Review: Dementium: The Ward (Nintendo DS)

Dementium: The Ward
Publisher: Gamecock Media Group
Developer: Renegade Kid
Genre: First Person Shooter/Survival Horror
Release Date: 10/31/2007

Here’s the thing. We all know I’m not a fan of first person shooters. I generally find them to be boring in the same way I find platformers to be boring. Lots of running back and forth with little to no plot development equals waste of Alex’s time. I’m also not a fan of most survival horror, as they tend to be more about gore and cheap scares than any real intricate terror or a well thought out story about a haunting. There are of course exceptions to both dislikes, but for the most part it rings true.

So you may be finding it odd that I am reviewing a game that combines the two genres. Well there are several reasons for this. First: It was Halloween. This type of game is all too appropriate for the season. Second, I like to give Indy publishers their due. Generally the Indy publishers put out some GREAT horror/terror games, that make me hate series like Silent Hill and Haunting Ground all the more. Third, it’s been a while since I reviewed a DS game, and this will probably be my last one unless something remarkable comes out for the system. I’ve been VERY disappointed with the DS so far and at this point in its life span, I doubt it will be improving any time soon in terms of quality. Finally, the game takes place in a haunted creepy hospital/insane asylum. I like the setting idea and all of those things combined into a “WTF, let’s do this.”

The question is, was this a Halloween Treat, or a Halloween Trick?

Let’s Review

1. Story

After a pretty interesting opening in which you are on a gurney being shunted through the creepiest hospital ever, you awaken in your room with amnesia. As you walk around your room trying to figure out who you are, you discover a tablet of paper that reads “Why did you do it?” As you walk out of your room, you hear a recording over the loudspeaker that there has been some kind of emergency in the hospital and everyone must evacuate immediately. You also find a scrap of paper about a husband killing his wife in crazy fashion for no good reason and a few seconds later the word, “Murderer” painted across a wall. If within the first minute of the game, you can’t figure out the back story of your character with this massive sledgehammer being rammed at you, then I weep for your future.

There really isn’t much to the plot besides putting these tiny hints together. There is a strange looking girl that keeps running from you throughout the game. There are monsters in the building for reasons that aren’t really explained and strange little puzzles. If you are looking for character development or something of substance, you won’t find it here. Just 3-6 hours of killing things and eating pills.

I will say that the ending is interesting as there are three distinct ways to interpret it. Either the entire game is all in your mind and is a metaphor or getting sane, that the game is not over when its over and the real creepy torment is about to begin, or its just a straight up creepy hospital filled with monsters thanks to a whack job other than your character. The ending is definitely the best part of the story, but then it’s really the only story and some gamers will no doubt be vexed by the open ended nature of the reveal. In the end what little story there is does place the game under a Scientific Horror vs. Supernatural Horror debate, and there’s very little of that in gaming.

What little plot there is strikes me as heavily plagiarized from The Suffering. Just replace the prison with a hospital and remove 95% of the characterization and you have Demenitum. It’s just The Suffering was better in every way possible.

If you’re looking for a good story, you won’t find it here. If you’re looking for three to six hours of killing things with the barest threads of plot sewn on to the game at either end, welcome to Dementium.

Story Rating: 3/10

2. Graphics

Visually, this is one of the best games on the DS I’ve seen. The backgrounds are creepy and realistic. It seems like Renegade Kid spent a lot of time looking at actual hospital plans to design the levels of the game. The problem is that the scenery gets really repetitive at times. Thankfully just about the time you’re sick of seeing yet another blood splattered hallway with weird drawings or handprints, you get something new to look at.

The monsters are well designed, but many of them again feel ripped from other games like Doom 3 and The Suffering. Others come straight from other video games. Remember how annoying Medusa Heads are in Castlevania? Well, they’re even worse in Dementium. They’re quite creepy looking through and just the noise they make will make you curse as you know the inevitable is coming

There are some pretty gruesome scenes for a DS/Nintendo console title, like an old man getting his head bit off the first time you find a gun. After the scene, you can walk over and look at the body lying there on the ground in all its headless wonder. I’m still visually impressed by Dementium every time I turn it on. There may be little to no originality/creativity in the title, but for a DS game, this is probably the standard bearer for graphics on the system.

Graphics Rating: 10/10

3. Sound

The game is rather disappointing musically. The atonal track just loops back and forth whenever there is background music to be heard and after a while it really detracts from the game. I realize it is supposed to be creepy, but its not. It’s just pain to your eardrums. Thankfully you can turn it off.

Monster noises are quite good. You’ll eventually learn to tell what monster is ahead by the noise it makes. I’ve always been a fan of spooky games where you can hear the monster before you can see it. Sometimes it is a pain trying to figure out which direction the noise is coming from, but that seems to be more a DS technical limitation than the fault of the game itself.

