With a name like Sanitarium it's no surprise that this game has disturbing episodes in an insane asylum that are definitely not suitable for children. In keeping with this 'not suitable for children' theme it also has lavish servings of mutilated and malformed characters and oodles of bloody, mangled bodies. As I am usually unimpressed by such 'embellishments', both for their own sake and because they often signal that gameplay is lacking, it was surely a surprise that I quite enjoyed Sanitarium.
The surprise came in the form of a game that takes many cues from the much loved Sierra and LucasArts adventures as you move your sprite around and negotiate your way through the story (or should that be stories?), talk to characters, find objects and solve problems as you go. In fact there is quite a lot of conversation as well as a lot of exploration and, especially, when I was talking to a stubborn tree, or to the freakish creatures in the freak show and doing their bidding, that deja vu feeling kept creeping up on me. But don't let this mislead you ... this game fits into the horror genre so there are also a couple of ghoulish tasks to perform and, together with the overall manic atmosphere, this isn't a game for the squeamish.
Sanitarium begins with a short cut sequence of the main character leaving work and getting into his car to drive home along a dangerously winding road in the pouring rain. He calls a friend and announces he has finally made the 'breakthrough' after many years of hard work, then promptly demonstrates his stupidity by speeding and crashing the car.
Is he mad? ... And who is he? ... This is what you have to find out as the scene switches to a dismal lunatic asylum where the boiler is about to explode and annihilate everyone. Of course, your immediate objective is to escape, and this is the first of nine chapters that comprise Sanitarium. With each new chapter the game location changes and so does the character, as sometimes you are directing a completely different identity including a child, an Aztec stone-statue and a multiple-armed beastie ... or are you?
It's up to you to work this out. Along with the changing scenery and changing characters there are 'flashbacks' to fill in the background story and each chapter is preceded by a short cut sequence. What is real? What isn't? How do the pieces fit together? Or do they? And is the main protagonist really mad? If you want to make sense (or is that nonsense?) of everything that goes on in Sanitarium then this game is a puzzle. I had a few unresolved questions at the end trying to make a nice, neat package. But don't worry too much, each chapter is more or less a mini-game in itself with a specific objective. This means that you do not carry over inventory items, or even any information that is essential to complete each successive chapter. It's just a matter of learning what to do and starting over.
Sanitarium is a third-person perspective game with an isometric viewpoint and the roofs of buildings obligingly disappear when you enter them. Although there are some keyboard functions it is basically mouse-controlled with a sensitive cursor that reacts when it encounters a hotspot. Depending on what action can be carried out it will automatically respond so that a left mouse click will initiate a conversation or inspect or pick up an item. A right mouse click takes care of character movement when your character will stroll along through a scrolling landscape. It's a little fiddly at times as he/she/it will come to an abrupt stop on encountering an obstruction, but a bit of careful meandering will always move you on.
As well a good assortment of solid adventuring puzzles that involve careful exploration to find useful objects, and a good deal of conversation, there is a sprinkling of abstract manipulative puzzles that are meshed into the game ... almost to the point of invisibility. These are all fairly simple although, as always, the dreaded 'match-the-tone' puzzle proved to be the biggest stumbling block in the whole game for me.
There's also a maze in Sanitarium, as well as a couple of fighting sequences. Fortunately, you don't have to be too dexterous to take care of the fighting and you are immediately resurrected in the event of your demise. Still these sequences will likely be annoying for many adventure players and maybe also for fighting fans as they don't hold much challenge.
I did say that Sanitarium in many ways resembles the 'good old' adventures with its exploration component, conversation and inventory-based puzzles but, sadly, along with the good bits it has also inherited some of the not-so-good bits. Firstly character movement is slow ... and there's a lot of wandering around to do. Also, very often your character has to be standing in a specific position to carry out an action or initiate a conversation and it is annoying manoeuvring into the right spot. Take note of this as you may miss something if you are not persistent.
Other than that the only other problem is loading time. Although there are lots of save game slots, restoring your game often is not recommended because it takes so long. Fortunately, you probably won't want to restore too often because you can't make a mistake; even dying isn't a problem. You can also return to characters and repeat conversations to catch up on anything you may have missed.
Speech is all subtitled, so you can be sure to pick up every word. Pity about the tone-matching puzzle because if it weren't for this I would give Sanitarium the green light for hearing impaired players. The sound effects and music are very effective and the graphics are especially good as they change from featuring bright, contrasting colours to muted hues as the chapter locations change. As for the voice acting, well I wouldn't say it was great, but at least I was never tempted to turn it off.
There's a lot to do in Sanitarium, and lots to sort out if you want to make perfect sense of it all and preserve your own sanity. However, it's a fairly easy game so, as far as longevity goes, it is probably better value for novice to intermediate players. In fact, because of its relative simplicity, it might have made a game that everyone could enjoy. Not so, of course, this game is aimed squarely at horror fans who have a liking for the bizarre.
Copyright © Rosemary Young 1998.
All rights reserved.
Pentium 90, 16MB RAM, 4x CD ROM, 16 bit Sound Card, DirectX 5, 30mb Free Hard Drive Space