On a whim and browsing the PSN Store I came across Sagebrush, a brand new title priced at £4.99. Ever the curious person I had a nose at the synopsis and the trailer, immediately drawn in by its interesting, rather unsettling premise. It was only a week ago that I reviewed another game that told the story of a cult and I had hopes that Sagebrush could provide a more nuanced and personable take on a storytelling device that I find particularly interesting. Ergo, I purchased the game and two hours later, the game was complete and I had a brand new Platinum to add to the collection. Allow me to tell you all about Sagebrush.
Cults in video games are nothing new. They’re always an interesting subject of my favourite stories across any medium (Far Cry 5, The Wicker Man, The Handmaids Tale) and whilst most take you out of your busy, straightforward live and place you directly in the midst of their compounds, Sagebrush has you arriving at the setting of this particular cult some years after its rather grisly demise. It’s far more Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture than The Church in the Darkness, and you can jump into this game being very, very thankful of that.
You’re tasked with exploring the compound known as Black Sage Ranch, home of the Perfect Heaven Millennial cult. You have the entire ranch to explore and search for clues about those that chose to be part of the flock that lived here, and what led to their mass-suicide. You’re completely alone, searching for knowledge of those that gave up everything to worship at the church of Father James, a deeply troubled and sinister character whose harrowing story unravels throughout the playthrough.
To learn about the cult you can freely explore any area of the ranch, but you’ll soon realise that you have to slowly unpick everything in a particular order, recollecting memories through tape recordings and written notes. Reading timetables in various places and piecing together information you’ve gathered in order for you to progress. There are small puzzles where you’ll read a note that says, for example ‘the day I found the truth is the code’, and it’s then up to you to find out what he means, the code of which I found in the compounds school on the wall on the timetable of communions (‘A Celebration of the First Day). Dotted around each area the game is ever-so slightly nudging you towards is the clue for your next movement. You do have a map if you get lost but it’s lacking information, namely just the location of each place (the trailers that the flock lived in, the church, the home of the Father etc…). There were moments where it didn’t quite click what I was supposed to be doing, but a quick run back to where I was before provided the answer. There’s no rush to do anything, so plenty of areas of interest will be locked until it’s time for them to play their part. It never really feels like a slog.
Thankfully, the way Sagebrush invests you into the story was enough for me to keep playing. The biggest draw is how the story unfolds itself throughout your exploration, with the narrative being engaging and tightly focused. A game like Sagebrush just wouldn’t work if the story it told never held your attention, as the story ‘is’ the game much like the aforementioned Rapture, Edith Finch, Gone Home style of gameplay (although thankfully if you want to move a little faster the game actually lets you move much faster which is a huge tick in comparison to similar in its genre).
In each location there are letters and tape recordings that unravel the mindset of some of the flock, trying to understand their place in the cult, why they’re there at all and how they can stand another trip to the ‘Cleansing Room’ (where cult members are physically hurt with canes, removal of body parts, genital mutilation and more to purge their sins).
One of the more fascinating aspects of Perfect Heaven was that this entire cult was built on unpacking the fabrication of traditional religion, reaching out to those who needed meaning in their lives and convincing them that other forms of belief were full of lies. It’s a genuinely interesting strand that I wanted to follow more. I would have played a vastly longer version of Sagebrush if it meant tumbling down that particular rabbit hole. There was enough of it here to justify its existence, and the backstory of Father James kept me gripped enough that I wanted to know more. Someone commission a Netflix series, please?
At times all you’ll need from these letters and recordings are a single sentence to figure out where you should head to next. The puzzle aspect comes in knowing what you should be looking for. The content around them you’ll either find engaging or superfluous. For me it was the former. Perfect Heaven were a small but dedicated cult, despite secretly fearing Father James and discussing this with one another. Reaching the leaders homestead was perhaps my favourite part of the entire game, as it confirmed for me the suspicions of his actions, and made me feel for those who died in his name without knowing what he truly desired.
You may have noticed in the screenshots that it looks like what any 3D video game would look like if I was running it on the lowest possible specs on my laptop. Ergo, I finished the game on my PS4 and the low-fi, low-poly visual style is entirely intentional, despite playing just like it belongs in this generation. The visual style was rather delightful, and never got in the way of my enjoyment. Its representation of a quiet, unassuming and ‘no-frills’ world works very well, particularly during the daytime sections. It’s easy enough to decipher what you should be focusing on the game doesn’t allow you to interact with anything you shouldn’t be interacting with. The games soundtrack is minimal but deeply unsettling, adding huge gravitas to particular moments in the game that deserve it. Sagebrush is never scary but it is certainly unsettling, the soundtrack doing most of the heavy lifting in this regard.
Also, doors close behind you and the sound of that happening every time jolted me. I’ve never realised how bloody creepy it is until I played Sagebrush and how rare that is in video games to experience.
I talked to Sean about Sagebrush and his experience with Ratalaika Games (very recently, in fact) was that whilst they offered short play times, they weren’t much more than ‘Platinum fodder’, offering little under the surface other than pleasing those who enjoy Trophy hunting. I feel that Sagebrush is far more than that, and whilst it will appeal to those who like to quickly jump in and add to their collection, it offered me an interesting and ever-evolving story that I thoroughly enjoyed unpacking over my playthrough. Hell, I didn’t even know the game had a Platinum until about halfway through after I checked the Trophy list.
The human experience of being drawn into a cult full of deep, dark secrets and the emotional toll it weighs upon you is front and centre in Sagebrush and that’s what made this two-hour experience stand out to me. The slow pace is entirely purposeful, allowing you to soak up each moment and learn more about those who believed in Father James room to be understood, to be heard and ultimately, to be mourned.
Sagebrush is available now on PC, Xbox One, PS4 (reviewed on PS4 Pro) and Nintendo Switch.
Developer: Nate Berens / Redact Games
Publisher: Ratalaika Games
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we purchased a copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.
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