Tuesday, November 1, 2022

Ecstatica (1994)

Developer:Andrew Spencer Studios
Genre:Survival Horror
Time:4 hours
Won:Yes (51W/52L)

150 numbered games! Its not a very impressive title for that number, but then again, 150 has always been the black sheep of anniversaries, as whereas 50 and 100 feel like grand celebrations, 200 feels important somehow and 250 is very important, 150 just feels like another notch.

Ecstatica is one of the few games developed by the surprisingly well-educated Andrew Spencer, a Brit as could be expected, who before this was mostly known for random sports games. Its from this education I presume resulted in the game's unusual appearance, the spherical models rather than the standard polygon models. Remember, this was at a time when having true 3D models of humans was very awkward. While I'm unsure of the specifics, this was the longest developed title in Pysgnosis's history, apparently taking 6 years. Meaning this is another idea that was probably brewing for a long time, but unlike The Colony, we don't have the story of how it came to be.
The in-game story is that it is the 10th century. You are a wanderer, either a man or a woman, who arrives at a small town only to discover that its full of demons and the most foul creatures, having their way with the townsfolk. Stop them...somehow.
I knew I was going to have issues with this game going in. This unorthodox looking game has a very special feature in it that drives me nuts. Oh, I hadn't played it before, make no mistake, but I knew its reputation. This is the game with the werewolf that follows you across most of the game. Forget Nemesis, this guy's the real nightmare.
I should note that I went against what I usually do and played this in DOSbox Staging, as this has Gravis Ultrasound as a music option and I have never been able to get it working in regular DOSbox.

You don't notice it while playing, but blue text on a blue background isn't a great idea

The intro is just some nice shots of the player approaching the village. It looks nice for 1994. Its all 3D, well the backgrounds are pre-generated of course. The animations are nice and the models are...better than everything else at the time. Interestingly, and I didn't notice this at first, the game takes place in Northern Europe circa 928 AD. Something I assumed was another of the game's historical inaccuracies, as Christianity factors in somewhat in the game, but it seems like its not impossible if the country in question is Denmark. Its still impossible with the setting the game seems to depict, but this is the least of the game's historical problems.

As per the manual, the controls are the numpad and F1 through F12. The function keys control your speed, from sneaking to running, while the numpad is everything else. EVERYTHING. Wanna pick up an item? 1 or 3, that is, your left or right hand. Using it? 7 or 9, which also functions as attack if you don't have a weapon. 5 is dodge and we don't get any side-stepping...or moving and turning. The game does not give you any chance at learning this, because straight away something tries to attack me. It takes a while. I think the guy you start off facing is intended as a sort of tutorial.

This moment works no matter what you think of the game

After taking care of him, and not finding the mace he dropped, I enter the first building...where there's the werewolf. Uh-oh. I run away, before deciding to fight, and get slaughtered.

The game makes mild fun of me for failing at this. It ain't easy. There's a lot more overt humor in this title compared to its contemporaries. I suspect the author wasn't too big a fan of horror and this all was just a coincidence. So I instead walk towards a building, where I saw a little girl run to.

This scene looks really uncomfortable if you play as a lady
No dice, the werewolf jumps on top of me, even looking directly into the camera as a mocking gesture.
He likes his meat aged...
Then I am dragged into a building, where the werewolf slaps me around some more before leaving. This is basically the game just telling me I have no choice in dealing with this guy. My guy escapes and in something that's sort of under my control, I walk over to the barrels and hide.
This is quite amusing the first time it happens, which makes up for how later you just sort of wait around for him to leave
Then the werewolf returns and starts running around the area looking for me. Yeah, this isn't a straight horror game, the werewolf looks directly at me and then just walks past. Combined with the setting technically being night but feeling very bright it feels like there's an intentional disconnect in the game. Also, this it takes FOREVER for him to leave. Even then I end up alerting him, killing me again.
This is basically the enemy of Ecstatica, as most of the game involves dealing with him in some way. He seeks you out whenever he can, but it seems like the developers intentionally made him stupider than he should be for the sake of making the game playable. Not just hiding places being safe spots, but he has a limited ability to see the player, it seems. I ran into a building once and then hit F1 thinking that me sneaking would make finding a hiding place easier, and he just took his sweet time coming in. He can see me hide and he still doesn't know where I am. This, as much as it might seem, isn't a bad thing. Later he for some reason charged towards my hiding spot and just started hammering it, with no benefit to him, and effectively screwing me over.
Yeah, now that I look at it through the comfort of not playing the game, its a key

Let's talk about the other part of survival horror, the items. The game doesn't tell you what they are, so the only way to figure it out is through trial and error. I picked up something from a dude the werewolf had killed. At first I thought it was a potion, but using it results in me attacking. So its a knife? Oh...no. This is going to be one of those rare games where figuring out what you even have is a challenge in of itself. It doesn't help that all the obvious weapons that either an enemy or a corpse has the game doesn't let me take. (its actually a key that opens the nearby door)
With all that said the game is interesting, but the controls take getting used to. You can't do two things at once, even walking and turning or walking and changing speed. Thus you have to completely stop for a moment to do something else. Something that hurts hard in a game centered around running away from one very nasty enemy. After a while you get used to it, but either way the entire game opens up with the player running around, not knowing what he should be doing, not knowing what it is the player can interact with or what it is, and it controlling poorly too.

