Old, abandoned carnivals and theme parks have their own special kind of aesthetic. They’re spooky and decrepit, but the bright, garish colors and attractions intended for fun and amusement of all ages, slowly rotting away into ruin while conjuring vivid memories of times gone by and happy memories, is its own type of haunted. So, it’s appropriately fitting that Strangeland, the latest game from developers Wormwood Studios and publishers Wadjet Eye Games, takes place in one such broken down carnival.
The plot of Strangeland is spectacularly simple but meshed with the incredibly confusing. On its surface, the unnamed protagonist is trying to find and save a blonde woman from her imminent death. But, at the same time, we don’t know who he is, we don’t know who she is, and he doesn’t know how he got to Strangeland in the first place. Actually, he doesn’t know much of anything except “Must save the woman!” To my personal disappointment, we’re never actually given any background on any of this, which is Strangeland’s most prominent stumbling block.
We don’t know anything about any of the characters, not just the man and the woman, and it’s hard to feel attached to them or to the events of the game. The whole first third of my playthrough I was apprehensive about automatically assuming that the protagonist was someone that we were supposed to root for, as I’ve read far too many “twist” novels. I kept waiting to see if he was a serial killer or a demon or something equally as interesting, but unfortunately that moment never came. The ending of the game does not reveal more about the plot, except that one character is dead. Possibly more of them are dead, we don’t really know, but it’s the one shred of a definitive answer to cling to.
As mentioned above, none of the other characters in the game have real personalities or background to them. They simply exist to spout metaphorical nonsense at the player or to fill an objective in the gameplay, without any real emotional attachment whatsoever. Several characters have ties to Norse mythology, purposely evoking the imagery of characters such as Odin and the Norns, without really feeding into anything.
One particular character background that I wish was followed up with was the murder of a woman by three (presumably) men. It’s mentioned or alluded to several times, but we never get to find out the whole story or if it fits in with the protagonist at all, which seems like a much missed opportunity.
The gameplay is simple, but the in-game logic doesn’t make much sense. It’s a point and click game, so going around the world you can pick things up and take them out of your inventory to interact with them and use them to solve environmental puzzles. The world isn’t very big, so there’s not a lot of room for trial and error on puzzles and yet I still found myself constantly using the telephone for hints, as the way things “work” in-game doesn’t follow any reasonable pattern. For example, when you are trying to create a knife in order to progress, you need to have the name of the knife in order to make it, but going in blind, you have no reason to suspect that this random word actually is a knife. Much like the events of the game, the puzzles themselves are confusing and convoluted.
Art and sound is where Strangeland really shines, with some of the best pixel art I’ve ever seen in a game. The color palette is strictly white, grey, black, purple, and a yellow-ish gold, giving the carnival a purposely eerie feel, which really played up the creepiness and felt almost claustrophobic at times.
In terms of sound, Wadjet Eye regular Abe Goldfarb leads a great cast with an absolutely stellar performance as the protagonist, displaying incredible range and acting ability with his role. Also deserving of a mention is Mike Pollock as the extremely unsettling giant clownhead when you enter Strangeland, whose laugh might just haunt my nightmares.
Strangeland reminded me of a lot of books that I was forced to read in high school. They think they’re very deep, with lots of metaphors and room to interpret things, dancing around points but never directly saying things or telling you what they’re about under the guise of being very open and thought-provoking. Unfortunately, more often than not they came across as pretentious and unable to spit out what they wanted to say.
While Strangeland lacks the pretension of these books, it feels like it has kept its plot, characters, and all the best parts of the mystery—the parts that actually tell you something—under wraps. As an artistic choice, that works fine, but as a gamer who wanted to find out more about the story and got tired of having characters spout endless metaphors and babble drivel, it was frustrating.
If you’re the sort of person to enjoy sitting down and having philosophic discussions about whatever the heck happened, you’ll probably enjoy Strangeland. However, if you’re looking for an interesting plot or emotional connections, you’re better off giving this one a pass.
TechRaptor reviewed Strangeland on PC with a copy provided by the publisher.
- Excellent Voice Acting With Cast Led By Abe Goldfarb
- Absolutely Stunning Pixel Art With Unsettling Color Scheme
- Plot Makes No Sense
- Characters Have Little Depth To Them
- Story Told Through A Plethora of Metaphors That Are Never Explained