Over the last few years, we’ve been seeing a surge of interest in the rendering styles of late-90’s consoles: the PlayStation, Saturn, Nintendo 64. It provides a framework that allows for lo-fi titles to come across as more polished rather than seeming lazy, doing wonders for plenty of solo developers out there. Low poly counts, tiny textures meant to stretch and blur to accomodate CRTs, leading to smaller, self-contained games that allow for a greater breadth of artistic expression to reach fruition. From this, dozens of microindies have emerged making a name for themselves as trailblazers of this new frontier of visual nostalgia.
Enter James Wragg (@LovelyHellplace) and their latest release, Penitent Dead, made for the Haunted PSX Gamejam. Unlike a lot of the other entries, this title is not so much an out-right horror game or thriller, but more so an exploration of space and time.
You play as a Knight of the Black Order, sent on a mission to the nearby island of Arberth after a ziggurat has appeared in the skies above. Plopped into the world in front of a dying man, they quickly offer the advice that you down your own supply of poison, as the horrors ahead of you aren’t something you’ll be able to withstand. What follows is a series of near-Metroidvania styled puzzles, in which you have to travel about collecting various pieces of equipment to traverse further.
The level in which this all takes place is a tight, near-loop of a forest. Scattered in it are spell books, a sword, keys, and variegated corpses. These items allow you to pass through magical barriers, cut down flesh-walls, and commune with cadavers to understand the inner machinations of their lives prior to their demise. The latter is the most intriguing aspect, as it prompts the player to revisit previously traversed paths for lore rather than equipment, a mechanic not too dissimilar from Cryostasis central puzzle mechanic.
As mentioned, this game isn’t about inducing fear or combat, but instead understanding this place and its greater context. No need for exposition dumps here, things are subtly laid out and presented in ways that only hint at the expanse of this plane. Its factions, the ominous ziggurat floating over you, and the insect hordes tied to it, aren’t explained. You are simply part of this metaphysical ecosystem, playing your role for the sliver of time you’re allowed to be here.
Ultimately, Penitent Dead does an excellent job of crafting atmosphere above all else. The jitters of its affine texture mapping, emulating the rendering style of the PSX, lends a sense of unease by making the environment itself feel pulsating, semi-fluid, ready to morph or dissipate at a moments notice. Your short glimpse into this world ends all too soon, and leaves you desperate for more. While the insect hordes ravage the townsfolk, you’re left with the charge of reporting what you’ve seen on Arberth to The Privy Council. Who are they? What is the ziggurat? Is there a greater war looming beneath the surface?
One can only wonder. This place is fleeting, but the time spent here is invigorating, and we can only hope for more meaty experiments like this one from Wragg in the future.
Penitent Dead can be found on itch.io
Catherine Brinegar is a trans game developer and filmmaker who explores the surreal and abstract in her work. Beyond her creative endeavors she enjoys losing herself inside other worlds, interactive and not. Finding inspiration in everything, Catherine aims to see all the world has to offer, through the continual conversation of art. You can keep up with her on twitter @cathroon.