Lazaretto is a first-person horror game from the very small developer Iron Monkey. It follows the formula refined by games like Amnesia: the Dark Descent and Outlast. For those who don't know what a lazaretto is (such as myself before this game), they were quarantine and hospital facilities for maritime travelers that began in the 16th century and ended as late as the 1930s. Many of these old buildings still stand today. I commend Iron Monkey for choosing such a unique location ripe with possibilities.
Unfortunately, Lazaretto is less interested in delving deep into the concepts the setting could provide. Instead, it is more interested in using it as an excuse to jump start the narrative. You play as the descendant of an employee who used to work at a now-abandoned lazaretto. You find a key that opens one of the maintenance areas of the facility in your grandmother's home and you go off to explore it because you dreamed about it. Other than this, there is no story or main stakes for our unnamed protagonist. More on him later.
The gameplay revolves around exploring creepy rooms, reading notes to piece together the lore of the facility, finding keys, running and hiding from enemies, solving the occasional environmental puzzle, and attempting to immerse yourself in the terror around you. To anyone familiar with the genre it will sound like old hat by now. Whether this is a positive or negative will depend entirely on what you are looking for in your horror experience. Some may find the idea of once again hiding in the same old lockers and writing discoveries in your journal to be an old comforting friend, while others like myself may find the experience growing a little stale somewhat quickly. The view from the inside a locker will look familiar to anyone who has played Alien Isolation or Outlast.
Lazaretto goes for an immersive horror experience, and for a little while it succeeds. The game opens strong with some genuinely spooky moments and scenery. The atmosphere and sound design really enhance the feeling of lingering dread in these early portions. I greatly commend Lazaretto for not resorting to cheap jump scares. When the game does scare you, it’s genuine and earned. A lot of this is due to the phenomenal sound design that ties it all together. For example, as you ascend to higher elevation the wind intensifies, ghostly cries echo in the facility, water quietly drips near you, and footsteps will follow right behind you when no one is there. When played in the dark with headphones, the sound design alone will give you goose bumps.
You'll be spending a lot of your time running around moldy environments with the occasionally questionable texture work. Due to the size of the team and relatively low price of the game, I can certainly forgive some of the more problematic graphics.
Unfortunately, this doesn't last very long. And soon, the scares give way to routine and the game play becomes less about exploration and more about puzzle solving. As I continued along, it became a case of diminishing returns, and I almost lost track of what I was playing. Was it a haunted house? A creature feature? A delve into a crazy mind? This game doesn't seem to know what it wants to be and it clearly suffers for it. It broke my immersion, especially after the first true enemy encounter. Without spoiling anything, it's hard to imagine that it could be a threat to anyone, let alone your apparently athletic character that can easily climb up and down elevator shaft cables.
Speaking of your character, I kept asking myself, "What am I doing here?" We don't know anything about the character you play as. We aren't given any sort of insight into who he is, and his motivation is hollow at best. That isn't to say having a blank character to project upon can’t work. But if I'm supposed to be playing as a blank slate, I need some basic motivation to proceed. Because if I am supposed to be playing as myself I would have booked it out of there pretty darn quickly or jumped out of a window immediately. And there really isn't any sort of narrative reason the character couldn't just high tail it out of there through one of the many windows. If I'm playing as a specific character, what is the motivation for dealing with monsters and ghosts other than exploration of an old haunted facility for the simple sake of exploration?
In addition to this, the latter potions of the game take quite a turn for the worse, descending into the truly bizarre and psychedelic. These sections are completely removed from the rest of the experience and have you trying to solve a centralized rotary puzzle through a series of odd puzzle chambers. While perhaps some players may find the tonal shift to be refreshing, I found it to be unwelcome, and it really jarred me out of the experience. The level and puzzle designs of these later areas are, by far, the worst portions of the game as well and do not mesh well with what came before them. Again, the game doesn't seem to know what it wants to accomplish.
From a technical perspective, the game does have a few issues. If you're playing with a controller the reticule can be difficult to aim at collectible objects and turning around can be laborious. Near the beginning of the game, you have to climb a metal staircase, and I clipped right through it a few times until I restarted the game. Fortunately, that was the only game breaking bug I encountered, but other minor problems did persist. When there is a low ceiling and you try to jump, your character does this glitchy little jump that sort of bumps you around. You can clip through doors when they are opening and closing. Also, for a few monster encounters, the load point is somewhat far from the area the monster inhabits. So if you die, not only do you have to see that bizarre loading screen (the face on that screen annoyed me greatly from the moment I saw it and being forced to see it over and over did not help), you have to trek a ways back to the monster again. These technical hiccups do not spoil the game from a technical perspective, but they are there and could use some polishing.
Lazaretto lacks focus on what exactly it wants to do. Does it want to scare players with a sense of horrific immersion, or does it want to send us on a mind tripping journey? The game doesn't seem to know, and neither do I. Ultimately, Lazaretto has a strong start and truly great sound design, but I think the developers should have spent more time at the drawing board for this one. As this is Chapter 1, let's hope Chapter 2 can pull it together.