The heartbeat meter is an interesting addition. It’s not the first game to monitor something like this. Remember Illbleed? You have my deepest sympathies if you do. I do like the constant reminder that your character is human and the pulse rate brings a little bit more realism to a game where you know, giant slugs with five rows of teeth are trying to eat you. If the beating of your character’s heart is too distracting, you can turn it off, but I’d advise leaving it on to get a better flavor of the game.

The game sounds good and looks amazing. For a lot of gamers these are the two big categories (see Final Fantasy Success stories). In this regard, Dementium is probably an FPS/SH fan’s dream come true.

Sound Rating: 7/10

4. Control and Gameplay

For me, this is the be all and end all of a game. Sadly, most Survival Horror and FPS games fail miserably here. ESPECIALLY when the genres are combined. Remember how god awful Dark Corners of the Earth was? Yuck. That being said, Dementium‘s controls were…okay. Which after games like Alone in the Dark and Resident Evil, this is a pleasant surprise.

There are two control schemes to the game, depending on if you are right handed or left handed. With one, the D pad is your movement controls and the Stylus/Touch Screen combo controls your vision and targeting. With the other, the A/B/X/Y button scheme controls your movement. It’s nice to see that Renegade Kid actually considered lefties and gave them a control pattern to make the game easier to play.

The L and the R button control your items. Hitting R switches between your flashlight and your weapon of choice. L makes you use your weapon or turns your light on/off. These controls can also be flip-flopped depending on what your dominant hand is.

You’ll also have access to that notepad to write clues and codes down on (cheap stylus gimmick, but useful) and you’ll be picking up some poorly done map pages as you continue on your journey. Have fun with those.

In all the controls are good, but the gameplay is where Dementium starts to suffer. First off, the game continues to lack in originality by basically taking the FPS mode from Doom 3. What I mean by this is that you can have a flashlight or a weapon, but not both. It’s like you’ve only got one arm. This level of nonsense/lack of logic annoyed most people with D3 and it’s even worse here because you think someone would have LEARNED FROM THIS GAPING MISTAKE. Alas no. To make matters worse, you are in a hospital that is fully stocked. You can’t get gauze or tape to affix the flashlight to the gun? Insane. Yet, the sniper rifle works fine in pitch blackness. My head hurts.

The other problem tends to be collision detection when using melee weapons. The weapons like the nightstick and saw seem to be hit or miss on whether they actually do damage or not. This is frustrating because there will be occasions when you are out of ammo, and certain enemies are then insanely difficult to hit even if the weapon registered properly. To save yourself some stress and profanity, run a lot. More on that later.

In all the controls are pretty decent. I have some issues with the stylus and precision aiming, but compared to the other two mentioned above, it’s a minor thing that you’ll learn to compensate for. After a plethora or poorly designed SH/FPS games, it’s nice to see Dementium‘s controls don’t suck.

Control and Gameplay: 6/10

5. Replayability

One of the big problems I have with this game is that it’s over in under half a dozen hours and that’s it. The game is exceptionally linear and offers no replay value. Nothing at all changes no matter how many times you go back through the game. There’s no bonuses, nothing to unlock, no new things to discover. It’s just the same old thing. When you factor in the severe balance issues the game has (see the next category), there’s just no reason to play through this a second time. As such, Dementium really isn’t worth its $30 dollar price tag. It looks good, it sounds good, it plays okay, but once you play it, you’ve played it. Maybe someone will really love the game and want to play it multiple times, but with the issues we’ll be looking at later and the lack of any plot or originality, I can’t see there being too many of those.

Replayability Rating: 2/10

6. Balance

And here is where everything falls apart. BIG TIME.

My big complaint is that the game is far too easy, yet on the other hand, exceptionally aggravating. This is accomplished by the fact the game’s save function is well…crap. When you die, and you will die, the game sends you back to the very beginning of the level. Sure you can save the game at any point, but it acts as a quick save. Thus when you die, that save is erased and back to the beginning of the level you go! There is a way around that, which is reset your game as soon as you are about to die. You’ll start back where you saved. This does work and I’ve yet to see anything bad happen yet, but there’s that little worry in my head that some time to someone, it’ll erase their game. So do this at your peril.

Now I know what you’re thinking. “Alex Lucard. The guy who complains about video games having too many continues and being far too easy in 2007 compared to when he was but a lad, just complained that the game makes you work to get to the next level.” This is indeed so. Yes, my Ikaruga obsessed ass has a big problem with this. The reason there used to be limited save points in a game was not due to people trying to make the game HARDER, but because of memory and cartridge limitations. There’s a huge difference there.

I could overlook something like this if the game offered a challenge and thus you felt some degree of accomplishment for getting this far, but alas, this is not the case. The game is amazingly easy. You’ll have more trouble with those damn floating heads than with even the boss battles in the game. Ammo and healing items are everywhere. It’s impossible to stay injured! Even worse, you can run from every single enemy in the game without any difficulty save for those damned heads. Monsters can’t open doors either, and so it’s easy to get to a safe spot and conserve your ammo and health. Snore.

