A Lot or a Little?
What you will—and won't—find in this game.
Saturnalia is a tad hard to follow since some narrative context gets lost in juggling several characters' stories and a century-long mystery at the same time. The broad strokes are recorded in a personal log of sorts, but what manages to come through well is how generational trauma must be confronted when it perpetuates cycles of bigotry, fear, and violence. The game also prompts players to remember that monsters may not always exist of themselves, but can be reflections and creations of our own wrongdoing.
Positive Role Models
Some characters have small yet significant moments exhibiting deep flaws, such as one who overdoses on morphine, and two fathers who abuse their kids, one physically and another emotionally. The setting itself has an (ongoing) history of sexist and homophobic behavior. These are all depicted negatively with the main characters being united in proactively exposing harmful traditions to free themselves and exonerate past victims from them.
You play as two women and two men. Side characters are equally represented in gender, including in the unfolding mystery with mothers and fathers of various repute across generations. One of the characters, Sergio, is a gay man whose love for his partner is a central point of his story, even after being denied for so long.
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Ease of Play
Saturnalia is mechanically easy with only a handful of buttons to manage, but controlling the camera can be a bit unwieldy and slippery, even with the sensitivity set low. Narrow and sharp corners throughout hallways and stairwells can make navigation a bit of a pain when you accidentally run into the edges of objects. In addition, the story objectives are overwhelming for the first couple of hours with so many plot threads and accumulating characters to keep track of. Figuring out where to go, and when, can stump you sometimes. But the objective pointers and gameplay hints smooth over these moments without holding your hand too much. There's a setting for a dyslexic-friendly font, as well as a generous amount of settings to customize controls to make the experience more accessible and/or forgiving.
Violence & Scariness
The player is pursued by a shambling monster in a horned mask. It pops out of nowhere on rare occasions but mostly announces its presence with tense music and a rhythmic rattling sound. The monster leaves trails of blood to a sacrificial pyre where it chains up characters, but they don't suffer any visible injuries. A few corpses appear as decayed husks. There's a reference to suicide in a letter.
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Sex, Romance & Nudity
Two characters reference having slept together in the past, but these are passing remarks that aren't graphic. A man reminisces on his romance with a boyfriend, but only with simple memories like gift-giving and looking out for each another. There's no sex or nudity.
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Several words like "hell," "s--t," and "f--k" appear in textual dialogue. While homophobia and sexism are present in the game and negatively portrayed, there are no explicit slurs mentioned.
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Drinking, Drugs & Smoking
One character has an implied morphine addiction and is shown knocked out on a couch from an overdose that occurred off screen, which you have to cure him from with naloxone. There's a bar where a lot of alcoholic bottles can be seen strewn about the place.
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Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that Saturnalia is a downloadable survival-horror sleuth game available for Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, Xbox One S|X, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, and Windows PCs. You play as four characters who coincidentally converge in a rural countryside town where all's not as it seems. A monster has emerged from the tunnels below, hunting down those who roam about in the night. It's up to you to not only find out where it came from by looking for tools and clues to get around, but also discover how it connects back to everyone's stories with mysteries that force you to reassess who the real monsters are. Players get chased by a humanoid creature with a horned mask, its presence the source of tense music and rattling noise. It leaves trails of blood on occasion. Dried-up corpses are depicted a few times. One character mentions wanting morphine and overdoses on it, but players don't see this happen in action. "s--t" and "f--k" appear several times in written dialogue.
Is It Any Good?
This game is equally about survival and horror as it is detective work, even if it doesn't fully come together in the end. In Saturnalia, you assume control of four separate characters who have their respective reasons for being in an isolated, creepy village, but all of them are roped into unraveling an ancient mystery that touches on all of their lives. You switch between these characters and explore your surroundings for clues and tools, which slowly spins a web of previously unconnected stories. This "mind map" (similar to a crime board) of helpful icons, connecting lines, and color coding shows how much the history of places, people, and practices influence each other. But this particular game is held back by its presentation. Characters have no expressions or voice acting, and while the art style is bold and plot points heavy, emotive performances and distinct personalities aren't conveyed through the writing alone.
Even the gameplay leaves more to be desired. The monster that chases you will get your heart racing with stellar sound design and scary moments. The title makes a huge ordeal out of switching characters, even over long distance with phones spread across town. Another issue is how you don't lose your story progress upon dying, but the town's level design changes, so you have to relearn the layout of landmarks. Bonfires to mark your path, firecrackers to distract the monster, places to hide in - - all of these sound like they come together to induce exciting strategic play, but it's unnecessary mechanical fluff that hides the actual lack of survival and horror in this experience with a monster that can be circumvented and outrun too easily. That's not to speak for the solid design and flow of its quest progression, but as a whole, Saturnalia doesn't fully follow through with its gameplay and narrative ambitions. Nonetheless, the story and scares it offers are worth a shot for horror fans.
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