What are your nightmares made of? Your worst fear may be different from another’s, but the dreadful aura of decay and the unknowable seems to put most people on edge. Strangeland starts you off in a run-down anthropomorphic circus tent, and this is how you know the nightmare has begun. It’s a corrupted carnival suspended over a void – with no clear escape route. Will you find the light, or give in to despair?
Wormwood Studios developed Strangeland as a spiritual successor for their first title, Primordia. They add a science-fiction psychological horror experience to the Wadjet Eye Games portfolio, which includes critically acclaimed modern point-and-click adventures. Strangeland‘s themes and aesthetics draw parallels to games such as Sanitarium and I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, complete with the high-quality classic art and stories that blur the line between the mundane and the cosmically horrific.
Story – Welcome to the Circus
Strangeland puts you in the shoes of a stranger – someone who doesn’t know who he is or what he’s doing in this bizarre land of floating debris and dirt. As you make your way throughout the broken-down carnival you have landed yourself in, parts of your story soon start to flesh out – and your motivations start to become clear.
The setting itself is a central “character” in the story. It’s what the whole game is named for, after all. This hostile environment gives you a large number of ways to die, but you never really fail – you return to where you started your journey with all but a little comment about the stupidity of your actions. Because of this, there is an inherent hope attached to the existence of The Stranger, who resigns himself quickly to the reality around him and focuses on saving the golden-haired woman he sees in his visions. Despite the aggressively unlivable state of affairs, he is determined to bring down the game’s main antagonist – The Dark Thing.
The archaic language and funny little quips help put Strangeland in a place outside of time. Each of the characters that make up the eccentric cast makes it easy to exhaust the dialogue options. It’s interesting to hear what they have to say as The Stranger progresses through the story. I particularly enjoyed the crows crying out random words, pretending to be wise ravens or doves. They not only function as characters or puzzle-solving tools but they also add another layer of mundane ambiance that brings the creepy factor up a notch. And it’s great.
The writing is ominous and calculating, high-brow but effortless. It reads like something that you could pick out from the Nebula Awards. Harlan Ellison’s famous short story I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream is name-checked within the game, and this story’s influence is palpable in its narrative.
Halfway through the game, this already dark tale becomes even more disturbing and will challenge players to dare venture into the darkest recesses of the mind. Even with its out-of-this-world setting, this story of loss and desperation can resonate with those in similar, despairing experiences. The story is well-paced and genuinely feels like a roller-coaster ride of emotions as you discover more about Strangeland and why you are in such a desolate place.
Gameplay – Death is Your Friend
In Strangeland, to progress means to experience failure. There are many ways to accidentally and intentionally die within the game. But it’s not like that will stop you.
The game successfully executes the point-and-click adventure game experience and aesthetic. There is that “collect everything” urge that you need to satisfy. Solving puzzles is a matter of what-goes-where, and lets the player consider their options to try and solve the obstacles in front of them. The number of goals in the game and the number of items in your inventory never gets cumbersome. It’s gameplay that rewards the most curious of players. It encourages people to try things, but not blindly so – it’s a good thing The Stranger has a thing or two to say about your weirder experiments, and this can actually lead you to realize the solution along the way!
The wide mix of puzzles made it a very dynamic experience, in that there was a good variety of mind-benders and motor skill-based solutions. Some puzzles have more than one solution, and it could be a matter of brute-forcing a shooting game or paying attention to all the little details in your environment. I did feel like some of the puzzles were a little out of place, such as one that requires you to connect lights on a skull. While it was an okay puzzle, it wasn’t of the same caliber as the others. But at the very least, they did break the monotony of the explore-and-solve aesthetic of Adventure Game Studio titles.
Overall, the puzzles in the game never really get too tough especially with the presence of the hint payphone. The hints would try their best to be not blatant, either, keeping the mysterious atmosphere of hopelessness throughout your playthrough. Solving a puzzle will make you feel very smart, which is a great quality for any puzzle-heavy game.
Veterans of the point-and-click genre won’t find a hair-pulling-level hard challenge here, but newcomers will get an (oddly enough) welcoming surprise. Strangeland clearly championed the story and experience in the game, which I appreciate. This move made it inclusive to a wider audience versus other punishing point-and-click games that have turned away audiences before.
Getting to an ending will take you 5 hours, with some endings that can stretch out your playthrough even longer.
Audio and Graphics – Raw Pixel Ambiance
A motley mix of organic material and broken-down carnival bits make up the world of Strangeland. Such a setting feels like a perversion of child-like innocence. Seeing the top tent, a shooting gallery, a hall of mirrors, and a roller-coaster ride in this state of decay is a different kind of horror.
Strangeland’s art is fantastic, from its backgrounds, to its CGs, to its character sprites. The amount of detail that went into each asset shows the dedication to the art style and the staying power of pixel art in games. It was never difficult to figure out what each item was during the gameplay and scenes, which is ultimately helpful when examining each area.
I enjoyed the choice of an iridescent purple as an otherworldly accent on the landscape. It gives life to what could have been a sickly brown wasteland that would be a pain to explore and click around. It’s an aesthetic choice that borders horror and camp, and I appreciate this detail a lot.
The fantastic voice acting afforded the setting a lot of personality via its wide cast of characters. My favorite performance was that of the prophet Murmur, his commanding voice set apart from the jests and riddles of the other characters. While Strangeland feels like it’s falling apart, its mysterious on-lookers hold the setting together.
While the graphics push the capabilities of what pixel art and AGS games could do, the sound design and music also added to the game’s atmosphere. Its soundtrack sufficiently foreboding and quiet, eerie and unnatural.
Strangeland was reviewed on PC with a key provided by Wadjet Eye Games.