Review by Toger
December 2002

"Where Am I? What Am I Doing Here?"

Some days, it just doesn't pay to get out of bed. You know what I mean—the long day at work is finally over. So you head for the car and head down the mountain toward home. It's not a bad drive, but it's raining and the roads are slick. As you enter the one bad curve in the road, you pump the brakes and the pedal goes all the way to the floor! This does not bode well. You bounce off the guardrail a couple of times, then your car plunges through the guardrail and over the cliff and your world goes black.

The good: You awaken with your head completely swathed in bandages. The bad: You have amnesia. The ugly: You're in an insane asylum.

To quote the game box, this is "a journey through the depths of one man's consciousness to confront the demons from his past and escape the imprisonment of his mind." Sounds like fun, doesn't it?

Uh ... By the way, are you the squeamish type? Easily upset by animated horror or the sight of bodies and blood? If so, then you might want to steer clear of this game. Being raised on a steady diet of Outer Limits and Saturday nights spent watching Creature Features, not much fazes me, so I'm pretty warped and twisted. On the other hand, gentle reader, if you're faint of heart ... This game is rated Teen for a reason.

"See You in Hell, Freak!"

From the moment the publisher's logo splashes across the screen wrapped in bandages and you hear the screams and cries of the inmates, you know you're going to be in for some psychological fun and games!

Sanitarium begins in earnest when you awaken inside the asylum and must find your way out of the Tower Cells before the generator explodes. Once you've gotten out of the tower, you'll navigate your way through eight more chapters of mind-warping "worlds." Each chapter takes place in either a part of the asylum or one of several other locations, including a "Children of the Damned" type town, an Aztec village and an insect hive.

Sanitarium's story is imaginative, dark, creepy and malevolent. It's the kind of game you'll want to play with the lights off and your headphones on. Chapters that take place in the asylum are accompanied by the wailing, screaming and crying of tortured, unseen inmates.

For me, the creepiest part of the game was the options screen, where a pair of evil eyes followed my every move. Also, in keeping with the atmosphere, there's a big green eye staring wildly out of a bunch of gauze on the box and the jewel case.

"I Can't Do That from Here"

All of the puzzles within the game are relevant to your current situation and make absolute sense. Need to get out of the morgue before you freeze to death? Better figure out how to open the hinges so you can open the door! There were no puzzles thrown in there just to pad the game. In some cases, the puzzles take place in the world-at-large, such as returning a child to its parents, whereas others will offer an up-close-and-personal view.

Can we talk about the myriad puzzles? There are the usual inventory-based puzzles. And then there are the fetch-this-for-that-person-and-receive-something-in-return puzzles, mechanical, anagrams, matching symbols, music, and one ... drum roll, please ... maze. Don't hyperventilate! The maze is pretty easy—it's an open maze, no walls—as long as you don't do what I did and push all of the buttons (subtle hint), you'll do just fine.

The only problem I encountered with any of the puzzles was that sometimes the item I needed looked just like some of the background objects. So there is a wee bit of pixel hunting—minor gripe. But then, I've got old eyes.

"It Looks Like a Giant Eye!"

Sanitarium is contained on three CDs with virtually no disk-swapping. Once you've moved onto the next CD, you stay there. The game also will start from any of the CDs—now there's a refreshing change!

The game itself is fairly linear—you cannot move on to the next chapter until you've completed everything in the current chapter. Also, inventory in one chapter doesn't follow to the next, so you're sure to find what you're looking for in the immediate vicinity. For me, that's a good thing. As much as I loved the King's Quest games, I really hated all that traipsing back and forth or the fact that I'd get all the way to the end only to find I was missing a crucial object. Is that heartless or what?

The interface is traditional point-and-click with a slight variation. To move your character, click and hold the right mouse button, then drag the arrow cursor to where you need to go. Once there, release the mouse button. Personally, I disliked this method. It was especially bothersome in close quarters, in which case I either ran up and down stairs, a lot, or got trapped by objects when I was trying to go elsewhere. Everything else, such as interacting with objects or people, is accomplished by using the left mouse button.

Should I mention Sanitarium's arcade-type sequences? Don't panic! There are only two such sequences and they're really not that bad. Would I lie to you? Once you've gotten rid of the lesser critters, they stay gone even if you should die when you face the Big Bad. Oh, dear. I've said the "d" word. Yes, you can die in the arcade sequences, but you're immediately revived and you have an infinite number of lives. Plus, with the save-anywhere feature, you can choose to reload from your last save instead of starting at the beginning of the sequence!

Inventory management is really simple. A left-click on your character will bring up all of the objects that you currently carry in their own individual circle, which in turn circles your avatar. When you hover over an object, Max will tell you about said object.

Oops! Did I give away that your character's name is Max? Not to worry, I don't think that's a spoiler. After all, Max will remember his name rather early in the game.

"Only Good Bug Is a Dead Bug"

Graphically speaking, some of the scenes can be pretty graphic. A couple of times I found myself saying, "oh, ewww!"—but you'll notice that it didn't stop me from playing! Sanitarium's graphics are in beautifully detailed prerendered 2D. The circus level had floating balloons, empty vodka bottles and bits of trash scattered about the grounds, while the hive level was suitably squishy and organic-looking.

As Max travels through the various levels, events or objects will trigger a memory. Memories are done via cutscenes with a wonderfully old, faded, sepia-toned, eight-millimeter-film look and feel, even down to the pops, lines, stray hairs, stutters and shaky camera angles found in home movies.

Voice work for the game was very good. At first, I wasn't really enamored of the actor who voiced Max, but then I decided he seemed a little dead in the beginning because he was confused and didn't understand the things that were happening to him. Conversations with NPCs are spoken as well as subtitled. You can also toggle subtitles on for the cutscenes and observations that Max makes.

Ambient sounds were excellent. As Max walked on different surfaces, the sounds of his footsteps would change accordingly. Heavy metal doors clanked with force. Don't get me started on the hive—that whole level was disgustingly gross! We're talking wet, slurping, slithering, squishy sounds! And I loved every nasty moment! Curiously enough, there's not a lot of background music during most of the game. One chapter has especially haunting music to make the chapter very sad, sweet and poignant. During the final two chapters there is background music, which heightens the tension quite well.

Traveling through the game, you'll meet all manner of characters: Aztec warrior shades, disfigured smart-alecky kids, disgruntled circus performers, insectoids, the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl and some seriously funny inmates. You'll even play various incarnations of Max—Grimwall, a four-armed, hoofed, horned Cyclops; Olmec, Mighty Aztec God; and Sarah, Max's sister.

"Well, They Do Say You Really Can't Go Home Again"

Sanitarium is a wonderfully creepy, psychological thriller/mystery of a game where the sole purpose is to discover who you are, why you're in the asylum, who's done this to you and how to get out. I found the story worthy of an Outer Limits episode with all of the twists and turns that one would expect in such a story. The reverse mouse movement notwithstanding, Sanitarium rates the FFC gold star from me!

If you haven't already played this game, you should. You know you want to do it. Have you checked your car's brake line of late? How's that for psychological manipulation? The End

The Verdict

The Lowdown

Developer: DreamForge Entertainment
Publisher: ASC Games
Release Date: 1998

Available for: Windows

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System Requirements

Pentium 90
4X CD-ROM drive
16-bit sound card
DirectX 5
30 MB free hard drive space

Where to Find It

The Software Society 18.99

Prices/links current as of 12/02/02
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No reproduction in whole or in part without express written permission.