The Church in The Darkness is one of those games that I saw for the first time years ago and just assumed it had already released and I missed in the swathe of the amazing past three years we’ve had as an industry. It always appeared rather appealing, there’s something to be said about a game that encourages you to explore a cult and gives you the option to murder every single one of them. That particular itch for me whilst waiting for Church was scratched by a certain Far Cry 5 and it’s definitely a genre of narrative that arises attention from me. You probably have my college to thank for that, after forcing down my throat the delights of The Wicker Man in my all-important Media Studies class.
Still, the cult within The Church in the Darkness is far more reserved and secretive. Instead of manifesting its way into towns and farms in the simple life of the Americana, we find them hidden away in the trees, exiled by society and simply wanting to live a life of peace, one without interruption to practice their faith without ‘The Man’ breathing down their neck. They’re certainly far more subdued than Joseph Seed and his siblings ever were, even if they’re still packing some serious heat when the moment arises. You can’t be a cult in America without having a fair few AK’s nearby to mow down trespassers, it would appear.
As you progress (?) through you start to learn more about this small community known as Freedom Town and the game hangs its very singular, lonely hat on the premise that you’ll play through this game over and over to learn more about the cults followers and its leaders, Isaac and Rebecca Walker, whose personalities can vary depending on your playthrough, which is a neat touch. Every run through is procedurally generated, so whilst the layout of the camp remains familiar, the more playthroughs you go through (which can range from about an hour to as little as fifteen minutes), you’ll either find the camp more heavily armed, where items are located and the movement of certain NPC’s.
You’re tasked with entering the compound on the orders of your sister to rescue your nephew, Alex, who has found himself drawn in by the Churches message and depending on your playthrough you will find him either desperate to leave or absolutely committed to the cause. It’s either or and depending on whatever crap you’ve had to endure to get to him for him to turn around and say he doesn’t want to go with you was enough to make me throw my controller through the nearest window (I didn’t. But damn, I thought about it).
If you’re picturing a kind of top-down version of Hitman then you’re about on the money. Church is stealth heavy and its sole gameplay mechanic is to avoid being caught at any cost. You’ll need to avoid their gaze – you can keep track of what they can see via their ground-based vision cones on the easier levels – or if there’s no other option, murder them in cold blood or knock them out and hide them in nearby hiding spots. You can of course throw stones to distract them because it wouldn’t be a stealth game without some pebbles to throw now would it? I’ll try not to bring it up again but The Church in the Darkness’ entire aesthetic is Far Cry’s Outposts.
As you navigate your way through the camp you can do so by either taking out alarms and moving silently or partake in the aforementioned murder rampage in order to progress. You can acquire alarm cutting equipment and weapons, though the upgrades feel rather redundant when the easiest way through is Agent 47-ing your way to Alex. There’s little to unlock that will actually benefit you that you don’t already have, they’re merely an alternative tool if anything. I attempted to tear through each playthrough without ever using my gun and for the most part it remained holstered, though when it was called on to be used in a dire situation the shooting mechanics were so flimsy I rarely survived them.
These various parts and weapon upgrades can be found as you move around whether it be in cabins, buildings or on your downed enemies. You can choose what you’re going to take into the camps before the game begins, but it shouldn’t take long to pick up items you’ve left behind once you’re in the lions den, figuratively speaking.
And that’s the most unfortunate part of what this game wants you to do, there’s just no real reason to do any of it. It’s all just dull, there’s very little in the core story that compelled me to keep playing beyond three or four playthroughs, and even then it was only for review purposes. Yes, each playthrough can end in a multitude of different ways. Isaac and Rebecca can either be both bad and good with a few centimetres in-between. They’re underdeveloped and purposely ‘culty’, infuriatingly so at times. You’ll hear their voices through each run you take so frequently their message gets completely lost in wanting to simply shut them up. Is corporate greed and American TV shows the downfall of society? Check. Obsession with celebrity? Check. Blaming the rest of the world for their exile? Check. It’s cliche and on a loop through enormous speakers that you can’t disconnect. I’m almost certain if there was a way to cut some speaker wires I may have enjoyed this experience a little more. As it is, there’s nothing worse in the game than being told repeatedly just how gosh darn terrible we all are out here in the rest of the world.
One of the strangest aspects of The Church in The Darkness is the menu screens, which appear like it could be from a Flash game we used to play on our computers at school. It is so bizarrely generic, with the UI offering very little confidence in what you’re about to enter into. Is this the quality of everything in the game? I understand it’s absolutely not the primary concern when finishing a game but it reeks of ‘just get it done’. It’s strange because elsewhere visually it all seems far more polished. Yes it’s a top-down perspective and each character have little to no features when looked at up close, but the aesthetic is pleasing and not at all unpleasant.
Across my multiple playthroughs I did have some rather interesting moments. My final run before I sat down to write this review I had escaped with Alex and heard Isaac and Rebecca convince their flock to all take cyanide pills, naturally resulting in a mass suicide. It wasn’t a particularly smart run, to be fair and that could have had something to do with the eventual outcome. I had been seen and the leaders sent their military-grade cronies after me almost immediately. I managed to hide for a moment, though this led to the guards being on high alert. After a fair bit of sneaking I managed to see it through and the ending was unexpected. I must have caught the leaders on a particularly bad day. I’ve read stories about players who have joined Alex in the cult and ended up staying there, resulting in ‘happy’ ending. This hasn’t happened to me yet, though my dodgy tactics may have had something to do with this. I find it a little strange that could be considered a ‘good’ ending, undermining my reason for being there in the first place.
Aside from the vastly eclectic endings, the gameplay just isn’t enough to sustain it through several attempts to find them all. The gameplay never deviates from avoiding vision cones and knocking some people out if necessary. And as the game is encouraging you to experience it over and over again, it really needed a compelling reason to work your way to another ending.
The premise and the endings are the clear standouts. It’s the bit in-between that makes it feel like The Church in The Darkness is a squandered opportunity.
The Church in The Darkness is available now on PS4 (reviewed on PS4 Pro), Switch, Xbox One and PC
Developer: Paranoid Productions
Publisher: Fellow Traveller
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional code from the publisher. For our full review policy, please go here.
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