Developed and published by Santa Ragione, Saturnalia is a survival horror adventure game set in an Italian village, Gravoi, in 1989. On the day of the annual St. Lucia Festival that takes place on the night of the winter solstice, a mysterious creature has emerged from the village’s mines and is hunting down the town’s residents. Our four protagonists will need to work together to uncover the village’s secrets and also make their escape.

Upon starting Saturnalia, the first thing that impressed me was the immense amount of difficulty and accessibility options. You have four difficulty modes to choose from. The standard experience has the village’s layout reshuffle on game over (when you lose all four characters), but unlocked shortcuts and claimed key items carry over. Adventure mode prioritises the player’s experience of the story; the village won’t reshuffle, and the creature is less aggressive. In detective mode, there will be no mission prompts or list of objectives, instead you need to rely on dialogue and environmental clues. Italian Extreme is the game’s hard mode, there’s no mission list, no interactive maps and permadeath. And then permadeath also has its own mode too. On top of this, you have various accessibility options that you can adjust at will. You can have infinite stamina, infinite matches to light your way, and you can also auto walk to a selected destination.

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Saturnalia’s unique art style makes the whole game look like a sketch.

Saturnalia has a distinct visual style that I’ve never seen before. The graphics appear almost like a rough sketch or concept art that is animated using stop motion, with minimal colouring that puts emphasis on the light sources around you. Saturnalia very much looks and feels like you’re in a fever dream, which I think is exactly the vibe the developers were going for. Despite this, the visuals make it really difficult to see anything. Due to the vignetting effect, you can’t work your way around at all without a match. Also, every street looks the same. This wouldn’t be so much of an issue if this was just a puzzle game. But because you’re expected to run away from monsters, it really becomes a problem.

The developers also went for the unique choice of devoiding Saturnalia of in-game music with the exception of the anxiety-inducing chase music once the creature has seen you. You’ll be playing mostly in silence with the occasional sound queues when you perform an action. This puts emphasis on the ominous sounds the creature emits when its nearby, further increasing your heart rate when you can hear it slowly ebbing towards you. Saturnalia also doesn’t have any voice acting, instead each line is delivered as a series of inaudible whispers. Although the audio choices do build tension and the sound effects are well done, I felt disappointed that there wasn’t a more pronounced soundtrack. Nicolò Sala’s music for the opening and closing credits is an absolute banger, and it’s a shame this doesn’t translate to the rest of the game. There’s an eerie vibe, but Saturnalia almost feels empty and lacking in atmosphere without the company of music.

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Once you have selected your destination on an interactive map, prompting the playable character for directions will point you in the right way.

Saturnalia has four playable protagonists. Anita is a geologist who has been in Gravoi for a year to evaluate the mining settlement for a potential buyer. During this time, she fell in love with a married man who works at the church, Damiano, and is four months pregnant with his baby. When we start the game, Anita has finished her work and has packed her bags ready to travel home, she’s about to say goodbye to Damiano, who is reluctant to have the baby. Paul, a photojournalist, was originally from Gravoi, but was adopted. After discovering a letter to his adoptive parents from his biological parents, warning them to never allow him to return, Paul has decided to investigate, as his parents went missing thirty years ago. Sergio is also from Gravoi but was sent away to live in Manchester after distressing rumours about his affair with another man embarrassed his family. Thirty years later, Sergio has returned to Gravoi to care for his father, a former miner now suffering from terminal silicosis. At the beginning of Saturnalia, Sergio is trying to locate his previous lover, Bruno, who seems to have gone missing. And lastly, Claudia is the rebellious daughter of the owner of the local bar. When Claudia was seven years-old, her aunt committed suicide, and Claudia was alienated from the village. When we start Saturnalia, Claudia has run away from home after her father tried to force her to attend the festival.

Each character has their own unique abilities and tools which make them essential to the game. Anita has an excellent internal compass and can navigate the player to any visited location without needing to look at a map. With navigation being such a huge issue in Saturnalia, I found Anita to be the most useful character as the interactive maps are hard to come across if you don’t know where they are. As Paul is a journalist, you can use the flash from his camera to temporarily halt the creature’s attacks to give you time to run away. At the start of the game, Sergio can pick up his father’s satellite phone which allows him to make calls as long as he has full signal. And Claudia still has the blindfold mask from the ritual, so can use this when the creature is nearby to stop her from looking at it. As a teenager, Claudia is also small in size, so can access areas that the others can’t.