Still, I should show this in action. I made considerable progress during this video, including finding a sword. I also find out how I'm going to kill the werewolf, which is just through hitting him for minutes on end. A better player than I would do so through legit fighting, but considering it took me something like 15 minutes to do so, its something you do more as a show of skill than for any practical purpose. I don't believe it is necessary, and in fact it might actually make the game worse despite obviously making it easier, but it is something I felt I had to do.
And what I mean by worse is that killing rather than dodging the werewolf takes away part of the game's charm. There's a Looney Tunes feel to the game despite its violent and very adult nature. The werewolf constantly appears and reappears as a constant, darkly comedic reminder that you're nothing compared to him. Killing him feels as wrong as the Road Runner killing the Coyote.

Each time you walk through this area, the dead woman raises her head and groans before flopping back down
Which brings me to why I like this game, and why despite its flaws this is a great game, even about an hour in. Ecstatica seems like it aged like milk, with its controls, graphics and period hostility, a perfect three strikes. But it hasn't. Its cheese that has become blue cheese. What seems to be bad is actually now part of its appeal, and even then we have the constant threat of the werewolf...assuming you don't cheese the game. Ecstatica delights in dark comedy and the absurd. What was once a nice-looking game with a comedic bent amid its horror is now a comedy game with a sadistic streak.
This goes on for what would be 2-3 pages of text
On the second floor of one of the houses you can find a book detailing the backstory of the game. The wizard's maid stole a book of magic from him and began to dabble in the dark arts. She summons a devil, incorrectly, and gradually becomes a victim of its influences. This is delivered quite clumsily through subtitles over the course of a few minutes, and then later sporadically. Say what you will about finding notes, its by far a better choice for this than waiting around for someone else to read through the book.
This is by far the game's most bizarre sequence, simply because this little girl seems more sadistic than even the werewolf
Also, the game gets a bit weird after this. You find a teddy bear for a little girl...who I assumed was hiding in terror. Giving her the teddy results in her attacking it, before a semi-scripted sequence in which she leads you to a dungeon area that the player, at the end, runs away from. Its kind of interesting since she's just completely unfazed by all the death and destruction around you, even fighting one of the little goblin things before becoming disinterested. I'm also a bit uncomfortable with her character model.
These downward climbs can't kill you, a factor I think adds to my appreciation of the game. We know its crap, but we have to do it and we won't penalize you. Its another bit of weird mercy the game doles out, when it could very well be frustratingly hard. As such the game is actually a bit easier than you'd think. Of course there are interaction triggers that can trigger a loop if you don't know how to get out of them, as somehow turning will activate them.
Yes, I'm fighting a table
Combat, outside of the werewolf, is sort of a non-entity. Enemies are only ever a threat because of the number of them, which in itself is only an issue if you don't have a weapon. One weapon attack hits all enemies in an arc which was basically the only attack I ever used owing to the more narrower one being a bit too narrow. Because your health automatically regenerates the only time you're ever in danger is when the werewolf is chasing after you or the game decides to pull a gotcha moment. Because you can dodge you can't ever be put into a truly unwinnable situation unlike Alone in the Dark. Not that it doesn't try.

What about puzzles? Well, you have two hands, and can carry two items. A weapon counts as an item, so that basically means you have one item slot for the most part. An illustration of this point, in order to create a potion you need to win the game, you need to find three items, which means even at besting walking back and forth twice once you know where they all are. All while dodging a werewolf. Now, I say this, but honestly, the game felt fairly clever. I'd go as far as to say this had the best designed puzzles of any survival horror I've played so far and the best I can remember. Nevertheless, there is unfortunately some item hunting.

