So Much For The Tolerant Left

HIGH Being inspired to research Jonestown.

LOW Killing sixty people.

WTF Recording a different song for each ending.

Pour a drink out for the tutorial guard in every stealth game, for theirs is a thankless task — they spend their brief time on earth with their back turned to the protagonist, blindly idling in a way that makes little real-world sense in order to teach the player how to execute people from behind. These expendable guards are the unsung heroes who sacrifice their lives in the pursuit of player education.

The Church in the Darkness is a top-down, open-ended exploration and stealth roguelike game set in a South American cult’s compound in the late ’70s. The stealth is fairly simplistic, with every NPC having a sight cone, and as long as the player keeps their character outside of these cones, they remain undetected.

While sneaking, the player will come across a collection of different items like guns, chloroform, disguises, and alarm clocks that can be used as a distraction in order to escape capture, foil patrols, or get into a house to steal its contents.

Church is far from complicated, but its simple framework is consistent and clear, and it allows for players to run through the game quicker each time. My first attempt took me just over an hour, but subsequent runs were as short as 15 minutes.

The main character, Vic, is tasked with finding their nephew Alex. It isn’t initially clear where Alex is, as most of the map is not filled in when a run starts. But, as Vic finds helpful cult members and does tasks for them (find a picture of a loved one, track down the location of deported children, etc.) they provide clues that help narrow down where Vic must search. As a roguelike, Alex will be in a different place for each run.

As the player sneaks through the compound, they will be constantly filled in on the demeanor of Isaac and Rebecca Walker (the cult leaders) via announcements from loudspeakers, and the dynamic between Vic, Alex, Isaac and Rebecca is foundation for the story. Will the player rescue their nephew, or leave him? Will Vic attempt to interact with the leaders, kill them, or just ignore them?

The permutations here allow for 19 different outcomes depending on the player’s decisions and the randomly-assigned personalities of the other characters. Depending on the run, Rebecca and Isaac might be predisposed towards being isolationists, or maybe they’ll be end-of-times types. Alex might want to leave, or be determined to stay.

As the player talks to people, events in a run will play out differently. If Vic loses all their health, they can be captured by the cult leaders instead of dying outright, and will be spoken to in different ways depending on whether they killed cult members or set off alarms. Likewise, friendly cult members will change their perspective on Vic depending on their activities before the two talk.

With these splintering narratives I wanted to come back to Church several times to to see what the varying outcomes would be. However, I started to see behind the curtain, and apart from the central four characters, the other NPCs have little impact.

After doing several runs where I kept conflict to a bare minimum (tranquilizer darts instead of bullets, distracting guards instead of gunning my way through) I decided to see what would happen if I tried to murder everyone. I gunned down passersby, held up unarmed cultists and executed them, and even snuck into the main church and killed the Walkers. By the time I got to Alex, he was horrified with the atrocities I had committed… and then said ‘Well, I wanted to get out of here anyway, I’ll go with you’. The ending listed my kill count (60) but otherwise seemed interested only in what happened to my nephew and the Walkers.

Another thing that grated was that Church presents its world as open, but until the location of the leaders and the nephew have been pinpointed by info from doing quests or by finding documents, the targets don’t exist on the map. This artificial absence feels like a cheat and a way to make each campaign more linear by preventing the player from guessing a location and shortcutting the story.

Walking through an empty compound with an ominous plea from Rebecca echoing out for all members to “come to the church” was haunting, and incapacitating my unwilling Nephew and kidnapping them from the commune was a moment worth seeing. The problem is that my time between those moments made me realize that in many ways, the NPCs are all just expendable tutorial guards, and that made it harder to enjoy the package as a whole.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Disclosures: This game is developed by Paranoid Productions and published by Fellow Traveller. It is currently available on PC, PS4, Switch, Mac, and XBO. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher code and reviewed on the XBO-X. Approximately 9 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed 7 times. There are no multiplayer modes.

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated M. The game earns its M rating with dark themes of abuse, violence, drug use, murder and ultimately, mass suicide.

Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options. Also, as a player that struggles with red and green colors, it was hard for me to distinguish between friendly and enemy NPCs.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: On easier difficulties where visual displays are displayed, the game is fully playable. However, on harder difficulties where those visual cues are gone, it it’s very difficult to understand what state of alert NPCs are in. Text is not adjustable.

Remappable Controls: No, this game’s controls are not remappable.

AJ Small
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