Strangeland Review: Once Upon A Midnight Dreary…

What do you do when stuck in a hellish carnival, witnessing a woman throwing herself to her death on loop? Strangeland might have the answer.

Strangeland is like a Norse Groundhog Day where you’ll repeatedly die, opening up new paths, bathed in mythology, objective and subjective memories, and underlying mental health. I anticipate that the following words won’t do this game enough justice, but please seek this out.

The experience was, how do we say it? Awe-inspiring. Receiving a review code for the game early has allowed me to finish it in time for release, but more importantly, the themes and designs catered to so many of my interests, as I’m sure it will for so many others.

Originally a two-week AdventureJam project for Wormwood Studios and published by Wadjet Eye Games, this adventure soon spiralled into a four-year development. While it may have taken its toll on the team, it’s worth every moment for us, the end-users. 

Strangeland Review – PC via Steam

You play the Stranger in the game. You’ve arrived at this hellish carnival where a woman continually kills herself, and there’s nothing you can do about it. You’re welcomed by a Danny DeVito-like clown, talking ravens from the tales of Grimnir, and an eerie atmosphere that is brilliant. Your goal is to save the woman and stop the Dark Thing that gets in your way.

Strangeland Review - Welcome to paradise
Welcome to paradise. Source: Screen capture

Strangeland features many characteristics from the point and click genre with its on-screen inventory and the ability to combine items, but one thing that’s a little more old school is dying in the game. Like, a lot. But this is a bittersweet mechanic between a Sierra and LucasArts title where yes, you are dead, but no, it’s not a game over. 

The puzzles don’t feel particularly unfair

The only times I got stuck was lighting a torch and a mirror puzzle (which was modified after my second playthrough). Even then, it was something I overlooked and not poorly designed. There is a built-in hint system in the game. Walk up to the payphone in the ‘hub area’ and dial 0. You can’t interact and ask specific questions, but the person on the other side knows what you want. 

It wasn’t until I sat down to play Strangeland while drinking a beer that I plucked up the ‘courage’ to use the system, as I felt I was cheating. The advice is often terse but to the point. That said, the dialogue is full of hints throughout if you pay attention, but not in the sense that it spoils anything for you. Additionally, some of the puzzles can be approached in multiple ways.

Dark Origins

Strangeland is a point and click adventure, and for me, the best way of comparing to any title, at least visually, would be Dark Seed. For years, I wanted this game, and to this day, haven’t played it but saw countless screenshots from the magazines at the time (that’s right, kids, the days before the internet).

Strangeland Review - Masks
Masks. Source: Screen capture

While H.R. Giger could be the first assumed influence, with the organic looking machinery melded with meat bags, it gave off a vibe of Roger Dean downing absynthe at a Heavy Metal convention, then told some very solemn news. It’s not entirely fantasy-based, more nightmarish, but I couldn’t fault the artist, or should I say, artiste? Victor Pflug.

Best of all, the ambient sounds and Brian Eno-like score are perfection

Though the visuals truly are striking, I wasn’t that thrilled about the animation style when the Stranger walked around. It’s a little too janky for my liking, and the perspective goes out of place here and there. This is the opposite of the environmental effects such as lighting, the wind and glitch-like effects where the Stranger appears to be losing their mind. 

I’ve concluded that I’m a bit of a weirdo as I love this sort of thing and can’t get enough. I think the keyword would be ‘reverb’. Similiar tones were found in The Shore – I’m not sure what you call this genre (if anything), but I could listen to it all day.

Norse Code

Presentation aside, the themes and allegories are fantastic. Besides the recurring references to Norse mythology, T.S. Elliot and psychology, there are many personal experiences drawn into the game, as told by the writer of the game, Mark Yohalem. Not that I have all this inside information through investigative journalism, but it’s all available in an optional commentary by the artist (Victor), writer (Mark), and programmer, James Spanos, available from the pause menu.

Strangeland Review - Coz you're ride on time
Coz you’re ride on time, ride on time. Source: Screen capture

I highly encourage you to listen to this after your first playthrough, as there are so many insights that make you appreciate the game more. As intelligent as you think you are, unless you’re an unknowing subscriber to the Dunning-Kruger effect, there will be so much you’re likely to have missed the first time around. I’d be lying if I said I got it all, even after the commentaries, but that’s fine.

But truth be told, Strangeland is a pretty grotesque and candid story. Again, the intention is to be vague so that you can enjoy the experience. It’s not a game about blood and guts or jump scares, but the sheer horror of being out of control, in denial and failure to find one’s identity. It’s a horror in that sense, just don’t expect someone in a Frankenstein suit to crop up in the narrative.

There are a few nods to classic point and click games, but not that tongue-in-cheek fourth wall variety, more the mechanics and design such as The Legend of Kyrandia or perhaps a sequence from The Secret of Monkey Island 2. Everything about this oozed the kind of mystique and charm from the days of the Amiga, possibly another reason for comparing to Dark Seed. For that, as the reasons above, Strangeland is undoubtedly one of my favourite adventure games right now.

If it isn’t crystal clear enough, I love Strangeland, and in the short time of the initial announcement of its release up until playing it, it was well worth that wait. It had that much of an impact that I played it immediately after finishing, then added Primordia to my basket without any further thought. Essential, as far as I’m concerned.

By the way, don’t look up ‘Teratoma’.

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