Outside of the obvious horror and comedy angles, the game is set during the middle ages, and achieves the usual theme park theme of that nature. Monks are all religious cowards who like to burn witches. There's a suit of plate armor, that if you wear, will slow you down while offering no protection. Alchemy, witch burnings, the Crusades and Arthurian-style knights factor heavily in the game, despite none of these things really existing in 928, where the game was set. I would have preferred it being more accurate, but it does work in the game's favor irregardless.
Sound-wise this is fairly nice. Its DOS, so it has a low-bit rate, but attacks have a nice meaty sound to them, and everything you expect to have a sound effect, outside of foot steps, has a sound effect. As to music, its interesting. I was checking a soundtrack online and there's a difference between the Gravis and the uploaded one, which I presume is Soundblaster. The Gravis is more of a very ambience soundtrack akin to the kind of thing you'd see starting in the PSX-era rather than the more straightforward earlier years. The Soundblaster one is instead a weird mix. I don't think either is bad, but the melodies of the Soundblaster aren't really that interesting, go for Gravis if you can.
A sequence of spears shooting up into the air, at least it doesn't kill you
Its at around this point that the game loses steam, because you enter an underground area akin to Tomb Raider. Not a good thing either, as this feels very arbitrarily done on the game's part. Go the wrong way? Get instantly killed. Go the right way? Now you get to run past some unkillable enemy. Now make you go down the path the right way and fast enough, or you'll get killed again. Out of place death traps, coffins containing enemies, and a doppelganger for some reason.
Nevertheless, the ending section feels quite satisfactory. There wasn't a good recording of just the good ending on Youtube, so here's one now. There are two options in the end, a bad ending where you don't fight the final boss and become a servant of his, or one where you kill him. Its not that hard, but the confrontation was built-up quite nicely. Although I'm not sure why I'm riding off into the sunset with the woman who caused this mess.

An interesting thing about the game. Going in I expected a much more difficult game than I got, even discounting that I killed the werewolf. Escaping from the werewolf feels almost like an inevitability, and if you've shaken him, you have a good shot at getting free reign on some areas of the game. The game likewise offers a considerable number of areas in which you're safe from him, even if sometimes these areas contain other threats. Its another case of games that seem difficult aren't nearly as difficult as they seem at first glance sometimes. It also had the right length for what it set out to do.
While I didn't talk about it a lot, simply because I'm used to it, the game's camera angles weren't great. Quite a few times I found myself in situations where the camera wasn't showing my enemy. Or places where it wasn't clear where I could walk. It wasn't too bad, but I suspect some areas were close to not being visible if I wasn't careful.

While there are technically four weapons in-game, along with punches, there's only one practical weapon for most of the game. Its satisfying, but feels slightly broken and its all melee. 2/10

Focusing on a handful of enemies who provide you with a consistent threat throughout the game works in the game's favor. The game is still at a time when creating a game with large numbers of more generic enmies wasn't entirely feasible and every effort is made to make it work. 6/10

For the most part, non-combatants, and those that do fight all do so in scripted sequences. While some are a bit too annoying, each works nicely enough in context. 3/10

Despite getting a bit worse in the final third or so, the open-ended beginning is incredible. Despite a few minor issues with camera angles hiding what areas you can reach, the world and even the underworld of the game are incredibly interesting to explore. 7/10

Player Agency:
Despite the hiccups I have and dislike about the game, I don't actually find the controls all that objectionable. I would have liked to be able to change speed while moving or move and turn, but its something I got used to quite quickly. 5/10

While what you could do was incredibly limiting, and had issues with activating it, the puzzles were pretty good. Its sort of the right level of giving the player information, just enough so they should be able to figure things out, but not enough that its just spoonfeeding it to them. Well, outside of the parts where the game designs to screw you over to increase the playtime by a few minutes. 5/10

Despite the age of the game, there's still some creep factor to be had. The werewolf is an intense foe, as are the minotaurs to a lesser extent. The goofiness of the game works weirdly well as even at the time the game was comedic. 6/10

The characters now all look like balloon animals, and the environments look like weird lego sets, so it has aged here. That said, animations are nice, and certain details of the game like stone walls look incredible. 5/10

Clumsily delivered exposition detailing some know-it-all getting her entire village killed, and then I save her...for some reason. 2/10

Low-bit but effective sound effects along with effectively creepy background music. 6/10

That's 47, making it the fifth best game I've played, and second best survival horror.

Nevertheless this only something I feel like people who really like survival horror games should play. There are elements of the game that make it obnoxious to play if you can't get used to them, especially that darn werewolf.

Period reviews tended to treat this game as a technical marvel and thus gave the game high scores. Interestingly, most continental European magazines gave the game scores in the '80s, a high mark in those days. Modern reviews tend to focus on treating this like some kind of fever dream, but like it.

That was this Halloween. I'm not quite sure what I'm going to be doing November. I know that I said I was going to consider Galactic Empire finished this month whether I won it or not, but I was just in a mad rush this month. I think I might just have it now, but we'll see. I might just have more excuses to make next month and the month after that. Otherwise I think I'm just going to play some 1983 games until that's done with.

As an aside, me and a friend created an interactive fiction game for a contest called Nowheresville, a title in which you try to escape a bizarre town that might just be in hell. I hope its as fun to play as it was to create.


  1. I remember seeing a review on TV for this game and being impressed by the werewolf which was of course featured. I am happy to have read a walkthrough of sort of the game - I never bother with YouTube walkthrough.

    Was a great read overall !

    1. I'm not surprised, really, given that he really feels like the primary antagonist compared to everything else. Of course, its hard to get away from him, so they might have had no choice in the matter. :)