Stories about cults have been gaining a lot of attention in popular culture as of late. Just within the past few years, Netflix released two highly acclaimed documentary pieces: Wild Wild Country, and Holy Hell based on the Rajneeshpuram and Buddhafield cults. In 2016, when Paranoid Productions announced the development of their new game, The Church in the Darkness, a lot of gamers were excited. Although the game is addictive and fun, it does fall short of my expectations in some ways.
The Church in the Darkness is a top down stealth-adventure game that focuses on a person (you can play as male or female) named Vic, a former law enforcement officer who has been sent to South America to recover their nephew, Alex, who joins The Collective Justice Mission. This cult is led by the unstable evangelists Issac and Rebecca Walker, who moved their "people" to this area so they could escape persecution and build a socialist utopia. But things are not as peaceful as the dear leaders make things out to be - armed guards patrol the fields in droves, people are locked in cages for punishment, and body parts are hidden in decrepit buildings throughout the camp.
Gameplay itself is simple and easy to pick up on. Your main actions are running, hiding, shooting or performing a take-down, which allows you to either knock your enemy unconscious or kill them. You must be stealthy in order to find Alex and avoid raising the alarm of the guards, who will take you down by any means necessary. There are four different difficulty levels that you can choose from which can actually change the controls. I played the game in easy and medium mode, and in these difficulties, you are able to see a guard or citizen's line of sight, so that you know how to avoid them. But in harder modes, this option is removed, making your gameplay more challenging. As you go through the game, Issac and Rebecca Walker speak on an intercom system. Usually, they'll talk about the purpose of the mission, but occasionally, they'll react to the events in the game. For example, if someone is shot and killed, they will mourn the person's dead.
The playthrough of a single game is fairly short, with each session lasting no longer than 30 minutes. The layout of the cultist compoud stays the same, but the locations of items and notes change. Each successful completion of a route leads to added personality traits in the Walkers. If you play the game hostilely, their rhetoric in the subsequent playthrough becomes darker and violent. This doesn't impact anyone's behavior - it's just that when you're playing, you can listen to them say different things. They will go from talking about the poor being oppressed by capitalism to entire diatribes against the United States and all those who oppose or do not understand them. Additionally, each playthrough provides you with new challenges or resources; for example, they may add a more difficult guard to the game, or give you a tranquilizer blow gun so that you have another nonviolent option. There are 19 different endings, so there's plenty of replay value - and replay, I did. For hours and hours.
Admittedly, it took me a few tries in order to reach Alex. Each time I died, I built up a progressive rage that I finally unleashed when I mercilessly killed 63 people, including civilians, guards and the cult leaders. When I arrived, I built up such a horrifying presence, that my nephew was terrified at the sight of me. I couldn't even talk to him. He cowered in fear, his arms above his head. So I choked him out, threw him over my shoulder, and carried him out of the jungle. Once I successfully completed a route for the first time, it was easy to get through my next attempts and unlock more endings. Sometimes, Rebecca died. Other times, Issac. Other times, the cult committed mass suicide, or died in a fire or even lived on for several decades. Once, I decided to kill my nephew just to see what happened. The game encourages experimentation and trying new things, and unlocking the endings motivated me to do so.
I also enjoyed the sound design, including the music and voice acting, in The Church in the Darkness. Each of the major characters (Alex, the Walkers, some other townsfolk who are Alex's friends) are fully voiced. It's set in the late 1970s, so the cultists play a lot of folk songs and twiddle away on banjos. They played a working song over the intercom, and I actually found myself bopping along to it. I didn't expect sound and voice acting to be such an important element in a stealth game, but they really make the experience more dynamic and entertaining. For me, it was a pleasant surprise. I was also more intrigued to find out that the voices of the Walkers are real life husband and wife. Ellen McClain voices Rebecca, who is known for her work as GLaDos in Portal.
The biggest thing that disappointed me about The Church in the Darkness is that it didn't delve too deeply into the psychology of these cultists. Sure, I could recover documents that explained their reasons for joining the cult, but those were understandable. The Walkers provided a place of refuge and promised them equality, freedom, and above all, companionship. But what I couldn't understand was why these people continued to support the Walkers despite clearly knowing that they had committed wrongdoings. There are graves everywhere, and bags of body parts stashed in areas throughout the camp. Alex even admits to being locked up in a cage as punishment and being extremely disturbed by it, but if you ask him about the leaders, he just spits their rhetoric back at you. These interactions fell flat for me - if I had encountered these horrors, why shouldn't I be able to bring them up in conversation with Alex? Especially in the playthroughs where he refuses to leave? This could have added another interesting level of gameplay.
Additionally, I wish that the endings gave a little more insight into the recovery process, like how the survivors learned to acknowledge their trauma. Instead you get a voice over from Alex's annoying mother that does nothing to contribute to your understanding of how Alex recovered from brainwashing. In my opinion, it would have been stronger to have Alex comment on the outcome of your escapade, because then we could get a sense of how he feels about what happened. Is he still conflicted, or does he understand the wrongdoings of the Walkers? I would have been very interested to know this.
Another thing that I wished to see was for my choices to make a larger impact on subsequent playthroughs. As I mentioned before, if you play the game violently, the Walkers' rhetoric becomes more violent. But this itself isn't reflected in the people, as far as I could tell. The guards were not more aggressive based on previous playthroughs. The townsfolk wouldn't fight with each other, or were punished for their actions more heavily. The Church in the Darkness could have used some work in terms of making your impact more visible and tangible, perhaps even providing an element of challenge as you play the game.
Furthermore, I wish that I knew why I got certain endings. In one of my endings, Rebecca mysteriously died due to natural causes, and Issac convinced the cult to commit mass suicide. In another playthrough, Issac died, and Rebecca burnt her and the cultists down in a church. From my recollection, I played these rounds with an equal level of violence, and I didn't attack either of them, so I'm not understanding why I got such radically different outcomes. What choices did I make that led to one ending? How did a previous playthrough impact the outcome of my next game? I anticipated some sort of breakdown screen like I'd get at the end of Life is Strange or The Walking Dead episodes, but I got nothing; no understanding of how my choices resulted in that certain ending. Perhaps I'm just nitpicking - after all, if they told me why I got the ending that I did, that might make it easier for me to unlock other endings. But with 19 different endings, I mean, help a girl out.
Is The Church in the Darkness a perfect stealth game? No. There are a few flaws in terms of its execution which may impact a player's enjoyment. But I still think it's a distinct and strong entry into the stealth games genre. Its numerous challenges, interesting story line, and dynamic voice acting and sound editing make it an energizing and fascinating experience that will provide hours of fun.
Chloe reviewed The Church in the Darkness on PC with a copy she purchased. The game is also available for the Nintendo Switch, PS4, and Xbox One.