The short list of Things I Like includes: first-person shooters, horror movies, and the Nintendo DS. Which is why the first Dementium, a first-person horror shooter for the DS, was such a massive disappointment—such high expectations wasted on the kind of generic shooter we used to play by the dozens in the Doom era. But it’s also why I’m so happy to report that the sequel, Dementium II, finally lives up to my hopes of carrying a nightmare in the palm of your hand.
The biggest single change in Dementium II is one of genre. While the first game was a shooter, Demntium II, despite its first-person perspective, is closer to old-school survival horror. I know, that sounds like a cop-out (“The controls are supposed to be clunky!”), but in practice it means the developers can shift focus away from twitchy running-and-gunning and concentrate on creating high-quality atmospherics.
And those atmospherics are as upsetting as you’d want a horror game to be. The Clive Barker-influenced visual design fills every corner of the world with new monstrosities, often faking the player out in clever and unsettling ways. The game effectively creates a claustrophobic sense of being trapped, beset, surrounded, and completely grossed-out; if that sounds like your idea of a good time, Dementium 2 is just the awful experience you’re looking for.
The combat is fairly solid, particularly with melee weapons. Parsimonious ammo distribution means you’ll be spending a lot of time waving your prison shank, so it’s a good thing that they turned melee combat into a simple but engaging three-hit combo system, which demands close attention to enemy timing and your position. The shooting is still a little bland (they really haven’t improved on Dementium’s standard-issue weapon hierarchy), but that’s not such a problem now that the game is more focused on exploration.
The faceless dog-thing that cackles like a clown every time you shoot it will be in my nightmares for a long time to come.
And that exploration is always fun, because where Dementium II really shines is in creating a mood. Particularly notable is the audio: The music makes for an effectively creepy experience even if you’re playing in a crowded subway car, and the enemy noises are ceaselessly inventive and completely friggin’ horrible. The faceless dog-thing that cackles like a clown every time you shoot it will be in my nightmares for a long time to come.
The biggest improvements over the first game are in the environments and the story, two things that are inextricable in a well-made game. The first Dementium’s generic corridors suited its generic narrative, a veritable cornucopia of bland. Dementium II doesn’t reinvent the Inquisition Wheel with its mad-scientist story, but it tells it with hallucinatory aplomb, keeping you constantly unsure of what’s really happening, how bad it can get, and what your role in the awfulness is.
The more expansive story unfolds in a wide range of environments—hospital corridors, sure, but also a snowy town, a mine, and a freaky hell dimension, all presented with a dirty-glass filter effect that makes even the picture-book Alpine village seem appropriately grim. Quite a few big-budget shooters could take a lesson from this game in how to keep rooms distinct through smart distribution of props. While the bottom screen’s map makes it hard to get lost, it’s just as easy to remember “Go left past the eyeless giant corpse, take a right in the room of eviscerated zombies, straight through the files full of forbidden grimoires, and you’ll find the keyhole in front of the blood-drinking cockroaches.”
Finally, for those of you who gave up on the first Dementium: They’ve finally added save points! Still not enough (personally, I think any portable game should let you save anywhere), but a big improvement over the first game’s completely unforgiving structure. The save points are nicely integrated into the game world too, via swirling mirrors and stylish lighting effects.
If you’re looking for the next Metroid Prime Hunters, then Dementium II isn’t going to satisfy, as it’s a slow-paced affair whose shooting is more frustrating than empowering. But if you’re looking for a game that brings the old-school Resident Evil experience to your daily commute, Dementium II is just what the mad doctor ordered. It’s creepy, it’s spooky, it’s altogether ooky, and if you’re the kind of sicko who gets off on horrible experiences—like me—you’ll be glad to have it dirtying up your DS.