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Saturnalia Review – from Sardinia with horror

There is something authentic about people living on faraway islands often being a little bit whimsical. Sardinia, an island to the West of the Italian peninsula, has always been different from other Italian regions. Their folklore is different, their local dialect is basically a language in itself and, well, they clearly have their own brand of horror. Let us talk about it then, in our horrific Saturnalia review.

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Developed by Santa Ragione, the Italian studio responsible for games such as Wheels of Aurelia and Milky Way Prince, Saturnalia can be successfully described as a survival horror. We’ll take control of several characters, each with their own objective, like a photojournalist trying to find out what happened to his dad years ago and a woman who is pregnant with a married man and just wants to escape from the village of Gavoi. But, their journey will be interrupted by a mysterious entity roaming the tiny streets of the village.

The narrative for each character will be revealed as we proceed into the game and complete some of the objectives. The main gameplay mechanic is about finding objects you’ll need to complete objectives while trying to stay alive on the streets of Gavoi. Since the characters are unarmed, the main way of staying alive will be about keeping our eyes (and ears) open, using matches to light fires, using firecrackers to distract enemies and so on.

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Despite the clues map, unfortunately, there is no actual map for the village of Gavoi. There is a navigation system, where the characters will memorize the position of a place and guide us, even though after a while it’ll disappear. It does work, but an ordinary waypoint system would have probably been much better. Your survival depends on exploring around and finding items necessary to escape from the creature and stay alive, so either way, stumbling around in the dark is still something you will need to do.

The design is intriguing as, in the main mode, when all the characters give up the ghost, the village will be shuffled around and you’ll have to retrace your steps and redo some of the quests. Also, instead of a clear direction as to what to do, Saturnalia provides a sort of clues map where you have to piece together single pieces of information to try and find a way to accomplish your individual objectives (also different characters may complete others’ objectives).

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As interesting as all this sounds on paper, unfortunately, it doesn’t really translate into interesting gameplay mechanics. Most of the gameplay is about finding your way in the dark into narrow streets, avoiding the creature and finding item X, which will get you into the shop to get another item to get into another place. Unless you’re very keen on getting to the bottom of the mysteries of Gavoi, there is not much outside of getting lost again and again.

Graphically, Saturnalia is interesting with hues of purple and blue that tinge the black-and-white surroundings and the stylized characters. The team was apparently going for a sort of impressionist German cinema vibe and they succeeded. What is a little stranger is that Saturnalia takes place in 1989, but there are different things out of place for that timeframe, especially in how the characters look.

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I also found some slight issues, like how my characters would randomly start interacting with people I could not even see (they would be off-screen or randomly passing by) or the camera would get stuck again and again on narrow stairways. While none of these issues was game-breaking, they did distract a bit from the atmosphere.

Saturnalia is an interesting proposition for a different kind of survival horror. Despite the unique regional folk horror vibes (which unfortunately don’t feel that unique) and the atmospheric graphics, the gameplay mechanics are just not that interesting to prop everything up. It does feel that, if Saturnalia reaches the right public, then it will definitely click, but it is not an easy recommendation for all horror fans.

Our Saturnalia review was made possible with a review key provided by the publisher. Saturnalia is available on Epic Game Store.

Saturnalia: Saturnalia is an interesting proposition for a different kind of survival horror, with stylish graphics and an appropriate soundtrack, but its gameplay mechanics could have used some work. Damiano Gerli

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Damiano Gerli

Damiano Gerli was born with a faithful Commodore 64 by his side. It taught him how to program basic adventure games and introduced him to new genres. Then, he fell in love with Sega -- while the Master System wasn't as powerful as the Genesis, it was where he played Sonic and Outrun. Years later, he got the idea that he was the most Sega-knowledgeable person in the world, so he opened a website in 1997, The Genesis Temple. Damiano is a gaming industry professional and historian, loves adventure and indie titles, but he never shies away from action and triple-A RPGs. Basically, Damiano is been writing about videogames for 20 years, with no plans to stop. Say hi to him on X at @damgentemp.