass over these games without a second glance.
But what about those games in that dreaded reviewer’s no-man’s land of sixes and sevens? The ones that aren’t bad per se, but also aren’t quite good enough to be a sure-fire hit. Those are very tricky customers indeed. Yet we believe there are plenty of games like this out there that deserve a little more love and attention than they currently receive. Games like Renegade Kid’s Dementium: The Ward for Nintendo DS fit the bill, so we decided to revisit it and speak to its creative director, Jools Watsham.
When it was released we gave Dementium a seven out of ten, calling it an “enjoyable romp” despite the fact it didn’t particularly hold up as a great FPS experience. It’s also not really that scary for a survival horror game either, but even though it didn’t quite live up to either of its genre expectations, there are several things that Dementium did do particularly well that certainly make it worth your time.
From the moment you begin, it’s a game positively dripping with atmosphere; we’re not just talking about the liberal doses of blood splatter lining the walls, either. Set in a dark and dingy hospital, Dementium drops players in the middle of an apocalyptic nightmare, where hulking great flesh monsters roam the hallways with giant meat cleavers, and abandoned notes talk of cures and experiments going horribly wrong.
I felt that a hospital setting was an inherently creepy setting that helped define the Dementium universe. Combining surgical abominations with darkness felt like a good recipe for a thick atmosphere.
As creative director Jools Watsham puts it, “It was important for the game to have a unique identity. I felt that a hospital setting was an inherently creepy setting that helped define the Dementium universe. Combining surgical abominations with darkness felt like a good recipe for a thick atmosphere.”
It’s so thick, in fact, that your trusty flashlight is often the only way to keep your character safe as you try to escape from this hellish place. But while flashlight games seem to be ten-a-penny these days, Dementium is really quite remarkable in that manages to evoke the same kind of eerie tension as games like Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins to the Moon and Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, both of which were Wii titles. That’s no mean feat for a DS game, especially when its screen is barely the size of a digestive biscuit!
What’s more, the emphasis placed on your flashlight encourages exploration, as without it your field of vision is plunged into darkness. But even though one hallway is very like another in most cases, it can still lead to some quite surprising discoveries. For instance, you’ll occasionally find clipboards on the wall outside a patient’s room detailing their medical information, and if you take a closer look at some of the names you’ll find Jools Watsham himself listed on the infant ward along with several other Renegade Kid developers, including technical director Bob Ives, executive producer Tim Hesse (who also has a split personality disorder with VP of marketing Richard Iggo, apparently), and fellow co-founder Gregg Hargrove (whose diagnosis is delusional parasitosis, in case you were wondering). Carl Jung is even listed as the emergency contact for Paul Bleuler, one of the forefathers of modern psychiatry, and it’s details like these that really help set the game on edge. They may be small and easily missed, but they’re just another tool that helps blur the lines between past and present, and fiction and reality – especially when you have to lop Gregg Hargrove’s head off with your baton!
But while your flashlight helps illuminate the game’s world during times of safety, it makes running into the aforementioned abominations a particularly agonising call, as the game forces you to sacrifice your field of vision in order to fire your gun. There may be only four different types of enemy wondering the halls, but when you can’t see what horrors await you in the darkness, it really doesn’t matter.
Of course, this would have been more frightening if the majority of monsters didn’t look and feel like the loose and almost cartoonish creations of TimeSplitters 2 as opposed to the lumbering terrors of Resident Evil, but Dementium more than makes up for this with its spine-tingling sound design. In most cases you’ll hear these creatures long before you see them, even with your flashlight, and with many of them hiding in closets and unseen passageways, identifying their location and taking them out is always a rather nerve-racking exercise in keeping your cool. Even Jools Watsham was surprised by how effective this was.
“The fact that the game achieved to creep anyone out is outstanding,” says Watsham. “The sense of darkness and forlorn really came through in the end, and I think those elements allow the player to experience the game with a sense of seriousness. That is, if you allow yourself to get lost in a video-game displayed on a 2 inch screen.”
It’s not just the monster sounds that seem like they’ve come straight from the chiller cabinet, either. Crackled static will rise and fall above the haunting piano music playing in the background if you near one of the old tannoys on the wall, thunder will rumble ominously outside behind the shuttered blinds, and you’ll hear the rain lashing against the windows if you get too close. Likewise, if you find yourself low on health, it will be the thumping pulse of your own heartbeat filling your ears (though this may be a somewhat rare occurrence given the sheer amount of health lying around). Sometimes, though, the music will just stop altogether, leaving you with nothing but the soft patter of your own footsteps for company, and it’s these moments of silence that particularly help to ramp up the tension.
The only thing slightly lacking is the story, which starts out well but ends up being rather top-heavy compared to the rest of the game. You’ll find a handful of clues and hints about what might have happened to both you and the hospital in the first couple of opening chapters, including a strange note that demands “WHY DID YOU DO IT?” to bloody newspaper clippings about a man brutally murdering his wife, but these story cues quickly peter out once the game moves out of its tutorial. They resurface again around the halfway mark, but for the most part the only thing driving you forward is the desire to find a way out. This may not be enough to convince some players to carry on, but even Watsham admits that he would have liked to have improved the story if he’d had the chance.
“The content we include in each of our games is dependent on the time and resources available. So, assuming we had a hefty team and time-line, I would like to add more story elements and NPCs to interact with.”
I think its shortcomings somehow add to the feeling of isolation and madness, [and] it exceeded my expectations for what I thought we could achieve on the DS.
Regardless of its flaws, though, Dementium really does offer a unique experience that few games managed to emulate on the DS. The US version may have been hampered by a particularly frustrating save system which made you restart each chapter every time you died, but those with access to the improved European version really have no excuse. As Watsham himself puts it:
“Besides Dementium II, it’s the only title available on the DS that offers an authentic survival horror experience dripping in bloody, grotesque fear and mystery. I know Dementium isn’t perfect, but I would not change anything about it. I think its shortcomings somehow add to the feeling of isolation and madness, [and] it exceeded my expectations for what I thought we could achieve on the DS. I am very proud of what we achieved with Dementium.”