It’s refreshing when developers try something new, whether a theme or a mechanic. In a medium where the return on investment often depends on tried-and-true formulas, it takes courage to experiment. In their debut title Gray Dawn, Romanian trio of developers Interactive Stone opted to go all-in with a taboo theme involving religion and infanticide. While there is no sexual abuse, it’s still a sensitive subject with the potential to backfire.
The walking sim is an appropriate genre for this kind of experiment. Very light on gameplay, heavy on atmosphere and story, the player can feel part of the story without influencing much of it. The story takes place around 1920. You play as the Romanian Orthodox priest Abraham Markus, facing accusations of murdering an altar boy called David. As he tries to prove his innocence, the player observes the world through his perspective.
The art direction is truly stunning. You don’t have to be a Christian or even religious to appreciate the beauty of religious iconography. Gray Dawn is heavily invested in featuring as many religious paintings and statues as possible, which makes it unique and striking. At first, there is only Christian Orthodox iconography, particularly in the priest’s home, where the game begins. As you progress you’ll also find Catholic, Jewish, Egyptian and Buddhist art pieces and symbols scattered throughout the game.
On the other hand, some of the 3D assets look rough at certain points. Compared to other walking sims, even those released a few years ago, Gray Dawn looks underdeveloped in that sense. The character models look and move like mannequins, and even the model for the boy David looks too plain and rushed. Not to say that photorealism should be perfect, but as it is now, it breaks immersion.
Gray Dawn's atmosphere is its greatest strength and makes for some insanely weird moments. The juxtaposition of religious iconography with horror elements is fascinating. Not only visual references with a Lovecraftian horror weirdness, but also falling in the realm of H.R. Giger. There’s a chapter where there are even Alien-esque pods. The soundtrack adds ambiance to the atmosphere, especially in the parts with what sounds like Christian Orthodox chanting.
For the most part, the voice acting is unremarkable, with a delivery that oscillates between lazy and thoughtless. The protagonist’s voice is monotonous and unconvincing, the voice actor sounds bored most of the time. The child actor behind the voice of David is decent, you can tell the kid is really trying his best, but he can’t carry the game on his own. The best voice acting is actually in Romanian, in one of the last chapters, when David’s mother is lamenting his death. It’s a powerful scene without facial animation, the voice alone is enough to convey genuine pathos.
It suffers from stuffy and unfocused writing, with quite a few silly and overdramatic lines. Maybe if the protagonist wasn’t voiced, the writing could improve by relying on some other way to provide exposition. The protagonist is actually an unreliable narrator in many ways, but it’s a typical bit of smoke and mirrors that accomplishes little. What I did like is that the game never tells you what to do. It shows you what’s happening, then gives you space to explore your surroundings so you can do what it takes to advance the story. It’s very understated that way so that the uncomplicated puzzle design fits the writing.
The main issue with Gray Dawn is that the endings hinge on collectibles, which is a contrived way to engage the player. Halfway through I was hoping that certain actions would affect the ending, but they don’t. Only one of the collectibles requires an interaction in order to acquire it. The rest are just scattered, and you can find them by exploring and solving a couple of puzzles. They should make the collectibles mean something rather than just something to stumble upon. It was a lost opportunity to give more significance to player agency, and the final result suffers.
Gray Dawn seems to reach for the heights of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, an obvious influence. It doesn't reach those heights, but it also doesn't fall flat on its face. Instead, it lingers in a space where a compelling experience is still possible, however, riddled by several flaws in execution. Maybe this is the "anxiety of influence" at work. While the theme seems refreshing at a first glance, by the time you finish it you might feel unfulfilled.
There were some truly beautiful and memorable moments in my six hours of playtime. Walking over lakes as paintings of Christ appeared under me. Traversing bridges of light to raise a sunken temple as gigantic statues of Buddha and an Orthodox elder looked on. A procession of Romanian peasants, with a haunting soundtrack. Spotting a painting by Hieronymus Bosch in a massive ship dotted with Hebrew symbols. Yet these moments are just not enough to make Gray Dawn a great game, and it’s unfortunate that I can’t recommend it in its current state.
Our Gray Dawn review was conducted on Steam with a code provided by the developer.
A short and mystical experience marred by several flaws, Gray Dawn falls short of its great potential.
- Beautiful Religious Iconography
- Fascinating Weirdness
- Decent Atmosphere
- Some Ugly Textures
- Subpar Voice Acting
- Lacking in Player Agency
- Underdeveloped Experience