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Game Info:

The Church in the Darkness
Developed By: Paranoid Productions
Published By: Fellow Traveller
Released: August 2, 2019
Available On: macOS, PlayStation 4, Windows, Switch, Xbox One
Genre: Action, Stealth
ESRB Rating: M for Mature: Blood; Drug Reference, Strong Language, Violence
Number of Players: single player
Price: $19.99
(Humble Store Link)

Thank you, Paranoid Productions, for sending us a review code!

Throughout history, groups of people have left their country of origin and attempted to create a place that they can call their own. The United States of America being one of the most well-known examples of that. It is a topic that is rarely touched upon in media, but developer Paranoid Productions and publisher Fellow Traveller enter into the subject matter with The Church in the Darkness, an action-stealth hybrid with a top-down perspective and a dynamic narrative that changes with each playthrough.

The main plot is always the same: in the 1970s a group of people, dissatisfied with how the US is treating their citizens, country, and how the government is running things decide to flee the country and make an establishment they can call their own. The cult named the Collective Justice Mission takes refuge in the jungles of South America and this establishment they name Freedom Town. Freedom Town is run by Preacher Issac Walker and Rebecca Walker who swear that they will not make the same mistakes that America did.

Of course, since a rather large group of people leave the country all at once, relatives of these missing people and the US government are going to be curious as to what’s happening behind all the trees—especially Stella. Stella is Alex’s mother and Vic’s (the player character) sister. Alex is one of the people that joined the Collective Justice Mission and like any mother is worried as to what is happening or what might have happened to Alex. Due to Vic’s connections and experience as an ex-law enforcement officer, Stella asks of Vic to infiltrate Freedom Town to simply find out what Alex is doing.

The main objective is to find Alex, inquire about his status, and then leave with or without him. This part is when the dynamic narrative starts to take place, right from where your spawn location is (as its different every time). Depending on the note from Stella that you start with, you’ll get an insight into the preacher’s personality for that specific gameplay loop, as well as what important NPC to speak to. The NPC that spawns is random and can range from a selection of six. When spoken to, they can give more insight into how Issac and Rebecca operate, and a general location to where Alex is located. Depending on actions taken before meeting these people, they may not be so willing to give out information.

On the intercoms throughout Freedom Town, you’ll hear Issac and Rebecca speak to the townsfolk. Paying attention to their dialogue gives off hints on how Issac and Rebecca are as people. In some paths, Issac and Rebecca are generally good-natured people. They do still have their negative views on America as a country, but many of their speeches take verses and quotes from the Bible such as Matthew 5:14, while also talking about God’s love for mankind. Other paths make Issac and Rebecca into hypocrites, with the selected NPC and even Alex talking about how they are just as guilty of all the actions that they lambaste America for. And in the last set of paths, Issac and Rebecca are against each other, with one of them being good and one of them being corrupt.

The Church in the Darkness
Highlights:

Strong Points: Solid voice acting; interesting setting; lots of replayability with 19 different endings; dynamic personalities with Issac and Rebecca
Weak Points: Poor AI; mechanics tend to sometimes work; not enough variation in the gameplay
Moral Warnings: R-rated language such as “f*ck”, “sh*t”; blasphemous language; some routes tackle the usage of drugs and narcotics; violence, with some routes and endings making the player character into a mass murderer

Issac’s voice is excellent, with John Patrick Lowrie (best known as The Sniper from Team Fortress 2) being his voice actor. Lowrie gives off a sincere and powerful performance as Issac, being soft-spoken when needed while also showing off just how angry Issac can get when talking about America. Rebecca is voiced by Ellen McLain (best known as GlaDOS from the Portal series), and she does just as good of a job as Lowrie does. Rebecca sounds very authoritative while being comforting and inspiring all the same. Even Alex (voiced by Arif S. Kinchen) has a good voice. Although not as good as Issac and Rebecca simply due to not having nearly as many lines as the former two, he does sound like a confused kid as to being unsure of what he wants. Each ending is accompanied by a country song that more or less sums up the plot and feel of the ending that you’ve obtained.

Freedom Town takes place in an unknown area of South America. They nailed the isolated feel of the town as it feels secluded from the rest of the modern world. The basic graphics and textures are carried by the art portraits of the characters (which look like a pleasant watercolor painting) and the town aesthetics. Trees, rivers, and little shacks made out of metal and wood are sprawled out everywhere.

I would recommend a controller instead of a keyboard and mouse as the game was not designed with them in mind (even though you can rebind them). They are rather uncomfortable no matter where you put them on the keyboard because you’ll have to be pressing the “sneak” key and the “sprint” key constantly (it started giving me cramps at one point). From my knowledge, keys cannot rebound to any mouse buttons on the side which would work a lot better for sneaking and sprinting. Although controller buttons cannot rebind to other buttons, they are much more comfortable. There's also a strange phenomenon that happens that if you do decide to play with keyboard controls while having a controller plugged in, some button prompts will be overridden by the controller controls and not the KB+mouse.

