Back in the 1970s the settlement of Jonestown was formed in South America. Jonestown was created by a religious organization in the United States after it started being persecuted by the government. As families feared for their family members that joined the group, this lead to hostilities between the group and the United States government. The situation ultimately lead to the death of over 900 people. I bring this up because the indie game The Church in the Darkness that I am looking at in this review seems to be inspired by those events. While the game depicts a fictionalized cult/religious group, it shares a lot in common with Jonestown. When I saw The Church in the Darkness I was intrigued for two reasons. First the idea of a game where you infiltrate a group with views that change every time you play the game sounded really interesting. I also thought the concept was interesting as it is not the type of topic most video games address and I thought it could lead to some thought provoking gameplay. The Church in the Darkness has some interesting ideas that could have lead to a good game but it is unfortunately derailed by unsatisfying and arguably broken gameplay.
We at Geeky Hobbies would like to thank Paranoid Productions and Fellow Traveller for the review copy of The Church in the Darkness used for this review. Other than receiving a free copy of the game to review, we at Geeky Hobbies received no other compensation for this review. Receiving the review copy for free had no impact on the content of this review or the final score.
In The Church in the Darkness you play as Vic. Vic has come to the jungles of South America to check up on his nephew Alex who has recently joined the Collective Justice Mission. The Collective Justice Mission was created by Isaac and Rebecca Walker as a refuge from the United States to create a socialist utopia in Freedom Town. While the followers claim to believe in peace, many family members of those who have joined believe it is a dangerous cult. Will you be able to find your nephew in time and find out what is going on in Freedom Town and whether you need to help Alex escape?
When I first saw The Church in the Darkness I was intrigued by a couple factors. The thing that intrigued me the most was that each time you would play the game, the game would change. Between the personality of the cult (dangerous and violent to peaceful and just wanting to be left alone) to even the locations of items and objectives for each playthrough appeared to change. I thought this was a really interesting concept. The simple idea of everything changing between playthroughs meant that each time you would play the game things could be different as you would be playing through a different story. I thought this could bring a lot of replay value to the game as each time you would play the game you would be facing off against a different cult.
The next thing I was interested in was the gameplay. The gameplay intrigued me because the idea of infiltrating a cult to see what is going on seemed like a really interesting idea. While the game mostly looked like a stealth game, I thought it would be interesting to go undercover and interact with the cult to discover its secrets and determine whether it was truly peaceful or dangerous. There is also the option to just go in guns blazing and take your nephew by force. The fact that the game utilized a setting you don’t really see often in games was interesting. I am always willing to try out a game that actually tries to do something unique.
While The Church in the Darkness has some really interesting ideas and potential, it doesn’t really pan out.
Lets begin with the basic gameplay. The Church in the Darkness is basically your typical top down stealth game. While I hoped that there was a way to infiltrate the camp pretending to be a member and interacting with the members to figure out what is going on, this doesn’t seem to be an option in the game. Instead you have two options.
First you can go guns blazing and shoot every member that has a gun. The shooting controls are pretty basic as you just aim your gun in the direction you want to fire, pick your target, and press a button to shoot. While it is usually pretty easy to kill a couple members, this is usually not a good long term strategy. The problem is that killing members of the group and having them found makes it much harder to make your way through the camp. You are going to be outmanned in the camp so you won’t survive a sustained gunfight.
The other option is the approach I would recommend. In this approach you use stealth to enter the camp unnoticed. For this strategy you need to try and avoid the enemies’ sight lines. You can also knock out or kill enemies if you sneak up on them from behind. Otherwise you can throw rocks to distract enemies and have them move to other locations so you can sneak past them. While moving through the camp you can also deactivate alarms so members can’t alert the rest of the camp. Using stealth you move around camp trying to find the people and items you need that are scattered around camp.
No matter which option you choose, each playthrough basically breaks down as follows. When you first enter the camp you are tasked with finding your nephew. You don’t know where in the camp he is though. The game presents you with two options to find him. First you can find maps scattered around the camp. Otherwise the game gives you the general location of a friendly person in the camp. If you find a map or talk with the friendly person they will give you a hint to your nephew’s location. At this point you can either find another friendly person or another map to narrow down your search even further. Once you find Alex you can either try to help him escape, or explore the camp further to find out more information about the group and help out the friendly people you talk with. The playthrough ends when you escape the camp with Alex or by yourself. You are then given a wrap up of what happened to the cult.
At its core The Church in the Darkness is a rogue-like/rogue-lite. What I mean by this is that you only get one life. If you are killed in the camp your run ends. Sometimes when you lose all of your health you will be captured instead of being killed giving you the opportunity to resume your run. Nevertheless whenever your run ends it ends and you lose all of the progress you made. In your next game you will start at the very beginning and have to infiltrate the camp again. Regular readers of Geeky Hobbies will know that I have never been a big fan of rogue-likes as I am not a fan of losing all of my progress when I die. While I didn’t really appreciate it in The Church in the Darkness either, it is a little more bearable as each run in the game is pretty short. Depending on how fast you move you can get to Alex and escape in around 30 minutes to an hour. This takes a little sting out of dying as you can regain your progress pretty quickly.
With each run being quick it means that The Church in the Darkness relies on replaying the game over and over again. This is one area that I was intrigued by as the game promised that each run would be different. In some ways it is and in some ways its isn’t. The group’s personality seemed different each time I played it. It seemed like I would always get a somewhat violent group though. In addition the map seems to be somewhat randomized. Major elements of the map seem to stay the same between playthroughs. Smaller areas do seem to change each game though especially the location of important people. The game has around 20 different endings so there is potential replay value there if you try to find all of the different endings.
