During my playthrough of Saturnalia, I was left amazed at how Santa Ragione has managed to create a survival horror that rarely restricts you, offering a much freer take on the genre whilst leaving me feeling trapped and on edge. There’s no voice acting, yet you feel drawn to all four of the main characters and their reasons for being in the claustrophobic village of Granoi. The various locations within the Sardinian setting are all designed to play into the story, but if all of your characters fall victim to the mysterious beast that lurks in the shadows, it becomes an entirely new place.
In Saturnalia, you play as four characters who return to the village of Granoi with their own motivations for doing so. Each character’s story can be explored organically as you uncover the mysteries of the winter festival the game was named after, and it was one of the things I really liked about it. Anita is carrying a child and is looking for her partner; Sergio was sent away from Granoi after his relationship with Bruno, the local castle’s owner, was uncovered, and has returned after his father has been struggling with silicosis; Paul is looking for his biological parents; and Claudia is looking for answers regarding the death of Mara, her aunt.
While all of these threads begin to unravel, you’re also trying to escape the clutches of a demonic entity that relentlessly pursues you through the village. The creepy sound of crackling creeps through the speakers and grows louder as you get closer to it. The option to run away is the best thing you can do, and you can hide in various places to make sure it doesn’t find you, or simply run away until he loses your scent. Unlike other games when this cat-and-mouse mechanic can grow annoying, I always liked how seldom and random the encounters felt, and it helped to elevate that anxious exploration, never knowing where it might be.
If you do get caught by it, you’ll switch to another character. From there, you can try and find the person who got taken, or carry on doing what you were doing originally. There are ways for you to switch between characters, or if you’d prefer, explore the village together. Each character has a special skill that can help in a number of ways. Anita can pull up a map to show your whereabouts you are at any given moment; Paul can stun the creature with his camera to give you a few seconds to escape, as well as take photos of various locations; Sergio can use his phone at any time as long as the signal isn’t restricted by nearby walls; and Claudia can sneak through fences where others can’t.
They are useful skills, but none can do any damage to the actual creature. This sense of helplessness is another reason why I enjoyed the fear it made me feel, as few other games manage to achieve it, with Alien Isolation being the only one that comes to mind. Other survival horror elements like a limited supply of matches to light the way in darker areas, and smart puzzles that once solved, progress the story and unlock new areas. There’s no item management that hinders your enjoyment, and for me, it helped me to focus more on the story and what my current goals were.
It took me a bit of time to get into Saturnalia because of the open-ended gameplay. You have a clues section in the menu that can be confusing at first, and with me picking up various quests quite rapidly, I was somewhat overwhelmed by what I needed to do. Thankfully, the more you explore and the more you find, the clues make sense and the sense of progression starts to open up. Perhaps my biggest issue was the lack of direction or guidance when I turned down the same street for the twentieth time. Anita is a fantastic character to play as because she always knows where she is.
Maps are littered throughout Granoi, as well as signposts, but when you’re running away from the beast, you can easily get lost, especially when the village changes after all your characters are gone. I was rather cautious as I explored, so the village didn’t change that much for me. Regardless of the mechanic, it’s easily one of the more unique elements to Saturnalia. On the eve of Halloween, it’s a definite recommendation for those looking for a survival horror that both lends from and celebrates the genre.
With an interesting story that becomes more thrilling as you play and characters you genuinely care for, Saturnalia is well worth investing your time into. Despite some confusion with where you’re going and what needs to be done, puzzles are smart and Granoi is a village that is both fascinating, as well as a character within itself. The survival horror elements are well done, and the art style is unique for the genre and indeed the industry as a whole.
Unique art style
Well-crafted mission structure
Interesting characters and story
Knowing where to go can be confusing
A lot to take in as far as missions go