Dementium: The Ward makes an admirable attempt at crafting a legitimate horror experience upon a platform that patently was not designed for such endeavours; the mobile extension of Nintendo’s child-friendly, family-friendly hardware, the DS (and newly released DSi).
A fundamental requirement for scaring someone usually rests in firstly immersing them within the experience; to be scared they must first believe themselves to be in danger. “Haunted” attractions found at funfairs and theme parks, such as ghost trains and haunted houses, create this effect through complete physical immersion in the environment; you are literally trapped within the nightmare. Cinema attempts immersion through enormous screens, visual fidelity and a masterful manipulation of sound.
In videogames, as demonstrated in series such as the Resident Evil and Silent Hill products, captivation is achieved through similar means; graphical fidelity, fantastic use of audio and the unique interactive features of the medium (including haptic technologies such as force feedback). Ideally, again as with cinema, you should still have an enormous screen!
The DS contains almost none of these advantages; the hardware limits screen size, graphical prowess, haptics, and interaction. Yet, despite all these shortcomings, Dementium succeeds, and with a certain panache at that.
The narrative of Dementium begins with you, the typical amnesiac videogame protagonist, awaking in a hospital with no memory of how or why you are there. The whole plot revolves around your discovery of the hospital’s mysteries, and in turn, discovering the mystery of who you are.
The titular ward is predictably dilapidated and foreboding, shrouded both figuratively and literally in darkness, and if not darkness, then a gleeful smearing of blood. The prominence of shadows requires a flashlight, and luckily enough you find one early on. The problem lies in the fact that your avatar can seemingly use but one hand at a time (I won’t speculate on what he needs the other hand for), meaning you can either use the flashlight, or use a weapon.
This mechanic, used so controversially in Doom 3, is an effective method of racketing up the tension, as you round every darkened corner in the knowledge that you are, at least for a moment, completely vulnerable to whatever lurks in the dark.
A much less controversial way of increasing anxiety is for the developer to play sadistically with the soundscape, and in this dimension Renegade Kid do not disappoint. The music, combined with the darkened mise-en-scene and flashlight, creates a haunting ambience reminiscent of the Silent Hill games, punctuated with terror-filled shrieks and the timorous scratching of whoever, or whatever hides out of sight.
In this, and really all technical aspects, Dementium should be applauded. The graphics are, considering the limitations of the DS, superb. A fully-functional 3D space, interesting textures and crisp lighting go some way to creating the immersion so needed for affective horror.
The interface, using the touchpad to direct aim and the d-pad to control movement, copies the only other first-person shooter worth mentioning on the DS, Metroid: Prime Hunters, and with good reason, as it is an immediately intuitive and accurate control scheme.
This means the combat facet of the game is an enjoyable experience, running and gunning to your heart’s content, with the occasional interruption of a puzzle or cutscene to be savoured. The puzzles themselves never stray too far away from simple logical deduction, and shouldn’t take more than a minute or two for even the inexperienced to solve; this is actually rather refreshing, as instead of causing aggravation, said puzzles simply provide a momentary breather away from the action.
The cast of demonic creatures slithering across the hallways are one of Dementium’s main weaknesses, being a collection of ghouls seen numerous times in other games. In fact, in both gameplay and antagonists, Dementium feels quite close to that ancient landmark first-person shooter Doom. Flying skulls, enormous overweight demons, crawling slugs, many clichés are present and accounted for, which is something of a letdown as you are never truly surprised and thus scared by what you encounter.
Also the level design is consistently horrific (not the good kind of horrific), as there are far too many identical hallways and rooms that can quickly get the inexperienced player lost or at least confused for a good while.
Due to I suspect further hardware limitations, creatures you have dispatched of will respawn as soon as you re-enter the room, meaning you are both low on ammo and perhaps health, creating a tedious and often frustrating experience. Tied to this, the save system can only respawn the player at the beginning of a chapter, and seeing as some chapters can take almost half an hour to complete, this can cause considerable rage when you’ve just been killed in a room you had cleared of ghouls only moments before.
Yet, with all these shortcomings, one must remember the game’s platform and intended audience. This is not for the hardcore amongst us, and for those owning an Xbox 360 or Playstation 3 who are looking for an excellent horror experience and who do not require mobility in their play, I would say go and buy Dead Space if you haven’t already you bloody heathen.
But for those interested in a more casual, segmented horror ride that you can pick up and play on the go, then you simply cannot do better than Dementium, in part due to its quality, but also due to the fact that comparable mobile games simply do not exist.