Saturnalia Preview – Rogue-lite Gameplay Merges With Horror With Terrifying Potential
Have you been missing the old days of horror titles like Silent Hill or Amnesia? You know, the times when you’d often get horrifically lost, turned out, disorientated at just the wrong moment when a petrifying… thing is chasing you beyond the shadows? Fear no more, Saturnalia could potentially be the game to simultaneously engross and terrify you all in one expertly crafted package.
Saturnalia is a rogue-lite horror exploration game. Your crew of 4 characters arrive at a quaint and sun-kissed Italian village based on Sardinia, each with their own reason and motivation for being there. As night falls and mystery arrives, you’ll start to pick up on some… worrying signs within the town itself. A bleak darkness envelopes the buildings, a Silent Hill-esque mist creeps out around the many corners and a terrifying creature begins stalking your every movement.
I’ve played about 3 and a half hours of Saturnalia before writing this preview, uncovering about 75% of the clues and having lost my entire party to the demonic entity. From what I’ve played thus far, I’m very, very pleased to report it’s shaping up to be an excellent horror title and a wholly unique experience, blending rogue-lite elements superbly into its core design.
The star of this hellish show is the village itself. There’s no directional arrow, mini-map or magical guidance gimmick here, oh no. Scattered around are noticeboard maps with a list of locations and you’ll either have to manually navigate from memory or ask your avatar to point you in the approximate direction. Unfortunately, there’s a plethora of dead ends, locked doors, intertwining alleys and a slew of claustrophic corridors to navigate.
Getting lost comes easy, and when you’re being pursued by evil itself, it makes for an effective scaring mechanic. More than once I got caught in an alley after losing my way or ended up utterly lost after running for my life. The design of the village is fantastic and evokes that sense of tread of traversal you’d want from an experience like this.
The rogue-lite elements add to the impressiveness of the design. As you explore the various locations you’ll be looking for clues to uncover various stories to understand the horror enveloping before your eyes. You’ll also come up against various locked doors, blocked paths, unusable items and other various obstacles. Head to the pharmacy for medicine and you find you may need to find a hammer to smash the window to get in, so off you trot to find a hammer. That kind of deal.
It sounds like it could be tedious, but the constant threat of being stalked and the quick, snappy nature you’ll be continually uncovering new items and story pieces means you’re moving along at a rapid pace. It has that addictive quality of making you hang around to complete that next quest, only it’s an hour later and that quest was 5 quests ago.
What works so wonderfully is that shortcuts, key items and quest related bits are maintained after death. But consumables (matches, coins, firecrackers) and places you’ve visited are not. Should your party meet their unfortunate end, the village will shuffle itself around and you’ll be all out of matchsticks which help you explore the dark. Suddenly, your muscle memory betrays you as that alley you definitely knew before is now a road to certain death. It combines the awesome feeling of progression through unlocking a shortcut – making future life easier – with the very real threat of having to learn a layout all over again.
It’s been my favourite part of Saturnalia so far, and I’m excited to jump in multiple times to see how much the village can shift and how higher difficulties can make the experience that much more discomforting yet rewarding.
So far, the intrigue of the story, the loop of exploration (just one more clue… one more trip to find this thing) have had me pretty hooked. The art style and direction is no slouch though, as you can see in the screenshots. Saturnalia doesn’t look like any other game I’ve played before, with an almost handcrafted or pencil-drawn aesthetic. The darkness is suffocating and the use of colour to indicate danger vs safety has been a wonderful visual exhibit, albeit it’s had me deathly fearful more than once. One area in particular is so dark and intertwining I genuinely feared going into it for trepidation of getting lost for good.
My only minor concerns from my otherwise great experience so far come down to a couple of technical hiccups. The camera, as is par for the course with horror games, swings around wildly when you’re twisting corners quickly, like the camera is one of those tennis balls attached to a pole by a rope. In a chase it can become a bit too wild, making it difficult to control your character, which could lead to a cheap death. It’s a catch 22, as reducing the swinging will take away some of the thrill and disorientation of the horror, but I’d like to see it tuned down just a touch.
The other issue is some clipping on environmental geometry which can get you stuck more than infrequently. It’s not pervasive enough to affect the gameplay experience, but it’s enough to be a little annoying. I played on the default difficulty for my three and a bit hours and only died once I hit about 60-70% of the clues as well. I don’t know if I just got lucky or whether it’s intentionally designed that way, but I think for experienced horror players it may be worth going for the next difficulty up to start. You can’t kill that which creeps in the dark, but you can outrun it fairly well.
There’s a massive slew of difficulty sliders and ways to tinker the experience to your liking as well. Whether turning off the shifting village after death or giving yourself infinite stamina, you can adjust and meddle to find the right balance for yourself. Offering options for players in my view is always a good thing, so props to Santa Ragione for going to so much effort to accommodate so many different kinds of gamers.
Saturnalia is shaping up to be a pretty fantastic horror experience that should be on your radar if you’re into the genre. The strong vibes of Silent Hill, Amnesia and the like should already have your radars pointed to it with some excitement and from what I’ve played so far, it could be one of the sleeper hits of the year. It’s got a couple of rough edges that need some ironing out before it launches, but the foundation of this terrifying ritual are hitting all the right ceremonial notes.
I’m massively enjoying the art style, mysterious story and organic gameplay offering. Switching between characters, nervously venturing out on another death-defying trip around the village, finding a new piece of exposition, it all works with an horrendously brilliant confidence in its design. To avoid spoiling too much I’ve not gone into as much detail, as much of the game is about finding things out for yourself, but I hope this has given you some insight, and excitement, for what may be a real gem of 2022.
Saturnalia is coming soon on the Epic Games Store, though no set date just yet. Other consoles releases are TBA, but if you’re looking to spook yourself out later this year, you should have this on your list.