Saturnalia (Xbox Series) Review

Smart, stylish, and buggy budget horror
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Saturnalia is a game I liked way more than any aggregate score of its individual elements could convey. It’s one of those greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts games, thanks to smart designs that get a lot of mileage out of a relatively small setting and limited gameplay mechanics. That said, whether you’ll like it as much as I did might depend on your tolerance for increasingly intrusive rogue-lite elements and some expected indie jank.

Saturnalia The Cast

Layer upon layer of mysteries

Saturnalia’s many mysteries that you can solve are the highlight. Your primary objective is, of course, to find a way out of the ancient Sardinian town of Gravoi on the night of a festival celebrating a local saint. However, before you do, you’ll need to investigate several leads that reveal more of the town’s sordid history, the nature of the ancient ritual playing out, and the origins of the creature that stalks you. As you pursue an expanding network of leads, you’ll also delve into the four protagonists’ backstories and begin to understand their connection to the town and their reason for either returning or wanting to flee. You don’t have to resolve every investigation, nor do you need every scrap of evidence to resolve them, but the more you discover the more satisfying the revelations and resolutions feel. More so than the gameplay, pushing forward to uncover a new lead or titbit of backstory kept me coming back.

Of course, Saturnalia is an indie title and there are structural and budget issues that affect the storytelling. The first issue is that the opening hour or two can feel aimless as you gather seemingly unrelated information. There are short prologues to introduce each protagonist and a few scripted interactions that define your end goal, but early progression often feels like groping around the dark – often literally – hoping to stumble upon a significant plot thread or a tool to unlock new areas. On the upside, the narrative is non-linear and there are enough lines of dialogue to account for the order in which you’ve tackled an investigation or which members of the cast are present. The downside is a dialogue system that requires you manually trigger prompts to initiate dialogue or reveal a character’s thoughts. Saturnalia is awful at deciding when to display dialogue prompts – like while being chased – and makes it too easy to progress lines by mistake or interrupt important dialogue by triggering another interaction.

Growing tension or escalating frustration?

Talking of wonky dialogue prompts and interactions, Saturnalia’s gameplay loop is relatively simple and it feels like the rogue-lite structure was an attempt to add complexity and longevity. The sprawling flowchart of objectives, key characters, and clues looks intimidating but all you need to do is bring characters to important locations, sometimes with the right tool, to reveal a new lead or trigger some revelation. Not content to let you do this within a typical survival-horror framework of limited resources, desperate chases, and manual saves, Saturnalia incorporates rogue-lite elements such as perma-death and losing both your basic tools and rearranging the layout of the town when all your characters die. With frequent checkpoints and no ability to reload a save, it keeps the stakes high while retaining your story progress on resets. However, the longer you play, the more intrusive these mechanics become.

At first, it doesn’t feel like a big issue. The town is tiny by modern video game standards, relying on the clawing, oppressive darkness and the creature – with its distinctive rattle and screams – to make any distance feel threatening and ensure that getting lost, especially in the mines below the town, is all too easy. To aid you, you can often open shortcuts and each protagonist has a unique skill: Anita has a map of the mines; Paul can briefly stun the creature with his camera flash; Sergio has a satellite phone; Claudio has a ritual mask that makes it easier avoid the creature – but she also has to avoid her dad stalking the streets who’ll drag her back home. You also have access to contextually-used items and consumables – think basic tools to access new areas, energy drinks to maintain stamina, matches to light dark paths or bonfires, and firecrackers to distract the creature for a time.

Saturnalia The Creature

It’s not safe to go alone… at first

Unlike so many horror titles, Saturnalia rarely forces you to explore alone and, initially, it makes sense to combine skills by travelling together. You can find phones to call other locations to either swap between or gather the cast and, while I think a larger group might result in more frequent encounters, the AI is capable of fleeing to a safe spot while the creature focuses on you. When you inevitably draw its attention, striding away quickly, finding a corner or closet to hide in, and shutting your character’s eyes usually works. Unfortunately, a degree of RNG comes into play and is rarely on your side. There were several occasions I turned a corner right into the creature only to be captured immediately – problematic towards the finale when capture can mean instant death – and sometimes it pursued me to a safe zone and then just sat blocking the way out.

