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More of an experience than a game -- but a good one.

  • Gibmaker
  • 05/27/2008 09:31 PM
There is a lot in Sainth to invite comparisons with a dream, one of those epic dreams that seems to span a lifetime, but of which you only remember fragments afterward.

There are two styles of gameplay in Sainth. One is a custom side-scrolling system in which the protagonist, Lily, explores a strange, lifeless world, searching for glowing orbs that restore part of her memory. The other isn't really gameplay at all, but a lengthly graphic novel. It's impossible to say that this game is either a side-scroller with graphic novels thrown in, or a graphic novel with side-scrollers thrown in, since both facets have equal weight in the game design. Remarkably, though, they seem almost exclusive of each other, taking place in, so to speak, completely different worlds. Although Lily is the protagonist in both sections, the graphic novel tells a story in the real world that seems totally disjointed from the desolate landscape you explore in the side-scrollers, which has its own history, revealed via reminiscent remarks by the sainths (white glowing creatures) you encounter there. This disjointedness, as well as the spooky atmosphere in the map design and music, give the game a strange, David-Lynch-esque aura, where you have to wonder exactly what is important and meaningful around you. If you earn the Good Ending then you're treated to the Big Reveal in terms of how the two worlds connect.

In terms of the side-scrolling gameplay, the creator didn't program anything beyond basic movement. You have a comprehensive range of actions at your disposal (you can jump gaps, mantle ledges, push and climb on movable blocks, climb ladders and use monkey bars) and all these actions are fully animated and almost bug-free, but there is absolutely no playable combat, or any dangers to the player character at all in the side-scrolling areas. Basically, it's impossible to "lose". There are two endings, and the better one is found by accomplishing a number of extra tasks before finishing the game, but other than that you can never die or get stuck.

A playable tutorial is accessible at any time from a save point if you forget how to perform any of the movement actions.

(The side-scrolling system does suffer from occasional bugs. I almost didn't realise you could climb the frozen tower at all because Lily wouldn't climb the very first ledge no matter what I did and I assumed it was un-climbable.)

Since movement is the only thing you can do in the playable portion of the game, the entire game is structured around movement. Essentially, all you do in the game is explore, climbing and jumping from place to place. There aren't even puzzles, aside from a few cases of having to visit location X for information / an item before accessing location Y. (And one rather devious trick with a pushable block and a stained-glass window.) The result is that the playable part of the game is almost an extension of the graphic novel, where all you do is advance Lily to the next area and see what happens. Add to it the haunting soundtrack, and you have a slow, strange game that you experience rather than play.

I must remark that I don't criticise Neok for designing the game in this way; it's one of the things that contributes to the dream-like nature of the game. A sense of threat is achieved simply by way of story and atmosphere, and the lack of gameplay danger allows the player to become immersed in the world, rather than always being jumpy and alert. I liked exploring all the different environments, thanks to the evocative music and fascinating map design. (I'd compare this quality of the game to Myst.)

And the world is downright spooky, from the barren landscapes to the enigmatic frozen tower to the melancholy shrine to the very unpleasant crypt. You encounter no other life except for a group of miners, but after a certain point even they turn out to have been out of place. Little details mess with your brain, like the candles in the asylum shrine going out after you've collected the sainth fragment, or the mine's back exit opening only after you think you're stuck.

As for the graphic novel, it's broken into eight segments that you encounter bit by bit as you move around the world. Be warned that the graphic novel is basically an army of text boxes. There are background images and renditions of all the speakers, but I was still squirming at times, especially during the third and fourth installments which use basically the same background and character graphic for the whole thing.

The writing is a cut above the norm for an RPG Maker game, as you'd hope it would be in a game based largely on textual narrative, but it's not perfect. Like many fantasy/sci-fi stories, a lot of words are wasted explaining the "rules" of the world, and the coveted Good Ending is mostly an infodump about black holes. The style can be verbose in general: "This may well affect all of us in a very momentous manner." But there are high points and the story itself is artfully crafted, with vivid characters (like the supremely unlikeable Barnes Etcher) and several tear-jerking scenes. The previous two reviewers both admitted to choking up -- of course, this was certainly aided by Mai Hime's piano ballad on the soundtrack.

I hate you, Mai Hime. And you too, Neok.

This sort of game isn't for everyone. Many players wouldn't have the patience to sit through the text-laden graphic novels, and the absence of dangers in the playable sections might make them seem pointless. The creator provides an extensive apologia (in the special features) in which he explains that the game started as an experiment in programming an RM2K side-scroller, which he later fluffed into a short-but-releasable game so as not to waste all that work; so it sounds like he's saying, "Sorry there isn't more to this." But, for what it is, the elements of Sainth combine to create a very particular, visceral experience, and I enjoyed it.

Rating: 3.5 / 5

Best features: Programming and original art.

Best graphic novel chapter: Kana's Manor. AAAHHHH.

Best made-up word: Contraversely

Advice: Look carefully at your environment to see if there are features you can interact with to advance. Did you know there's a ladder on the west side of the tall tower in the asylum? I didn't, for the longest time. Another reviewer also didn't realise you can monkey-bar with the ceiling vines in the caves.