The levels are short, but my god do they feel like they go on forever. And when you die, you have to re-trace every last one of your incredibly linear steps and do the exact same action. This wouldn’t be so bad if the game was say, Gradius where you’re actually doing something and it requires constant hand-eye coordination. But 95% of Dementium is just walking around. Walking, walking, and more walking. Forcing you to go back to the very beginning, even at a boss fight, doesn’t make the game more challenging. It just makes you relive the boredom and tedious bits of the game all over again. This is an illusion of difficulty, not any real challenge, and that reeks of sloppiness. Adding a level reset to an easy game doesn’t balance out the difficulty, it just makes it worse in two extremely opposite ways.

The lack of replayability, originality and balance make it very hard for me to recommend the game to anyone. Still, if you’re a visual gamer and you can live with the repeating of a level when you somehow die, you’ll have some fun with this.

Balance Rating: 3/10

7. Originality

The only thing original about this game is that it’s one of the very few Mature titles on the DS. Maybe the setting of the Hospital from Hell, but that’s it. Monsters are ripped from other games. The basic plot is ripped from other games. Hell, the game even steals from Hell Night which is impressive as it never made US shores. The problem is that with most games that ape the more successful titles in a genre, it’s just not as good as the originals. Even if the original is a mediocre title like Doom 3.

Dementium isn’t a bad game. In some ways it is quite a good game. It just could have used an ounce or three or creativity or innovation instead of being a paint by numbers game.

Originality Rating: 2/10

8. Addictiveness

Dementium is hit or miss here. It’s really easy to get sucked into the game and time flies by while you’re trying every door or exploring every room. You find yourself really enjoying the layout and graphics of the game or walking slowly, listening for strange breathing or ghostly weeping. The DS touch screen really helps you to become absorbed in the game and gives you a much stronger connection that you would have with the run of the mill FPS.

The problems however come in with the save system. I’ve seen a lot of people just put the game down because of it and there have been times where I’ve had the enjoyment sucked out of me knowing I had to replay the entire level from square one. The lack of story and ease of killing everything from a distance wears the game down a bit as well. At least the occasional puzzle (like the DEAD PIANO) kept me interested.

In the end, Dementium is a game of extremes in terms of keeping you glued to your handheld. Your enjoyment will crash and fall depending how war you are in the level and/or how quickly you get bored with the same old enemies, designs of walls and the like. It’s not bad. It’s just not good.

Addictiveness Rating: 5/10

9. Appeal Factor

Look, I generally hate FPS, and Dementium was interested enough to make me agree to review it. Yes it’s a carbon copy, but the atmosphere manages to hold up throughout the game. It’s not my genre, and I accept that. It’s also something to keep in mind if you’re a big FPS fan. I hate the genre and I’m saying “It’s an okay game,” which pretty much tells me if you like FPS, you’ll have fun with Dementium. Maybe not a LOT of fun, or maybe the fun will come to a halt after your first big death and you have to replay an entire level, but its still fun. I was frustrated and bored at times, but even I’d be hard pressed to say the game isn’t fun. It could use a better mapping system though. :

It’s nice to see a pretty decent title of this genre on the DS. FPS fans have the superior Metroid Prime: Hunters title, but this is pretty much it for SH fans. At least the option is there for you now. Just try to come to terms with the saving system.

Appeal Factor: 6/10

10. Miscellaneous

In all, Dementium is a slightly flawed but somewhat enjoyable game. I have to admit I love the idea of the haunted asylum/hospital far more than the actual game itself. It’s like The Suffering in reverse. I really wasn’t a fan of the genre, but I loved the idea of a haunted prison. Then I played it and holy hell, it blew me away. This is the exact opposite where I was disappointed by the final product, but I could still appreciate the things that are good about this particular game.

I can see Dementium achieving cult status in the same way a lot of other indy SH games have. Barrow Hill, Obscure, and Still Life have all achieved the same effect, although I do think all of those games are better. For me though, the flaws of this game were just as apparent as the strengths and they tended to balance each other out. It was a mediocre gaming experience for me and I’d be hard pressed to describe the game as anything more than that. Good looking but with some heavy issues. Hey, it’s like the girls I date.

Miscellaneous Rating: 6/10

The Scores
Story: 3
Graphics: 10
Sound: 7
Control & Gameplay: 6
Replayability: 2
Balance: 3
Originality: 2
Addictiveness: 5
Appeal Factor: 6
Miscellaneous: 6
Overall Score: 50/100

Final Score: 5.0 (Average Game)

Short Attention Span Summary
With little to offer in terms of replay, originality or balance, what could have been a good game slides down to its final resting place in the land of mediocrity. At thirty dollars, it’s just not worth the price tag. At half the cost it would be a great deal, but it’s not worth the wait for the price to drop. It’s not hard to have fun with Dementium, it’s just hard to maintain the desire to keep playing it.