There aren't many portable horror titles about. You could probably count the number on one hand, and the number of decent titles with fewer fingers. But that hasn't stopped Gamecock, who've engineered Dementium: The Ward to be a full-bore first-person horror-action title. With gameplay reminiscent of Doom 3 and visuals inspired by Silent Hill, it doesn't necessarily present us with anything we haven't seen before. The fact that it's replicating these elements on a handheld, however, is something of an achievement. So does Dementium succeed in scaring the pants off us on the bus, or should it be locked up in a padded cell?
The story of Dementium initially appears intriguing. In a Jacob's Ladder-inspired opening sequence, you're wheeled into a derelict hospital filled with horrific monsters and gruesome corpses. You wake up on a bed in one of the psychiatric ward's rooms. Your only clue is a note which has been slid under your door, which reads "Why Did You Do It?" From there you have to figure out exactly what you're doing in the hospital, what's going on, and how you can escape. While there are various twists and turns as you encounter new monstrosities and survivors, the story isn't as engaging as we'd hoped. Sometimes you'll think you're onto something by reading various notes strewn about the hospital, but like Silent Hill they seem to be there just to heighten the creepy atmosphere. We'd like to have seen the story fleshed out a little more. The game's obviously going for a Silent Hill vibe and that's a series which has often presented gamers with outstanding storylines (well, one or two).
Surprisingly, atmosphere is what this game has in spades. As you explore the dungeon-like corridors of the ward, the lights flicker on and off, various switches fizzle with sparks, and sometimes the walls crawl with unseen terrors. The texture work is very impressive for a DS title, and the game actually runs at a very fluid frame rate, although it can bog down occasionally with a lot of action on-screen. Monster design is a little weak, as the game's influences can often be clearly seen (Silent Hill's Pyramid Head and Doom 3's Pinky Demon's love child seems to be one of the bosses), and as a consequence a lot of them come off feeling generic. The audio in the game also impresses with its contribution to the gruesome atmosphere. At times you'll hear the muffled tones of a long-running evacuation alert, at others strange musical cues, and then you'll be surprised by the sounds that some of the monsters make. There are some monstrosities in particular named 'Screamers', who indeed do what their name suggests, but their intensity catches you off guard.
The game itself handles very similarly to Metroid Prime Hunters. You play the game from a first-person perspective, controlling strafing with the D-Pad and aiming using the stylus on the touchscreen, with L being used for attacks. It's a tried and true system for first-person-shooters and it works for Dementium's gameplay. At the start of the game, most of your enemies are human-shaped with obvious weak spots, but as the game progresses your opponents will get smaller, faster and harder to target. While the combat is enjoyable, some annoyances can be found. For instance, as you progress some environments prove to be a little too dark, with the monsters blending in a little too well to be targeted, with your only clue that you're under attack being the bright red flashes on the screen.
This particular gripe is heightened by another annoyance which has been carried over from the game Dementium apes, Doom 3. You can only use your flashlight or a weapon at any given time, there is no way to join the two together. This means that you'll have to get used to switching between them on the fly. On the one hand, it adds to the atmosphere, but on the other it does get frustrating. On the plus side, when you do want to deal damage to the depraved apparitions clawing for your flesh, there's quite a good variety of weapons to use that range from police batons to shotguns. As is the standard with horror titles, ammo and health are limited, although strangely this proves not much of a problem in the 'fixed' European version.
In the American release of the game, enemies respawned when you left an area, and there was no way to save your game, forcing you to restart from the beginning of a level even if you had just died in a boss battle. These two factors worked together to make the game a lot more frustrating than it needed to be. Thankfully, the European version of the game has fixed these problems, although as a consequence of this the game does feel very easy at times (although we must admit, we still find those Screamers tough). There are a few boss battles strewn throughout the game, and we must admit we found them a little on the easy side as well. And while 16 chapters may sound like a lot, its playtime still falls a little on the short side, even for a DS game.
Of course, when you're not blowing the brains out of abominations, you'll be exploring and solving some fairly basic puzzles. Interestingly, Dementium includes a notepad, which allows you to scribble your own notes and is indeed necessary for remembering clues and passwords to use throughout the game. Our only complaint is that they have not included the same feature with the maps, which are often hard to read and inaccurate, and it would have been helpful if we had been allowed to jot down areas which were sealed off or locked by ourselves, like with the notepad. Nevertheless, it's a cool feature, and feels right at home in a survival horror title such as this.
Dementium: The Ward is a surprisingly enjoyable and a solid survival horror title on the DS. Although some of the problems which plagued the American version of the game have been done away with, the game still has a few niggling issues which hold it back from being truly great. While the game liberally cribs notes from several other well-known horror titles, it manages to make a fairly convincing package, even if some of the design elements end up feeling a little generic. We'd like to see more from the series, as the developers have got the atmosphere down pat and provided some truly terrifying moments throughout the title. It's a short, but cool little game, and if you're into horror you might just find it steals your time away. Then leaves you strapped to a rusted gurney in Hell.