Now going around Freedom Town requires mostly stealth, as Vic is an unwanted visitor to the area. He will sneak around places, looting closets and chests to find items ranging from weapons, chloroform, disguises, food to replenish health, and sometimes papers or pins that delve deeper into the lore of Freedom Town. Freedom Town has a distinct population and the easiest way of finding what type of citizen is which is through View Mode. Every time you sneak around (Ctrl key or B/Circle), every character has a cone of vision. The regular townsfolk have a pink cone. They are non-threatening but will usually run for the alarm if Vic is spotted. A light brown cone indicates security. They walk around with pistols and will typically shoot if you are spotted after following Vic for a bit. Red cones are more aggressive townsfolk armed with shotguns—acting similar to the security. The most dangerous ones are the guards dressed in green. They are armed with rifles and can mostly be found around where Issac or Rebecca are located. They shoot on sight. Difficulty increases or decreases the amount of these people, with the higher difficulties outright disabling these cones.

The Church in the Darkness
Score Breakdown:
Higher is better
(10/10 is perfect)

Game Score - 62%
Gameplay 10/20
Graphics 7/10
Sound 9/10
Stability 3/5
Controls 2/5

Morality Score - 78%
Violence 3/10
Language 5/10
Sexual Content 10/10
Occult/Supernatural 10/10
Cultural/Moral/Ethical 5/10
+3: This game promotes the importance of family values
+3: The story in this game delivers a good moral lesson

The townsfolk can either be skipped entirely, distracted by sounds with the use of throwing rocks or setting alarms, or you can sneak behind them and either knock them out with a chokehold, chloroform, or a syringe or kill them with the snap of a neck. Knocking them out takes longer than killing but people who spot a dead citizen will immediately run for the alarm and set it off, instead of simply shaking them awake. If you want a knocked out person to stay out of the fight permanently, Vic has to put them in a box or closet. With enough scavenging and preparation, Vic can also go guns blazing. Shooting itself doesn’t feel very good as even though it is similar to twin-stick shooting, a lot of it is auto-aim based and you just have to make sure the target locks on to the person.

The AI is frankly, rather stupid. Sometimes the AI will lose its pathfinding and will run into other NPCs, making them lose their pathfinding as well. Sometimes the AI does not reset to their default position when distracted by rocks or sound items which can make getting past them even more annoying. The AI will also stop chasing you the moment you even walk around the corner of a building. And even though many NPCs react to sound, you can incapacitate or even kill an NPC right next to each other and they’ll be none the wiser to it if the body doesn’t fall into their line of sight. It’s rather inconsistent due to how the AI either reacts (or doesn’t) and the “randomness” of whether mechanics will even work as intended does make the experience different for each playthrough—just not in the way the developers had in mind.

A big indication of how endings will play out are how Issac’s, Rebecca’s, and Alex’s personalities are portrayed, and what you decide to do with them, whether you spare, kill, or even abduct Issac and/or Rebecca. Some endings even lead to you killing Alex. There are about nineteen endings in total. Even with the sheer amount of endings available, unfortunately, you’ll see everything that the game has to offer by the fourth of fifth ending. There are items and even NPCs that are unlocked with endings obtained, but the general gameplay loop doesn’t change enough, so it tends to get repetitive fairly quickly.

There are bound to be many moral warnings with a title such as The Church in the Darkness. It isn’t all black-and-white, however. There is violence abound and blood is shown when shooting enemies, and some endings rely on Vic being a complete monster and slaughtering as many of the townsfolk he can—whether it is rightfully deserved or unjustified. There is language on par with many R-rated films, such as the words “f*ck” and “sh*t” mostly coming from Alex or Issac depending on their personalities. Drugs are present as well either through snippets of lore or even the use of it from Vic, with one of the endings utilizing cyanide. The Church in the Darkness can get rather dark in many routes. It can also show off wholesome messages. One ending can even show that family does not have to be blood-related, and when Issac and/or Rebecca are portrayed as good people, they do try to pass on the teachings of God and Jesus Christ to their followers.

Many qualities of The Church in the Darkness I do enjoy a lot. The setting is rarely seen in video games, the voice acting is strong, and the dynamic narrative needs to be shown off in more games. There is a lot of replayability with nineteen different endings and four difficulty settings that aren’t simply increasing numbers. Even if you fail, they do give you the option to replay the same scenario so obtaining endings isn't frustrating. But what is the purpose of lots of replayability when the gameplay loop is boring? The extra items obtained do not add or expand on the system unlike many other games that use random procedural generation and the poor AI combined with the unresponsive mechanics do sour an experience that could have been sweet. At its worse morally, it’s a mass-murdering simulator with corruption all around that more or less drops its Christian roots. At its best, its a wonderful journey about people finding a place they can call their own while having a strong faith in God.

I do not want to see Paranoid Productions give up on gaming after this one, as there is a lot that can be taken from this experience and be refined to make a standout product. I did not enjoy my time with The Church in the Darkness overall, even if I do appreciate many aspects of it. It digs into the flawed system of America such as the focus on consumerism and capitalism and well as pointing out its ugly history through the treatment of minorities and the general public that many pieces of media shy away from. (The internet, however, is quick to jump on that aspect but that is another discussion for another day.) Whenever Paranoid Productions decides to take on another task, I’ll look forward to it, as long as the gameplay is a bit more polished.

 

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Cinque Pierre

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Christ Centered Gamer looks at video games from two view points. We analyze games on a secular level which will break down a game based on its graphics, sound, stability and overall gaming experience. If you’re concerned about the family friendliness of a game, we have a separate moral score which looks at violence, language, sexual content, occult references and other ethical issues.

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