The Church in the Darkness is one of those games that had me intrigued from the second I happened to stumble upon its teaser trailer. Telling a story involving civil rights, religion and cultists, where your choices matter and there are multiple paths to completion, I saw some promise in this newest title from Paranoid Productions.
Set in the 1970s, the story takes place in an area dubbed "Freedom Town". Located deep in the South American jungle, it was founded by a charismatic preacher couple called Issac and Rebecca Walker. Disillusioned by US society, and the turbulent battle for civil rights happening at this time, they decided to set up and run this new town based on "a gospel of integration, equality and socialism." Most of the congregation, almost 500 strong, also set off with them, hoping to bring the dream to fruition, and to aid in the creation of this new world. Among these parishioners is an idealistic teenage boy named Alex and, after months of no communication or information from the town, his mother has had enough. Filled with worry, and desperate for any news of her son, she decides to call on her family for help.
And that's where you come in.
You play the role of Vic, an ex-cop, as well as Alex's uncle/aunt (depending on whether you choose to be male or female), and it's your job to infiltrate the compound, to make contact with Alex, and in the process, find out what is happening in this town. Apart from these vague points though, many of the goals will be up to you, and will actually change the story depending on the decisions and actions you take. So let me explain that, shall I?
You see "The Church in the Darkness" has roguelike elements, but not in the usual way. Instead of level layouts, enemy types etc changing each run, here it's actually the personalities of the preachers, and other main characters, that change each time. This can lead to situations where Alex is pleased to see you on one run, and not at all happy that you've shown up the next. Whether you take him home, or leave him behind is also up to you, and either decision will play out differently depending on the personalities of the preachers.
And that's because the Walkers personality also changes each run, and their actions and plans will lead to a variety of different endings. They may be using brutal torture to keep control, they may be holding dissenters children as hostages, or even just planning to kill everyone who steps out of line. Of course, the opposite might also be true, and they are entirely sincere in their beliefs, just wish to be left alone, and to live in peace. Other decisions you make will also affect the story too, as killing cult members might infuriate or scare the preachers, while helping the various side characters you encounter will cause other changes. There are a few of these characters you can stumble across, with a random chance they'll appear each run, and they all have a sub-quest to give you. You might be finding evidence of where they sent a parishioners kids for "protection", uncovering hidden plans to keep order or even finding proof of war crimes. Returning this evidence to the relevant person will complete their mission, and will also change the ending in various ways. Proving bad intent on the leaders part for instance, can lead to an assassination and actually results in the cult becoming a force for good. Helping other characters might cause a mass exodus, or alternatively, you can totally ignore them, causing other effects completely. Each run has a few ways it can be completed, with both good and bad endings, and there are actually around 19 in all to obtain, making replayability a key feature. Discovering these endings, and finding the various info, letters and propaganda relating to them, is one of the parts that entertained me the most. Not only are they well written and well voiced, they contain stories both uplifting and heartbreaking, with many mirroring or referencing real life historical events. These various stories, newspaper clippings, letters home to family and the constant speeches over loudspeaker from the preachers themselves, all provide an interesting narrative, and were a major highlight.
No matter what ending you're aiming for though, no matter the side characters involved, or the preachers personality type this run, the basic minute-to-minute gameplay loop will play out in a similar fashion each time. All the action takes place from above, and this top-down point of view is useful in keeping track of your surroundings. The cell shaded graphics do their job, you can easily see paths through trees, locations of buildings etc but they aren't anything special to look at. Overall the game relies more on text, and it's excellent voice acting, to shift along the narrative. Each run will begin the same. You'll spawn on the edge of the map, with a marker telling you to head to a certain area. This is where you'll meet a contact who knows the location of Alex, and this should usually be your first port of call. Unfortunately, though points of interest, character locations and item placements change each turn, the map you play in will always be the same. This, coupled with its small size and bland design, actually makes moving around a chore, and you don't have many ways to make life easier. The various areas that make up Freedom Town are little more than jungle clearings, most of which are filled with simple one room bamboo shacks, and are patrolled by the church members. When these guys spot you, they'll run off to raise the alarm or, in many cases, just start shooting. Unfortunately dealing with them is simple and gets boring quickly. There are only two enemy types, unarmed villagers and guards with guns, and the options to deal with them are rather few.
First up is simply avoidance. All enemies have vision cones, which appear when you press B, and will begin to fill if you enter them. Most of the time though, if you're quick, you can actually run through the cones before being fully spotted, and I actually found this worked 90% of the time. There are places where the guards have a choke point or some such though, and this is when you'll need to distract or neutralise. You can throw stones, or use items like Alarm clocks, to distract them, letting you slip past. You can also creep up behind unsuspecting guards, and either knock them out for a few seconds, or kill them completely, with a quick button press. That's kinda it though, unless of course, everything goes to hell and you need to shoot your way out. You can auto aim your gun, if you have one, by holding "L" and fire a shot by hitting "R". Remember though, killing enemies has an effect on the story, so you'll probably be trying the stealthy, non-lethal approach for the most part.
And here again, I felt disappointed because it's also lacking in depth. There are no long grasses you can hide in, no roofs or trees to climb along, or ventilation shafts to wriggle through. You can hide in cupboards and chests etc, but it's easier to just run and dodge vision cones most of the time. Another frustrating part is the actual design of the town itself. It's really boring and bland, made up of simple jungle paths that link together various clearings that are very sparsely populated with shacks, but packed with enemies. None of these buildings are particularly memorable, and are reused all over the map, making telling locations apart very difficult. There are almost no big or memorable buildings at all in the game. Scattered around the various areas are small chests, cupboards and the like, each of which take a few seconds to search through before telling you what you've discovered. The items didn't feel that inspired either though, and most of them are rather simple. A piece of metal that will destroy alarms, medi-kits and food to heal, alarmclocks that act as lures, guns, chloroform and many others make an appearance but none feel particular special or unique. After the first few endings, you will unlock some new ones but I fear most won't stick around that long. Once you know the ropes, you quickly get into a routine each run where you simply bolt towards the first informant, searching buildings along the way, while looking out for side characters, and the large white churches that are always filled with Intel. This loop quickly became rather repetitive. With no unique or cool abilities to use, alternative paths to take or interesting ways to move around, simply getting from point A to point B becomes a chore and I'd have liked more variety here.
Ultimately, I was disappointed in my time with Church in the Darkness. The changing personalities of the preachers is an interesting feature, and is one I'd like to see implemented in other games, while the story and setting are well written. The background historical information, as well as the side quest stories, are particularly interesting, shining a light on a dark time in our recent history. Discovering the various letters and stories was a standout part, and one that was certainly a highlight for me. The basic gameplay however, was very simple and felt uninspired. The enemies only have basic patrol patterns, and the tools you're given to deal with them are also pretty simple. Unlocking new endings does introduce new items for the next run, but even these additions don't add much variety. While the story and setting are worth a look, I wouldn't go in expecting some amazing stealth game. Go in for the storylines alone and you'll probably find something to enjoy here. Go in expecting gameplay of Splinter Cell proportions though, and you'll probably be rather disappointed.
Note: A copy of the game was provided for the purposes of the review.
Final Score: 5.5/10
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