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Your collected clues are all readily available to you if you need to revisit them.

Your main goal is to escape the village. The road is blocked off for the festival, so you have to find another way out. On top of this, you’ll have a string of side quests to complete, including ones devoted to each playable character so that they can tie up loose ends before their departure. You have a map of all your collected evidence and information during your progress throughout the game. This is strung together in a web-like diagram, showing how everything is connected. Certain areas that need further investigation will be highlighted, and when you hover over a mission objective, you can see what evidence is linked to that quest. Although I found that this was a great way to show the web of secrets behind Gravoi, it is confusing to look at, and I wish there was a way to sort or filter evidence so it’s clearer to read.

While you’re completing these objectives, you’ll be endlessly hunted by the mysterious masked creature which stalks the streets. It will often stumble across you, or you’ll draw it to your location by making noise. You can’t fight the creature, so your only way to survive is to hide or run. You can shield your eyes, as it will start chasing you if you look at it, or find somewhere to hide such as a bin or cupboard. You can also crouch to make yourself harder to spot and the game advises you to find a small area to tuck yourself into. Running is also an option, but this is only a good idea if you know the streets well enough to not fall into a dead end. Once the creature catches you, it will either kill you, turn you into another creature, or chain you up. You’ll then resume control of another character and can follow the blood trail to release whoever has been captured. The only catch to this is that the chains will make a noise when released, so you’ll draw the creature towards you again.

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The art style looks pretty, but it’s really hard to see where you’re going.

Some characters will be better to complete certain quests with than others because they’ll have knowledge and a better understanding of that particular subject. Phones are essential in Saturnalia, because they’re required in quest lines, and you can also use them to bring other characters to your current location or move whoever you’re controlling to theirs. When standing next to another character, you can request that they follow you or stay where they are. If you come across the creature, any character that is following you will run to the nearest safe place and you will have to go and find them again to get them to continue following you. This got really annoying after a while, especially when you’re just trying to get on with a mission and you need to keep running around and collecting the other characters again every time you come across the creature. This happens often too, so this feature may as well have just not been included or be programmed so that your friends don’t run at the first sign of danger. Having everyone together will also open up conversations between them where they’ll discuss the events of the story or how they’re feeling, not having the others present will mean you’ll miss out on this.

As mentioned earlier, navigation is vital in Saturnalia. To find out where to go, you need to find an interactive map and then select your desired destination. Your character will then point you in the right direction every time you prompt them to do so, or auto walk to it if you have this feature turned on. They’ll only remember the way for a short while, so if you get distracted and they forget the directions, you need to find another interactive map to remind them. Game over will reshuffle the layout of the village if you have this enabled, and the characters will also forget the directions to every visited location. I had the auto walk feature turned on, as this just saved time rather than having to keep stopping to work out where you’re going. Funny enough, having so much time and effort spent on actually getting to places was not what I was really looking for in a survival horror puzzle game.

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Picture taken moments before disaster.

As a survival horror, Saturnalia’s gameplay also revolves around essential consumable items. Matches are vital for seeing further than a few feet in front of you, but these are in limited supply (unless you make them infinite in the accessibility menu) and can be found around the map or bought at vending machines. Your also have a stamina bar, so you have to manage this if you’re running away from the creature. Despite being an avid fan of survival horror, and someone who enjoys a challenge, I actually found myself enabling a lot of the accessibility features. This is because I found Saturnalia’s survival horror aspects to not be developed well. For one, the art style makes it extremely difficult to see where you’re going, especially when you’re on the run. You have the ability to turn off the village’s reshuffle on game over to give the player a chance to get to know the layout of the village, but I never managed to remember the confusing street layout and found myself not being able to travel to somewhere without directions even in the end game. In terms of matches, without them the game becomes extremely difficult to play and you need to use your limited supply of coins to buy more, which are also needed to complete certain quest lines. On top of this, running away from the creature is already hard enough when you can barely see where you’re going, so you don’t need the added difficulty of a stamina bar. This was one of the very few games which I actually found immensely more enjoyable on easy mode.