Talking of death, the closer you get to enacting an escape plan, the more aggressive the creature becomes and the stakes are much higher when instant death is on the cards. At this point, you’re more likely to experience a reset that, by default, maintains your story and puzzle progress but rearranges the town and forces you to reacquire your basic tools from several key locations. On one hand, I appreciated the escalation and it forced me to start splitting up my team to avoid long journeys through the streets or mines below. On the other hand, repeatedly resetting the town to save the entire cast – especially when bad RNG or a bug lead to sudden deaths – can become tedious. The good news is that Saturnalia allows you to customize many difficulty variables if you just want to focus on unravelling mysteries, rather than being aggressively stalked and dealing with town layout changes and reacquiring your basic tools.

Beautiful but janky

Although it can look incredible in screenshots, there are plenty of rough edges that’ll remind you Saturnalia was made on a budget – so you’ll want to go in expecting a degree of jank.

Starting with the good, the pencil sketch visuals, stop-motion animations, garish lighting, and oppressive draw distance make for a striking, heavily stylised presentation – especially when backed up by creepy ambience, tension-building music that ramps up as the creature draws closer, and a few catchy variations of the title track, “Passacaglia dei Saturnalia”. As you push through the darkness, areas of interest stand out in bright neon colours, masked villagers flee from your approach and disappear into the darkness, the creature leaves bloody trails that mark its passage, and the camera hurtles through the town towards another character if one is captured. At all times, Saturnalia feels incredibly atmospheric and oozes style.

Now although it’s easy to immerse yourself in Saturnalia’s world, it’s impossible to ignore the constant visual glitches or bugs. The character you control and any companions tend to jerk awkwardly around doorways or staircases and often clip through geometry, and you’ll see oddly juxtaposed environments as a result of the randomised town layout. Unfortunately, the most significant issues involve the creature. I experienced it teleporting through walls to grab me; I found it stuck in walls leaving me free to explore the immediate area safely; and I once had a chase sequence trigger – with the accompanying audio and visual effects – when the creature was clearly below me in the mine tunnels while I was exploring the streets. The rogue-lite structure ensures these issues are never game-breaking but they could result in unfair deaths and repetition.

Saturnalia Bugs

Smart, stylish, and buggy budget horror

Wrapping up, I again need to emphasise just how much I enjoyed Saturnalia’s limited but weirdly compelling clue-hunting loop once I got attached to the cast, their fate, and the history of Gravoi. Outside of the compelling narrative elements, I was always impressed at the smart design and presentation choices that ensure the creature feels omnipresent – even if you’re spending 90% of a playthrough simply clue-hunting and solving light puzzles.

That said, I think the rogue-lite elements will be divisive. Initially, the escalating threat felt in sync with my progression, forcing me to split my team between multiple locations while ramping up the tension. However, the closer I got to the finale, a combination of bad luck and several buggy encounters had me willfully sending any survivors to their doom so I could reset the town, revive the cast, and try for a perfect getaway yet again. At that point, the immersion factor was lost and I was just gaming the system.

A press kit and review code for Saturnalia was provided to gameblur by the publisher.

Saturnalia (Xbox Series) Review

Saturnalia (Xbox Series) Review
8 10 0 1
8/10
Total Score
  • Story
    8/10 Very Good
  • Gameplay
    7/10 Good
  • Visuals
    7/10 Good
  • Audio
    8/10 Very Good

The Good

  • A dozen interconnected, multi-part mysteries to unravel
  • Tons of incidental dialogue and banter between the cast
  • Tense exploration with light puzzling elements
  • Stylised and incredibly creepy presentation

The Bad

  • Fiddly interaction and dialogue prompts
  • The rogue-lite elements can frustrate
  • Bugs and polish issues
Total
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