Intentional or not, The Church in the Darkness mirrors the creation of Jonestown, the South American home of the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project led by the charismatic monster, Jim Jones. Paranoid Productions’ stealth action game is also set in South American camp where the Collective Justice Mission, led by siblings Isaac and Rebecca Walker, established Freedom Town after being run out of Oakland, California because of their socialist, pro-agriculture, and heavy Christian practices. The player’s role in the game is to control Vic, a relative of a young man named Alex who has fallen in with the group and needs to be removed and brought home at the request of a distant family member. The game is purposefully vague about your involvement because it will randomly populate the world each time you play, mixing up the location of Alex as well as other characters whenever you start a new game.
The adventure through a literal heart of darkness begins with a breezy character creator that has you specifying Vic’s gender and skin color, neither of which have too great of a bearing on how the game is played. Choosing skin color is especially facetious because you never get a good enough look at the player character as the camera is locked to an overhead view. Once that’s done, you can pick a starting item for your first run which might be a health kit, a distraction item, or tools to disable alarm boxes. You’re then dropped off at a random spot situated in the extreme outskirts of Freedom Town which you will need to return to after finding Alex. You’re not truly alone in the mission as the person putting you on this quest suggests making contact with a particular person to help find your target. This is completely optional, as your map points to a general, “we think they might be here” spot in Freedom Town. However, taking the time to seek these people out rewards you with his pinpoint location. Also, these contacts have quests of their own that work in service to getting you to explore the entire compound to gain deeper insight of its conditions and mental state of its founders.
Your infiltration of the Collective Justice Mission is going to be stymied by the presence of gun-toting guards and fellow cultists trained to trigger an alarm whenever they see something out of the ordinary. And because you start the game with very few items to defend yourself with, the options for dealing with them are low. This is why it’s important to search through closets, crates, and desks because they often have items that will fill out your inventory, like food to refill any lost health, metal scraps to disable alarms, guns and ammunition, and even clothing to disguise yourself as a cultist. The easiest way to avoid attention is to simply stay out of everyone’s way. Holding down the sneaking button slows your movement to a crawl and displays a person’s line of sight. Simply avoiding these will keep you safe because the enemy AI won’t respond to anything that exists outside their sight cone - even the sound of gunfire won’t attract them if you’re a decent distance away. They will respond to items designed to cause a distraction which is a great way to break up clusters of guards blocking a path you need to reach.
Guards can be taken out simply by shooting them but if you want to keep things quiet, they can be subdued by lethal or nonlethal methods. Knocking them out means they will eventually get up and remain in play, though you can extend their time out by using chloroform or stashing their bodies in closets and outhouses. Cultists can be treated the same way, though I felt worse about killing them than I do with the guards so I tried to keep that to a minimum. If you are spotted and the alarm is triggered, the best thing to do is run away and find a place to hide as opposed to standing your ground and potentially get blown to bits by a swarm of enemies. Running away is easier since all you have to do is stay out of their line of sight until they get bored and go back to patrolling the area.
Being killed by a guard doesn’t necessarily equate to a game over screen. Well, my very first playthrough gave me a “the Collective Justice Mission doesn’t tolerate you” script before taking me back to the title screen but other instances of death saw me trapped inside a cage with a new chapter title superimposed on the screen. Each time I died and was allowed to be brought back this way began with an admonishing from Isaac and Rebecca and then given the chance to break out and keep going with the mission after they left. It appears, then, that The Church in the Darkness has a lot of variables that will shape the story depending on the player’s behavior. One of them was the nature of Isaac and Rebecca’s musings over the loudspeakers. At the start of the game, their voices can be heard delivering sermons and affirmations but after getting captured once or twice, their rhetoric got angrier. I had one session where I made it a point to kill all the guards I saw and after being shot at and sent to a cage, Isaac came by and shot me dead.
The Church in the Darkness is one of those games where what you get out of it is entirely dependent on how much work you’re willing to put in. Rescuing Alex is easy: just find out where he’s hanging out, subdue and carry him all the way back to the infiltration point. The journey back is probably the most stress-inducing portion of the game because Vic moves slower than normal when carrying a body and with the guards on high alert, you’re not going to have too easy of a time. Still, there are ways to take advantage of the enemy’s inability to see outside their line of sight and get by relatively unnoticed. Limiting your session to getting in and out does cause you to miss out on a whole lot of stuff. There’s more to Freedom Town going on than meets the eye and only by seeking out and assisting allies and rifling through desks for articles, letters, and secret reports, a larger picture starts to unfold. Even picking up an innocuous item offers a pretty big suggestion of how things might go down. Not only do these scraps of information reveal backstory but points to something big happening on the horizon, which puts the player in the position to possibly prevent it or, dare I say, go along with it. Whatever way you go about it, the game does eventually end with or without your intervention. When you start a new game after reaching one of the 18 endings, the pieces are shuffled and new allies, items, and extra starter inventory slots become available for the next playthrough.
On paper and in conversation, The Church in the Darkness is a really neat idea. It takes an accessible idea - who isn’t fascinated by cults? - and frames a stealth game around that. By all accounts, this should be the breakout game of the year! And sadly, it isn’t because there are designs that get in the way of what could have been an awesome game. Enemies don’t pose much of a threat - you could be standing twenty feet away in front of them and they wouldn’t react as long as you stay outside their line of sight. I thought it was ridiculous that I got away with killing guards while a third just stood around and did nothing. There’s a tendency to keep pressing the sneak button so that people’s sight cones are always visible and that’s about as fun as spending the entirety of Batman: Arkham Asylum in detective mode because it makes getting around easier. Harder difficulties reduce (and eliminates altogether) the visibility of the sight cones if you’re looking for a more challenging stealth experience. As far as the game’s randomization goes, even though allies and Alex’s location change, the motive for your visit never does which means you’re always going to be Vic who is always looking for Alex in a version of Freedom Town that never changes. Mixing up the relationship between the two main characters like everything else in the game might have helped to make each session feel more interesting.
You won’t find many games on the market that take on the subject of religious cults and presents them in an all too real light. In that regard, The Church in the Darkness does well by its subject matter, allowing you to investigate Freedom Town in a way that might actually change the way you look at the people who make up the Collective Justice Mission. I like that your actions have an effect on the compound, though sometimes that can be hard to discern if you’re wearing blinders by sticking to the main objective. The randomized nature of the game does allow for new-ish experiences each time you play, though I wish the game took it further, such as making Freedom Town modular so that its camps, playground, open-air theater, and places of worship could be moved around and really shake things up. As it stands, The Church in the Darkness is a decent exploration of cults from the perspective of those participating in it.
Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.