To begin with, I really didn’t want to continue playing Saturnalia. Although I found each quest line was interesting enough for me to investigate and written so that every character had their spotlight in the story, the gameplay with the creature made things insufferable. The game tells you to shield your eyes when the creature is close by to protect yourself, though I often found that it would attack me anyway, even with its aggressiveness turned down in the accessibility options. Your only sure way to avoid being caught without making a leg for it is to hide in a bin or cupboard if one is nearby, but these are few and far between and if you’re like me and could never work out the directions around the village, then you won’t be able to find one unless it’s next to you.

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The clue map gets really difficult to read after a while…

And although it’s not supposed to be enjoyable, being caught by the creature was really annoying, so much so that I often didn’t bother releasing whoever had been caught; I just triggered a game over when I really needed that character back. The implications of a game over (forgetting the directions to visited areas and losing consumables) were far more bearable than having to retrieve chained characters, and luckily, they have a shared inventory, so key items can be universally used by them all. For one, the area they get chained in is incredibly small. You will trigger the creature’s attention by cutting the chains, and then you have to dodge around it to get to the only exit. Often, I found myself in an endless loop of releasing someone, and then getting immediately caught again. On top of this, it was really frustrating to try to complete a quest and having to keep leaving what you’re doing to go and rescue someone, and then traveling back again. As mentioned before, navigation in Saturnalia is difficult. So even just traveling from one place to another is not an easy task.

Some of the gameplay mechanics just don’t work. As mentioned before, shielding your eyes often won’t do anything, and in the end it’s just by chance that the creature will stumble across you. Saturnalia also has the worst crouching controls I have ever seen. Rather than just pressing a button to crouch like every other game, you’re supposed to run into a wall during an encounter with the creature, and your character should automatically crouch. They don’t, of course, and when they do, they’ll often stand up again if you move slightly, or they’ll randomly stop shielding their eyes. I also think the follow mechanic just doesn’t work. You’ll request someone to follow you, and they’ll often disappear along the journey because they get lost or the creature comes close and they scarper. There’s basically no point in this feature even being in the game. In fact, a lot of the quests require you to make a noise which will purposely attract the creature’s attention, so it’s bound to happen at some point and then you’ll have to retrieve your friends from wherever they ran off to if you want them to continue following you.

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You can light bonfires to mark where you’ve been but this really doesn’t help much either…

The quests where you have to make noise just really put me off completing them. By this point, any encounter with the creature was just tiring and prohibiting me from completing the game. In total, Saturnalia took eight hours to complete with most of the quest lines finished, though I probably could have done this in four if half the time hadn’t been wasted on endlessly slogging around the map to rescue people or running away from the creature. I usually like this style of survival horror which has a monster mercilessly hunting you down, with my absolute favourite examples being the Xenomorph in Alien Isolation and Mr. X in the Resident Evil 2 remake. The only difference in Saturnalia is that the creature actually prevents you from just getting along with the game rather than being an obstacle to work your way around and survive against. You just end up in an endless loop of wanting to get on with a quest but being pulled out of it every time the creature appears, having to go and rescue whoever has been caught, and then working your way back to where you were again. Saturnalia became much more bearable the moment I started not bothering to release people.

Saturnalia had a lot of promise, but just doesn’t feel polished. It’s well-written and I was very involved in every quest. The sense of mystery around Gravoi is really intriguing and it’s only because I was constantly pulled away from investigating the dark secrets of the village that Saturnalia just felt frustrating to play. Your time is constantly wasted by moving back and forth across the map, to rescue people or to get them to follow you. In the end, I made things bearable by just playing Saturnalia on easy mode and ignoring my friends when they were captured. When triggering a game over becomes the better option over actually saving your character’s lives, there’s really something wrong. Although the monster was designed well and the audio effects used to alert the player of its presence were anxiety-inducing, the mechanics for defending yourself against the creature were really poor. The art style is unique and creative, giving Saturnalia a distinct look that you won’t see anywhere else, but it would have been better off for a puzzle game, as not being able to see a few feet in front of you and every street looking the same isn’t well suited for a survival horror game. Saturnalia seems to be unaware of this too, as it’s under the impression that you’ll eventually know your way around the map as long as you don’t trigger a game over and it reshuffles.

Jess played Saturnalia on PlayStation 5 with a review code. Saturnalia is also available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, Nintendo Switch and PC.

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