Saturnalia review: A morbid puzzle that’s more clever than scary


Developed by: Santa Ragione | Published by: Santa Ragione

Available on: Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S

During classical antiquity, the Roman festival of Saturnalia was a time for merriment and role reversal. For the duration of the holiday — traditionally celebrated during the second half of December — relations between the economic classes softened, blurring to the point that masters sometimes attended to their servants’ whims. Loosely inspired by the legacy of such events, the new survival horror game “Saturnalia” focuses on a small Italian village that holds its own version of the festival, calling into question the relationships between villagers. Playing it is like putting together a morbid jigsaw puzzle, where the draw is seeing how the pieces fit together.

At the start, we’re introduced to Anita, one of the game’s four playable characters. Visiting Gravoi for work, she has an affair with Damiano, a married man employed by the village church. Anita’s plan to leave Gravoi is frustrated by the fact that the only road out of the town is blocked for the mysterious “Festa di Santa Lucia.” Anita goes looking for her housemate and second playable character, Paul, who excitedly tells her about a creature he photographed while exploring the area that recoiled from the flash of his camera. Soon thereafter, Anita has a run-in with the deadly creature after she goes to the church to confront Damiano, who contrives to have the monster attack her by luring it with the sound of the church bell.

Why Damiano would try to murder his former paramour is one of the many mysteries that surface throughout the night. As players poke around Gravoi, they’ll come to find out more about the grievances, vendettas and other secrets that the residents of the village harbor. It becomes evident that the festival is used as a backdrop for conspiracy and murder.

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Visually, the game looks like a colorful sketchpad from 1989 — the year the game is set — brought to life. Characters are rendered in hatched, muted tones while the environments are splashed in color. Wandering around the village, one encounters patches of pink fog that call to mind the bright color palette of a Dario Argento movie and inky-blue interiors that evoke nimble penwork.

Rounding out the game’s cast of playable characters are Claudia, a teenager who chafes at her father’s attempts to keep her home during the festival, and Sergio — a good friend of Paul’s — who was effectively banished from Gravoi in 1969 when his relationship with one of the village’s largest landowners came to light. Each of “Saturnalia’s” playable characters has a special ability: Paul can use his camera to distract the creature and photograph clues for later analysis; Sergio has a wireless phone (that puts him in the vanguard of tech enthusiasts in 1989); Claudia can squeeze into places too narrow for anyone else; and Anita can remember the location of places not listed on any of the maps posted throughout the town. With the press of a button, Anita can call up the direction of any location without having to consult a map, and with another button press, she’ll point in the direction of her chosen destination.

I favored Anita, since Gravoi is unevenly paved with capriciously curving roads, bewildering cul-de-sacs, and narrow lanes with dead-ends. Though the part of me that is directionally impaired was frustrated by the village’s serpentine layout, I admired it nonetheless for its suboptimal, all-too-human character, which would drive a rational urban planner mad.

Switching between the four players can be done by either having one character talk to another or by calling them on the phone. Each of the characters has their own quest. Most of the missions in the game involve solving basic puzzles — i.e. find a tool to unlock something or figure out a way to exert vengeance on a deserving malefactor.

If all four characters die, the village’s roads reshuffle. Early on, this poses a real penalty as you have to retrieve your dropped inventory on a new run as well as (re)discover a certain number of places on the map before Anita’s ability is activated. Unlocked shortcuts are carried over between runs, and eventually a most-welcome, timesaving mechanic is introduced that grants you access to important tools retrieved in previous runs.

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I suffered a handful of party wipeouts during my 20 hours with the game, but I never felt particularly unsettled during the monster encounters. I suppose that’s because they’re all scored with the same music and lead to a similar animation if you get caught (the creature chains characters up to an altar). The village is dotted with hiding places (like trash bins) that you can hop into to wait out the creature if it passes by. In addition, there is a cover-your-eyes mechanic to draw less attention to your character should the creature be in the vicinity. By the second half of the game, I found myself dispensing mostly with such tactics in favor of using the game’s twisty pathways to outmaneuver the monster. Most of the characters tire rather quickly if you use the run button, but even so I never found a need to use stamina-boosting items; the creature is no bloodhound and is really only a threat if it corners you.

Since the monster encounters failed to generate much tension, I’d hoped to latch onto the game’s story. Alas, most of “Saturnalia’s” dialogue unfolds as short snippets of on-screen text that feel more like notes to conversations than anything else. The information gleaned from working through the game’s puzzles also lacked emotional resonance — so-and-so died by suicide because of X reason, that person met a bad end because of Y politics, etc. The characters felt like cogs in an impressively intricate structure.

That said, I took satisfaction in watching the dense spiderweb of clues and connections unfurl. Details found while exploring the village, more than stories, constitute the narrative backbone of the game. (Here is one that stuck with me: In a hidden room that once housed a sick patient, there is a tool that looks like a hammer lying on the bed. Clicking on it brings up an info box: “Accabadora’s Hammer: A traditional tool to end the suffering of the sick.”)

“Saturnalia” is best approached as a darkly themed puzzle game constructed around the social bonds that unite a village. The handcrafted art style nicely counterbalances a decent game that is let down by its survival horror elements.

Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer. His work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the New Yorker and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.