I have a strange relationship with the horror genre: casual yet complex. We see each other every so often, but only in certain ways. Horror films don’t do much for me and horror games I'm rather picky about. However I do have a soft spot for Lovecraft and the Cthulhu mythos; in a horror setting, it never fails to give me a touch of the heebie-jeebies. Bonus points if the game is steeped in lore and storytelling.
Lamentum by Obscure Tales and published by Another Indie appeared to have these qualities, plus detailed pixel art in-game visuals (something I’ve been borderline obsessed with for some time). So I dove in and prepared to question my sanity for a while. Well, in a video game setting, that is.
Lamentum takes place in New England in the mid-nineteenth century. Victor Hartwell is a prosperous gentleman who is happily married to his sweetheart Alissa. The demo opens to Victor waiting in a picturesque garden for Alissa to meet him after a piano lesson. The sun is just beginning to set, the sound of a flowing fountain fills the air and an old man sits nearby enjoying a good book — beautifully peaceful.
And when given control, I took the opportunity to have a lovely stroll around the garden. By that, I mean acquaint myself with the controls as quickly as possible and practice running like the wind. I wasn’t about to be lulled by the peaceful introduction, nice though it was.
I probably invited some very questioning looks from the old man as I darted in and out of the hedges.
Reflexes honed and ready, I decided to convince him that I am in full possession of my mental faculties by engaging in pleasant conversation. Victor inquires what book he is reading — the old man’s response: “The Masque of the Red Death by Edgar Allan Poe. The tale of Prince Prospero’s futile efforts to avoid death... a task we all know is impossible.” Victor derives a message of hope and determination from this summary and proudly states he would do the same.
The old man replies, “Don’t you confuse hope with impossible longings.” A simple statement of aged wisdom, but one which carries so much resonance. I felt its weight in my mind like a stone falling into a river, and ripples had begun forming.
This truth, I believed, would be a pivotal truth. Even when Alissa arrives and the pair share a loving moment together, the warmth of this moment is delicately etched with unease as the camera pans upwards to the evening sky, the old man’s red book now a blot on this canvas of contentment.
A grey scene signals the start of difficult times for the happy young couple. A year has passed and Victor states he should give Alissa her medicine. Examining some notes nearby confirms that Alissa has fallen gravely ill.
A melancholy theme begins to play as we venture through the house putting the medicine together. Having always had a soft spot for powerful scores, this piece had its due effect on me. Every piano note seems to radiate sadness and hopelessness with the violins adding the feel of slowly being consumed by them. But also, underneath these layers, I could feel the faintest hints of desperation, a willingness to try anything to prevent the seemingly inevitable.
As Victor sits by Alissa’s bedside, the art style echoes games like Darkest Dungeon with its dark edges and deepening shadows, seeming to reflect the metaphorical hole of sadness they seem to be falling into.
A Virtuous Prospero
Desperation appears to drive Victor to make a choice; in his own words, “I will do anything to save her life. I’ll find a way to heal her.” He tells how he came to know of a mysterious count living away from civilization who has delved deep into forgotten sciences and possesses knowledge beyond comprehension.
After getting in touch with the count, the couple travel to Grau Hill mansion to assess Alissa’s illness and hopefully cure her. Those mental ripples from that opening conversation continue to expand as Victor walks up the house, and lightning flashes revealing a shape in the window above. The old man’s words come back with a vengeance as we enter the mansion, its vast marble hall of portraits and statues giving the eerie feeling of being dangerously out of our depth.
Victor then introduces himself to Lord Steinrot, his enigmatic host. Though cordial and accommodating, the dim red lighting of the count’s office and corners shrouded in shadows enhance the sense of unease, an uncomfortable closeness. I kept having the urge to look over my shoulder.
Lord Steinrot then asks Victor to level with him and answer him sincerely: “How far are you willing to go to heal your wife?” Voice breaking, Victor responds, “I would do anything.” The soundtrack continues to play, but in this moment I could practically hear a metaphorical door swinging shut and locking behind him. There’s no going back.
Now the hints of darkness became even more prominent. After a brief retrieval from the carriage and a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it unnerving response from the butler, Victor goes upstairs to join Alissa. The immaculate corridor becomes decrepit and covered with foliage and cobwebs, the traditional portraits are replaced with images of body parts, twisted faces and otherworldly horrors swimming in blood. I like to think I have a strong stomach, but even these small elements began to stir it.
Soon the corridor becomes blackness, punctuated by floating candles and a splattered trail of blood. I’m a huge sucker for evocative effects in pixel art games and coupled with Victor’s reflection in the blackness, it was wonderfully effective. All this leads up to shaky red-tinged visions as the madness begins.
As much I loved this execution and the intricate effects, I felt this could have been built up even more through gradual changes, more of those blink-and-you’ll-miss it moments. For example, upon leaving Steinrot’s office, some of the portraits could alter as they disappear out of shot or the statues could change just as Victor climbs the stairs. This would amp up the psychological tension just that little bit more.
Here is where Lamentum’s survival horror action begins. Victor awakes severely wounded in a room eerily similar to the one Alissa was in when bedbound. The visuals take on a more grainy effect and the soundscape changes from melodic piano to intense layered echoes of sounds reminiscent of pulses and ethereal breaths.
With headphones on, this is especially unnerving; it feels so close and claustrophobic — an inverse ASMR experience. I have quite the fondness for ASMR, so this absolutely upped the horror factor for me — shiver central, and not the good kind. Exactly what you want from a gritty horror title!
Victor then starts to make his way through the mansion searching for Alissa and comes face to face with a grotesque horror now roaming the halls. Creatures with huge gaping maws oozing with blood that encompass their whole upper half are tearing bloody chunks of flesh from their human prey.
Anyone familiar with Lovecraft’s tales will recognize the influences. Their gurgling sounds reverberating in the player’s ears are genuinely stomach-turning — another example of Lamentum’s stellar sound design. Weapons and ammunition are few and far between, meaning sometimes you have to simply try and outrun them before they rip you apart.
See, diving in and out of hedges comes in handy!
Exploration of Desperation
The inspiration from games like Resident Evil begin to shine through in the exploration and puzzles, collecting keys and symbols while dodging the tentacled grasp of the ravenous horrors. But the addition of certain item tasks and elements make it its own — a fear-riddled servant asking you bring them a rope and healing Victor’s wounds with laudanum (a highly addictive and readily available opiate from the 1800s) hammered home the depths of despair and desperation that both Grau Hill and Victor have sunk to.
The ultimate depiction of this is the White Lady statue, the colossal centerpiece of the main hall. Originally depicting a benevolent lady bearing a healing chalice to a sickly woman, it becomes a tentacled Cthulhu-esque demon draining the stricken woman of blood. The most depraved inclinations of the Old Ones awakened from the most innocent intentions and blinded desperation.
As I said, my relationship with horror is complicated. But I can definitely see Lamentum and I being a regular thing when it’s released. The macabre yet evocative imagery, the wonderfully unsettling sound design and hard-hitting subtext make for a terrifying descent into darkness. For those who wish to make the journey, a strong constitution and steady mind are a must.
Keep a straitjacket handy in 2021 — your sanity is about to be tested!