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Sanitarium

Sanitarium
4.5
Platforms: PC
Publisher: ASC Games
Developer: DreamForge
Genres: Adventure / Point and Click
Release Date: April 30, 1998
Game Modes: Singleplayer

You will need to take plenty of pills to get better.

Sanitarium scared me. Deeply and profoundly. This accomplishment is all the more amazing because Sanitarium is an adventure game, with nothing jumping out from behind closed doors and jolting you with sudden, high-pitched screams. Instead, Sanitarium will unnerve you for all the right reasons:  atmosphere, creepy characters, chilling music, and disturbing subject matter. These various elements have been expertly combined by the folks at DreamForge to create a game that produces more genuine scares than most other games, and the experience is an outright enjoyable one.

Right after starting the game, an opening cutscene lays out the basic premise. After surviving a violent car crash, a man wakes up in a filthy cell inside a madhouse that looks more like a run-down prison tower. Everything is wrong – the cell doors are wide open, the patients are out, an alarm is sounding and the guards are nowhere to be seen. Weary, bandaged and with no idea what’s happening, you take control and try to make sense of things.

Descent into Madness

Sanitarium delights in confusing reality with fantasy, memory with imagination, and perception with illusion. Over the next nine levels the story’s hero bounces from one detailed paranoid fantasy to another, always ending up back at the sanitarium between “dreams.” But why do all of his disparate fantasies, if wholly fictional, have so many elements in common? Pay close attention to the movies that pop up along the way; they represent fragments of your memory coming back, and, if they can be deciphered, the whole convoluted mess might start to make sense.

Before you reach that point, however, you’ll get to explore some of the more sumptuous virtual environments you’ve ever seen. Your first big detour takes you to a Children of the Corn-style town, with the adults conspicuously absent (at least, the living adults) and the children in thrall to an enigmatic force they call “Mother.” The next presents you with a doomed circus island, peopled by miserable carnies who are being picked off, one at a time, by tremendous tentacles from the ocean. Other scenarios serve up an old-fashioned haunted house, a crazy comic-book world in which insects and Cyclops are being genetically combined, and a hallucinogenic Aztec nightmare.

6_1Along the way your character morphs from an amnesiac patient to a little girl to a four-armed Cyclops. But things keeps coming back to the sanitarium, and, in particular, to a certain doctor who has been conducting certain unconscionable experiments. The pacing of the game is nothing short of remarkable, achieving a level of narrative tension rarely seen on the PC. This story actually holds together, developing steadily and logically. It avoids the campy kitsch of the Phantasmagoria series. Most significantly, Sanitarium produces a real emotional reaction.

A few small caveats are present. The plethora of cut-scenes, while necessary for the backstory, tend to slow down the action. The branching dialogue trees, while workable, can get extremely involved and therefore make the game seem occasionally talky. Finally, some of the puzzles border on obscure to absurd, but these moments are thankfully rare. You’ll usually find the solution after some careful analysis of your surroundings.

These minor flaws are largely insignificant, however, considering the scope of what Sanitarium accomplishes. Stephen King once said that he recognizes terror as the finest emotion, but if he can’t get it, he’ll go for horror or the gross-out. Sanitarium never lowers itself to a gross-out for a gross-out’s sake; everything here works in service to the overall effect, and that’s quite a feat.


System Requirements: Pentium 166 Mhz, 16 MB RAM, Win 95/98

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