Strangeland Review – A lacking narrative wrapped in gorgeous visuals

Gare – Monday, June 7, 2021 5:01 PM
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Strangeland is the latest point & click adventure game from Wormwood Studios, the creators of 2012’s Primordia – starring a disturbed man forced to perpetually witness the death of a woman she loves, the game sends players to the twisted, otherworldly carnival of the titular Strangeland, where they must find some much-needed answers to all the big WH questions you can imagine. And while I do fully realize that sometimes, the journey is more important than the destination, I also believe you sort of have to make the journey worthwhile enough for that to apply. Sadly, Strangeland’s strange journey isn’t quite as intricate and memorable as the preview screenshots would have you believe, and its conclusion will likely elicit many a “That’s it?” from adventure gamers looking for a strong, satisfying narrative.

A stranger in a Strangeland

But since I don’t want to sour anyone’s mood right off the bat, let’s start with the good. Visually, the game is striking, haunting and positively nightmarish in design. There’s some genuinely bone-chilling, blood-curdling imagery peppered throughout the protagonist’s adventures, and the overall mood of Strangeland, with its relentless, all-permeating gloominess, is one I could certainly soak myself in. The writing is competent, with splashes of cryptic-poetic dialogue that’ll make you want to dig deeper to analyze the game’s symbols and metaphors. The voice acting is similarly enjoyable, with the cast featuring some pleasantly familiar faces, or rather, voices – it was great to hear Abe Goldfarb of Blackwell fame in the role of the protagonist, and I similarly enjoyed the performances of the various side characters as well, such as the massive, gatekeeping gate-clown who tells you a joke every time you die and reincarnate, or Eight-Three, the ominous talking furnace, just to name a few.

In terms of puzzles, Strangeland is more or less on the easy side, although players who’d rather not spend entire afternoons pixel-hunting or thinking up ludicrous solutions will no doubt appreciate this simpler approach – or the fact that the game actually has a built-in hint system in the form of a payphone that dispenses hints, making it nigh-impossible to get stuck. Having said that, the game also feels surprisingly linear due to its streamlined puzzle design – usually when you find a new item, you’ll almost immediately know how or where you should use it in order to get the next item, and this sort of pattern kind of just keeps on repeating until the finale. It doesn’t help that Strangeland, the bizarre carnival you’re stuck in, only consist of a handful of screens, which doesn’t really change for the majority of the game, causing the overall experience to feel extremely constrained and claustrophobic. If you want an epic journey spanning multiple locales, you won’t find it here.

Bullet points of tragedy

But I’m not one to begrudge a game for somewhat simpler puzzles – instead, the reason I had to file Strangeland away as a disappointment was its narrative. Or rather, the lack of it. Don’t get me wrong, I get that the game is completely mired in symbols, visual metaphors and all that good stuff. I do appreciate that. It’s just that… nothing is fleshed out. Like, at all. You do indirectly get answers to some of the most basic questions of the narrative: who the woman is, why she died, what Strangeland is and why the main character is stuck there. It can all be pieced together with little to no detective work, and even putting aside the fact that it’s the kind of story we’ve seen play out in movies, films and games a hundred times over, the way it’s presented to the player makes it come off as a series of bullet points that a teacher hastily reads out to you at the end of the class before telling you to write a four-page essay based on those keywords. Except… the game never bothers writing that essay. There’s no character development, no flashbacks, no fleshing-out of relationships, there’s… nothing, aside from some harrowing visual metaphors and a tacked-on message at the end about mental health and learning to move on. Needless to say, this also made it exceedingly difficult for me to emotionally connect to anything that was happening on-screen; it’s all extremely vague, and the story expects the player to just fill out the blanks with whatever interpretation they want to go with. There’s almost nothing to work with in terms of an actual story – the game legitimately ends before it even has a chance to begin.

Final thoughts

Did I hate playing Strangeland? Not really, no. The atmosphere sucked me in, the various bizarre characters were fun to converse with and the voice acting was also quite pleasant. So there’s that. I’ve played worse games. Trust me, I have. Heck, I could’ve even overlooked the relatively straightforward puzzle design, although I’m sure veteran puzzle-solvers will find the game frustratingly easy as a result. But most important of all, I really wish the game actually told you an intriguing, fleshed-out story with characters you learned to love and care about – instead, it tosses you the cliff notes edition of their tragedy before abruptly rolling the credits.

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