The problem is that while the game changes things up for each playthrough, after a while it just feels like more of the same. I played through a couple games and each time the basic gameplay stayed pretty much the same. I began by finding a friendly member who then sent me to find another member. This member then lead me to Alex where I had to either help him escape or try to find out more about the group. The gameplay never seems to really differentiate from this formula. Even the people I had to meet repeated after two playthroughs which included saying the exact same lines. After a while it felt like I was just playing the same things over and over again. Due to this repetition I never really felt like going for all of the different endings.
The biggest problem with Church in the Darkness comes from the actual gameplay though. The gameplay is pretty simple and the controls work fine for the most part. The problem is that the stealth mechanic feels like it is broken. This might not be a problem on the highest difficulty settings but the enemy AI can be quite stupid. In the game every person has a vision cone of what they can and can’t see. In the easier difficulties you can see this cone and you can’t see it on higher difficulties. This is nothing new as most stealth games utilize this type of mechanic. The problem is that the enemies are so stupid at times that you can stand right in front of them and not trigger them unless you walk inside their cone. This kind of kills the mood of you sneaking into the camp if you don’t have to stick to the shadows. I was literally running down the middle of roads and nobody noticed unless I ran into one of their cones.
Due to the AI only noticing you when you are in their vision cone, this makes it pretty easy to deal with them. The game ends up giving you an ability to create a distraction by throwing rocks. You throw a rock and the enemy moves to where you throw it. You use this mechanic to keep throwing rocks to temporarily move a large group of enemies away from the area you are trying to access. All you have to do is throw a rock that will attract a group of guards. You then throw another rock further away. If you keep throwing rocks you can move them quite a ways from their original position.
While it is usually quite easy to avoid detection, even if you are detected you aren’t in much trouble. If an enemy spots you they will start to head to your location and might start shooting at you. This would seem bad but it really isn’t. First the enemies are pretty bad shots. If you run away from them they will regularly miss or not even shoot their guns. On top of that the guards are pretty lazy. Run for a little while and the guards will just forget about you and go back to their original posts. They could even see you kill another person and they will give up their pursuit pretty quickly. If a lot of guards end up spotting you there will be an increased guard presence. Otherwise you don’t have a lot to worry about if you are caught. Just run away and you should be fine. If your health gets low just use a med kit and you will be back to full health.
All of this leads to gameplay that feels kind of broken. While you have to avoid the enemy sight areas, you don’t have to be particularly stealthy. You can literally run around in the open without worry as long as you avoid the sight lines of enemies. This kind of ruins the stealth aspects of the game. Even if you are spotted you can escape pretty easily by just running away as the enemies are not going to follow you for long. I had high hopes for The Church in the Darkness but I was left disappointed.
To give you an example of what it is like to play The Church in the Darkness I would like to describe to you one of my playthroughs. In this playthrough the group seemed to be pretty violent. I “snuck” through camp and talked with the first two friendly members. This game me the location for Alex. I finally found Alex and he seemed to have reservations about the group but he wanted me to explore more to get more information before he decided on whether to leave.
As we were sneaking through the camp to find more information I had to hide in a group of trees to avoid detection. After the guard left I tried to leave the trees and found out that I was now trapped. Alex was blocking the only exit out of the trees and he wouldn’t move. My only way to actually get out of the trees was to knock him out and carry him through the camp. As it was too burdensome to carry him through the camp while I searched for information, I decided to just try to make it to the exit to escape. I had almost reached the exit when I was spotted by a guard that I didn’t see. As it worked earlier I decided to just make a run for it as I was close to the exit. This lead to me running through other guards’ sight lines and they began to chase me as well as occasionally shooting at me. As I had no other options I just kept running hoping to make it to the exit before I died. With four or five guards on my tail (who surprisingly didn’t fire their guns very often) I ended up making it to the exit and escaping.
I told this story as I think it does a good job explaining what it is like playing The Church in the Darkness. First it points out that the game has bugs as the whole end situation was created because I was literally trapped in place by Alex. It also shows how stupid the guards can be. I was able to sneak through most of the camp with a person on my back and they never really noticed. It wasn’t like I was being that sneaky either as I was running down the middle of roads. When I was spotted I was able to outrun four or five armed guards and make it to the exit. This was mostly because the guards were terrible shots and would rarely shoot.
While the story points out what is wrong with the game, it also points out how the game has a lot of potential. Despite the game having issues, trying to run out of camp with a group of guards on my tail was surprisingly fun. Also there is the fact that the game gives you a lot of options on how you want to approach it. While you will be doing pretty much the same things each playthrough, each playthrough is still unique with most leading to interesting stories. I really hope the developers can fix some of the issues with the game because I think The Church in the Darkness could still be a good game.
At the end of the day I am quite conflicted about The Church in the Darkness. There are things I liked about the game but it also has a lot of problems. On the positive side I like that the game seems to change with each playthrough. This forces you to approach the camp differently each time you play it as you will have to explore different parts of the camp. In addition the camp’s personality seems to change each time so you can explore the camp and find new secrets each time you play the game. Each time you play the game you will end up with a unique story. The problem is that the game doesn’t live up to its premise. While the game changes each time you play it, each playthrough basically plays the same. The enemy AI is also not very good as it is easy to sneak past them and if you are spotted it is easy to escape. Ultimately The Church in the Darkness has some good ideas but also has some issues that need to be fixed.
My recommendation comes down to a couple things. If the premise or stealth rogue-like games don’t really appeal to you, I don’t see The Church in the Darkness being for you. If the premise intrigues you though I could see you getting some fun out of the game. I would probably recommend waiting until some of the issues are fixed but with some work I think The Church in the Darkness could be a decent game.