Despite its popularity, the Cthulhu mythos is more often used as reference material in games rather than a direct source. There have been titles that use H.P. Lovecraft’s works as a base, but these are few and far between. While not an official adaptation, Alessandro Guzzo has attempted to create the latest game to do the horror legend justice with The Land of Pain. Does it live up to its predecessors, or is the name a little too on-point?
Like any good Lovecraft horror, the beginning is benign enough. You’re on a walk in the woods looking for your father’s cabin to spend the night. Shortly after arriving you’re woken up in the middle of the night and drawn into a glowing orb. From there you awaken in a cage in a forest you don’t remember and must escape by traveling through the abandoned countryside.
What plot there is appears mostly through journal pages you find scattered through the world. It mostly manages to nail Lovecraft’s themes of alternate realities and other-worldly beings, but it lacks a lot of his descriptive nature his works have become known for. There’s also not that much of it, with maybe a dozen or so pages, plus a few more, that your character adds throughout the Land of Pain. It does at least make sense, and there’s a logical progression that’s easy enough to follow throughout the game.
Gameplay is made up of interacting with certain objects and walking, picking up tools needed to move forward, and occasionally accidentally spawning a shadow creature and running away from it. There’s a lot of walking, or more likely running since the game moves at a snail’s pace unless you’re mashing the SHIFT key. Occasionally you’ll need to solve a puzzle, but make no mistake the unfortunate majority of this game is just walking from point A to point B, and usually back and forth between the two several times.
As for the puzzles themselves, while some make sense often the puzzles, or more specifically the solutions, just seem unnecessary. A particularly annoying example is about halfway through the game your path is blocked by several boards covering a doorway. There are plenty of hammers and pry-bars lying around, but instead, the game demands you use a saw locked away behind a door. That’s a common occurrence throughout the game too, locked doors everywhere. A later puzzle has you lowering a bucket into a well to open a door, something the game fails to inform you of completely while another has you searching for a pickaxe to clear dirt rather than any of the dozens of shovels lying around. However, not all the puzzles are bad, and some make perfect logical sense, but these aren’t really the norm, and therefore the game suffers horribly for it.
The other big issue with the game is how large it is. The levels are unimaginably big, something that doesn’t mix well with the horror genre generally. Worse is that there also completely empty much of the time and filled with dead ends that only muddle your already frayed sense of direction. Whether this was on purpose or not it still dampers the game heavily as you wander around blindly hoping to stumble on something interesting, only to usually end up hitting more locked doors with no way to open them.
Finally, there are the encounters with the shadow beast which are possibly the worst parts of the game. In theory, you’re supposed to be able to sneak past the creature by stowing your lantern and staying low. This presents two issues: 1) moving through the massive levels is already slow, and by crouching, it takes even longer; and 2) stealth just doesn’t work, the monster will always see you and will always make a bee-line towards you. You’re actually much better off keeping your lantern lit to see where you’re going and just running all over the place, as the monster’s path-finding AI has a pretty slow reaction time if you manage to avoid it.
What it lacks in good gameplay, The Land of Pain almost manages to salvage in its presentation and atmosphere. Graphically the game looks great, using the CryEngine to its fullest advantages. While individual textures break down upon closer inspection, when looking from a short distance the game really stands out and does a great job of immersing you. There’s also some excellent work done on the atmosphere of the game, and it’s genuinely creepy throughout. If there is one place it suffers it’s the character models for the few beings you meet through the game, with the shadow monster itself just looking downright goofy rather then scary. Still, overall the game is spooky and draws you in, exactly what you want from a title like this.
While the visuals are great, the game goes above and beyond in its sound design, and this might be some of the best audio work all year. The use of locational audio to build a scene is nothing short of masterful and the sound-effects used and when and where they’re used are absolutely brilliant. Wear headphones with the sound cranked for this one and the game will absolutely suck you in and make you scared. Once again the shadow creature is a low point, being the only sound effect that didn’t quite work, but everything else is really top quality stuff.
Recommending The Land of Pain is difficult. On one hand, the game is outstandingly boring, offering at times a worse experience than even most walking-sim titles. And yet, on the other hand, it’s also short, only a few dollars, and has some of the best presentation in a horror game in a long time, especially impressive since it was largely made by one person. If you’re a fan of the genre or a fan of the Cthulu mythos there’s definitely something here for you, and if you’re looking for an example of great atmosphere then this game deserves a look, but for everyone else, this is probably one story worth leaving on the shelf.