Saturnalia – Game Review

It’s a rare thing to play a horror game that wants to scare you, that wants to make you feel helpless, and still wants you to have a good time and come back for more. A lot of being a horror game fan is persevering through cheap stealth mechanics and punishing surprises. Saturnalia is the rare game that will scare you, chase you down, catch you, and punish you, but then extend a hand out and ask you to keep going. It’s the empathy that makes it a winner.

I can think of at least four or five instances where I thought, “wow that’s so smart,” to myself while playing this game. Saturnalia is full of little touches that suggest the team behind it cares that you see it through.

You begin the game as Anita, a woman who’s been living in the small Mediterranean village of Gravoi for about a year. She meets a man, has an affair, gets pregnant, and at the start of the game, is off to meet this man and tell him she’s leaving. Little does she know this is the day of a long-running festival for the town, the start of a strange ritual that will leave her stranded along with three others that have their own history with the town.

Once night falls, your goal is to explore the town and begin unraveling the mystery of, well, just about everything. Why is the town closed off from the world? Who are these people you’re trying to survive with? What’s the history of Gravoi? And perhaps most importantly, why is this creature chasing you around the town in the most creepy possible way?

Discovering clues is as simple as walking around and interacting with everything you find. As you interact with new items, the story behind them gets added to a massive clue board in your menu. What makes it challenging is the aforementioned creature that will capture your cast of protagonists one-by-one, and a maze-like town that reshuffles its layout every time you lose all four characters.

The resulting cocktail is an elevated take on Slenderman with a pinch of mystery/puzzle games like Outer Wilds and Return of the Obra Dinn. You’ll uncover the mystery behind everything nonlinearly and you’re expected to piece it all together on your own organically. 

The reshuffling of the town ensures that you almost always feel a little bit lost, but the game has smart systems in place that also ensure you’re never frustrated or stuck for too long. For example, every location you discover in the town is memorized by Anita. Even after a reshuffle, you can use her ability to point towards a destination and retrace your steps. 

Each character has a different set of abilities. Claudia, a local teen with a bone to pick with the whole town, can squeeze between bar fencing to access unique areas and shortcuts. The trade-off is that not only is the creature pursuing her, but her dad is out looking for her too. Get caught and he’ll drag you back to the family house, where you have to escape and outrun him again.

As you fill in the board of clues, a rich narrative intertwining the town history and the backstory of your group begins to come together. Some of the clues become steps in a series of main and side quests that open the way to a variety of endings to the game. Even after finishing the game, I felt compelled to dive back in and attempt alternative endings, finally getting close to something that felt like the “true” ending after about 10 hours.

Being pursued in a maze-like town over that amount of time sounds like a nightmare, but most of the time avoiding the creature is as simple as running to a corner somewhere and holding a button to cover your eyes. If you’re hiding and covering your eyes, the creature will go away after a short time. There’s a bit of magic here, as the hiding mechanic never trivializes the creature. It will still eventually see you, chase you, and capture you. The system feels intuitive and fair, with a great balance of tension and pacing.

It’s easy to call Saturnalia a sort of horror roguelike, but the impact of a game over is so minor that it never felt like I was starting from scratch. You keep every clue you find, and as you get further into the game, you open up avenues to easily reacquire all the tools you collect over the course of your journey. You get to have the satisfaction of setting up that one perfect run to the ending, but the path to get there is cleverly streamlined.

Saturnalia feels like a rare treat for horror fans. Its creature is creepy and its world is compelling. It has friction but it’s rarely frustrating. It weaves a complex narrative that’s rewarding to piece together. It’s a brilliantly-designed slice of folk-indie horror that deserves to be played and wants to be taken seriously. It’s a true success.

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