ECSTATICA / Psygnosis / PC

So it's Northern Europe, 928 A.D. and you're some kind of traveller, roaming about on a horse and low on wata. You stop in some weird mountain village from which the only entrance and exit is a bridge over a real long drop. Unfortunately you quickly find out that the village has been overrun by anthropomorphic animal demons headed up by a nearly invincible werewolf who starts stalking you around the joint once he notices that you're there.

That's the setting of Ecstatica in a nutshell. The gameplay is basically a clone of Alone In The Dark, making it yet another "survival horror" game that came out before Resident Evil did. So right up front you've got the standard "tank controls" of the genre, which are always cumbersome and never much fun to deal with. Ecstatica makes it even more of a pain in the balls, however, by mapping everything to the numeric keypad. You move with the cardinal directions, the upper two corner keys swing with each of your hands, and the lower two corner keys pick stuff up with each hand. The middle button (5) makes you dodge.

With this control scheme, right away you can probably see some issues here. The main one is that there's no inventory system - you can only carry two things at a time, one in each hand. Did I mention the game is made up of almost nothing of "bring item A to point B" fetch quests and item-chains? If you hated backtracking for keys and ammo in RE, just wait till you experience this one ...

People playing on a laptop also run into the issue of the numeric keypad generally not existing for them. Most laptops have a virtual numeric keypad, which you toggle on and off by pressing Fn-NumLock, but it's generally smack in the middle of the keyboard in a bad position for your hands to be resting for long periods. DOSBox is virtually required to run this game for laptop users, as you can press Ctrl-F1 in-game to remap the numeric keypad events via mouse to other keys or a joypad. Granted, Ecstatica came out in the early '90s and couldn't have anticipated the rise of laptops as a common computing platform, but it also could have simply solved issues like this by allowing you to remap keys in-game or offering a native joypad mode, neither of which it does.

Once you finally get the controls sorted out you're up against the brutal difficulty. Enemies are numerous (and sometimes respawning), useful weapons are few, and you can't take much damage. I guess you heal simply by hanging out for a bit without getting hurt, as after getting the shit beat out of me I noticed the character was no longer hunching over while moving once I'd explored a few other screens unmolested. That's another thing - no life bar, your health is just sort of vaguely indicated by the character hunching over more and more and moving with more of a limp.

A lot of the enemies can actually be punched to death with relative ease - which is particularly funny when you do it to a low-flying baby dragon early in the game - but the main problem is the nigh-invincible werewolf that keeps appearing to chase you around. He has absolute shit tons of "trigger points" where he always appears, constantly interrupting the action and forcing you to flee looking for a hiding place (which are scarce) or one of the few random areas that he doesn't follow you into for some reason. Some of these trigger points also cause him to automatically capture you, which not only brings your health down to near-zero, but also takes away your hard-to-replace weapon! You also really can't avoid them, they're along all the main paths you need to repeatedly traverse to accomplish the game's objectives. The werewolf does take cumulative damage over time, and it's possible to eventually kill him, but fights with him generally involve taking a lot more damage than you dish out and getting killed pretty quickly. You've got no hope until much later in the game when you're armed better. Until then it's chase after chase, which are irritating given there's no fluidity to the movement. You can't turn at all while running - to turn you have to stop, then turn, then start running again, even to just turn a little bit. The only thing that saves your ass is that all the monsters are also subject to this weird movement rule.

And then there's the camera angles. Like RE and so many other games of this type, you progress through a series of fixed shots that change as you move about. The ones here seem poorly thought out, however, or at least arranged to be intentionally confusing and make you lose track of what direction you're going in. They also often switch to extremely unhelpful angles in the middle of combat situations.

There's a number of people - enough to merit a sequel - who put up with all this crap because the game also has some compelling qualities. The animated characters all use "ellipsoid" technology, meaning they're composed entirely of oblong balls and spheres instead of standard polygons. I'm not sure if this saves on processing power somehow, but it does certainly give them an odd and unique look. The ellipsoids also contribute to the general theme of the game not deciding if it wants to be horror or comedy, and trying to do both at once, transitioning between them sometimes at bizarre moments. You see some really weird and gruesome shit in this one, but because it's made up of all these goofy ball characters, it's often hard to take seriously. The game really does have a unique atmosphere and style and you do want to explore it and see what the hell is going on here and what weirdness the designers will throw at you next.

Ultimately, it's not worth it, though. And the thing that finally broke the camel's back and made me quit playing on this review run (I actually completed the game over a decade ago back on my old 486, with help from a walkthrough) was how often the goddamn game crashes out to DOS. And this isn't a DOSBox thing, I remember it doing this on my proper DOS computer years ago as well. Something to do with using mass amounts of EMS, games that do that are frequently unstable, but this one particularly so. The game is basically a long masochistic exercise and the random craziness that it throws out to amuse you just isn't worth the pain of dragging through it and replaying segments over and over and over. If you're really curious about it for some reason I seriously suggest just watching an LP instead of trying to play it.

Videos :

* Gameplay Video
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