It feels like The Church in the Darkness has bitten off a little bit more than it can chew. Packed full of ideas, themes, and a handful of mechanics on top, it’s the infiltration of a cult whose ocean spreads far and wide but only goes a couple of inches deep. There are things to like in Paranoid Productions’ latest effort, but you’ll be scraping the bottom of the barrel before you’ve had your fill.
Heavily inspired by the events of Jonestown in the late 1970s, you take it upon yourself to sneak into a cult’s settlement and rescue your brother Alex after he stopped contacting you while living there six months ago. That’s only scratching the surface of what potential the narrative holds, however.
Procedural generation means that outside of your literal infiltration of the community, every story beat that follows changes each time you play. The map itself stays the same, but the nature of the cult, the personalities of its leaders, your entry point, and the objectives given to you all vary upon each playthrough. It’s certainly a cool idea on paper.
Upon discovering Alex’s whereabouts, his reaction to your arrival can differ drastically. Maybe he’s enjoying his time there and doesn’t want to leave, or on the opposite of the spectrum, he is causing issues for the camp and wishes to flee but isn’t allowed to - thus welcoming your rescue attempt with open arms. The reception you get can land anywhere in-between the two extremes, but it’s the only variable that has any real impact on the session in question.
The game’s structure never really changes enough to make you feel like another playthrough with a different spin on things is a good use of your time. You’ll always be given a character on the inside to make contact with who can narrow your search area, while a couple of side quests can be picked up from other NPCs. It becomes stale a bit too quickly, meaning motivation to uncover the multitude of endings on offer dissipates at a rapid rate.
Alongside the procedurally generated nature of its narrative, The Church in the Darkness is also a bit of a rogue-lite. You’ll be able to select a couple of starting items before venturing forth into the community, but you’ll need to start the game over again if you’re killed. The following run will be devoid of the objects, weapons, and outfits you procured previously, so it’s a good idea not to get too attached to a certain pursuit no matter how well it’s going. It’ll take you a good couple of tries before you feel at home with the mechanics and environments, but before too long you’ll be able to finish the game in the space of 15 minutes if you follow the main path.
On its surface, you’d be forgiven for thinking the release belongs in the stealth genre. In reality, however, it’s more akin to a problem-solving title, ala Hitman, than anything else. Indeed, you do need to keep out of pretty much everyone’s way by avoiding Metal Gear Solid-like vision cones as guards patrol and residents go about their day, but apart from that, you’re free to sprint about the place. With a top-down perspective, the difficulty comes from avoiding those vision cones or manipulating them to open up a path that was being guarded. You’re given the ability to cause distractions via rock throws and you’ll use those to grab the attention of enemies while you slip by.
Should you kick off a run with a couple of weapons in your inventory, though, then you could go in all guns blazing if you really want to. It’s not a recommended tactic due to the lack of ammo, but taking out enemies permanently is always an option. Crates and cupboards can be utilised to hide bodies, but any discovery of such villainy will raise the alarm immediately. The game gives you the capabilities to take out a couple of cult members here and there, but it’s not a style of play you can rely on in the long term.
Collectively, the title’s gameplay continues its lineage of offering you a decent amount of options to play about with, but relatively few lack any sort of depth. It’s just all too basic for our liking - getting about the camp is a breeze once you’ve wrapped your head around things, while the vision cones themselves can be manipulated all too easily. It creates an experience that’s devoid of excitement once you’ve seen a run through to its conclusion.
Meanwhile, the game is clearly going for a certain visual aesthetic, but it just doesn’t look very good in motion. Characters don’t look too hot, but how poorly the experience runs is the biggest offender of all. It'll constantly chug if you’re running about a lot, while the frame rate fails to stay consistent a lot of the time. It’s not enough to sour the entire game, but it’s definitely noticeable as you make your way from one place to the next.
The Church in the Darkness has some good ideas, but they’re not properly realised. Gameplay never ventures out of its basic boundaries, while the narrative doesn’t offer up enough variety or compelling subplots to engage with. The Church in the Darkness is competent for a couple of playthroughs, but it’s an experience that you’ll quickly forget about.