Everything you need to know about Dementium is encapsulated in the name. Dementium. If you say it slowly enough you can actually feel your tongue being baffled.
In pulling off this trick it joins a legion of other successful survival horror games with stupid names. Take Silent Hill. As opposed to those noisy hills? Resident Evil. No less stupid a name that Mobile Evil if you think about it. The fact that Dementium’s nailed the ridiculous naming conventions of its forbears may seem a strange starting point, but it’s indicative of the approach that developer Renegade Kid has taken with its subject matter. Right from the off, this is a game carefully framed in the conventions of the genre, and sometimes even handcuffed to them.
And when I say “right from the off”, I mean it. The beginning of Dementium finds you waking up in a stinking, derelict hospital with no memory of why or how you got there. The hospital could easily have been lifted from almost any of the Silent Hill games. It’s draped in the same seven shades of brown and possesses the same nightmarish ambience that suggests you’ll wake up any minute, though there’s every possibility that you’ll wake up to something worse.
There’s blood on walls, locked doors galore and fluorescent lighting that flickers but never wholly illuminates. Discordant piano notes contrast with the constant throb of your heartbeat as half-seen things drag bodies into the darkness. Dementium is a game you’ll want to wash off when you’ve finished playing it. For a survival horror there’s no higher compliment.
Even more impressive is that you’ll be seeing all this from a first-person perspective. No stupid camera angles and obscured enemies for this beastie. The stylus acts like your mouse allowing you to look around, the D-pad controls movement and pressing the left shoulder button allows you to thwack baddies on the bonce. Here again, Dementium takes its lead from Silent Hill. Enemies are the sorts of twisted, fleshy things that could easily have been drawn by an orphan who’s just butchered his foster parents. They’re also intriguingly varied, with my personal favourites being the flesh eating cockroaches that scuttle out of the pipes and retreat under the glare of your torch.
Ah yes, the torch. Dementium borrows Doom 3’s trick of allowing you to hold either your torch or a weapon, but never both at the same time. This is one of those gaming memes that tends to draw the ire of people who were never going to enjoy the game anyway, so I’m not going to bother arguing it.
As artificial a game construct as the torch/weapon choice is, it’s justified in that split second after a butcher knife-wielding nutter crashes through a door. Will you flip off the torch, get out the gun and wait in darkness for his appearance? Or leave the light on and try and speed past, hoping not to catch a knife in the back?
And bear in mind, all this technically wizardry is achieved on Nintendo’s pathetically underpowered DS. It’s a stunning technical achievement up there with RockStar’s recent GTA: Chinatown Wars and Metroid Prime Hunters. They could have ported the game to a matchbox and I couldn’t have been more impressed. Though this is not to say the limitations of the platform aren’t evident.
You’ll walk through the same rooms and corridors so often that you fear wearing holes in them. Renegade Kid also subscribe to the school of thought that says if an enemy is worth fighting once, he’s worth fighting fifty times. This isn’t helped by a control system that, while wonderfully intuitive, is a mite twitchy. That maggot-ridden boss monster may be filling your screen and cleaving your head in, but that’s no guarantee you’ll actually be able to hit him back.
Aiming often seems a matter of chance rather than skill – especially infuriating when ammo’s so scarce. Equally gloomy is the fact that enemies always spawn in the same spot, meaning difficult sections can often be navigated by simply memorising the spawn patterns of the baddies.
All of which is important, and yet, strangely not. Because Dementium is a survival horror, and for better or worse, they’ve always come with a few foibles we’ve been expected to overlook. Take Resident Evil’s clunky control system, or Dead Space’s sitting-on-the-shoulder camera angle.
Dementium is a survival horror game right down to its rotten feet, and it almost wouldn’t feel right if it wasn’t wilfully annoying in some way. At the end of the day, you’ll shoot lots of things, solve simple puzzles, forage for clues, maps, weapons and ammo for the six or so hours of gameplay. If that’s your cup of tea, you’ll find Dementium a repetitive, oddly addictive treat. If you don’t, you probably haven’t read this far and it doesn’t matter.
Like I said, it’s all in the name. Dementium. Ridiculous.
Dementium is out now.