Condemned: Criminal Origins

Condemned: Criminal Origins

Condemned is a first person survival horror game released in 2005 by Monolith Productions. I have been excited to play this game ever since I found out Monolith was the developers: they have a pretty good track record with horror games, having developed the F.E.A.R. series as well as the criminally underrated 2.5D FPS BLOOD. Needless to say I was wielding a hefty bar of expectations going into this.
You play a member of the FBI’s Serial Crime Unit named Ethan Thomas. Throughout the game it is noted that Ethan has “gifted” investigative abilities and near-superhuman durability. These act mostly as plot convenience to explain why you seem to be much more adept at taking a 2X4 to the face than most people. The game is played in a first person perspective only breaking from that for cut scenes. Condemned opens with you and a few other law enforcement officials arriving in a seedy part of the fictional city of Metro to investigate the crime scene of a notorious serial killer. The games notes early on that violent crime and psychotic behavior have recently been on an increase all over the city for reasons that slowly get revealed over the course of the game. The first 20 minutes or so serve as a tutorial of sorts for the games various mechanics. Movement on PC is typical for a first person game, simple and intuitive WASD to move and mouse to look around. You are shown how to use your flashlight for finding your way through poorly lit areas, which is the entire game. Luckily, your flashlight was not made from cardboard and congealed sadness so it has a charge time of more than three and half minutes(Im looking at you Outlast clones). After fumbling around in an condemned building (get it?) you arrive to find the latest victim of a killer known as “The Matchmaker.” Here you are introduced to one of the central game-play mechanics: investigating stuff.
Ethan comes equipped with a variety of investigative tools that I am sure were the talk of town in 2005. You get to take photographs, scan and collect samples in order to piece together what is happening around you. All of this gets transferred digitally with what looks to be a Nokia flip-phone. Did I mention this game is about twelve years old? Your correspondent who process the clues is a genuinely delightful woman named Rosa. Most of your interactions with her will be over that dinosaur of a cell-phone you carry around until a late-game level where you actually meet up with her for some clue hunting and hobo beating. The investigative parts themselves are never any kind of mind-bending puzzle or a desperate hunt for obscure clues. You get a prompt that something intriguing is nearby, then you pull out an appropriate tool and collect some samples. It makes for a nice breather in between taking a gas pipe to the mouth and crushing un-medicated psychopaths with a sledgehammer. These moments usually serve to forward the plot and character interactions between Ethan and Rosa who begins to feel like your only friend in a world going mad.
I mentioned beating up homeless people and the mentally ill a few times earlier so let me explain that before you begin thinking Condemned is basically Se7en with a lot more murdering of the underclass. I mean, it kind of is in a sense… Early on in the game you get the notion that there is something far bigger, and supernatural, going on behind all the serial killer investigative stuff which is affecting all the crazy people who are trying to beat you to death. While the story itself is not some mind-blowing narrative that will shake you to your very core, the way it is told is admirable at the very least.
As you progress through the game, titillating tid-bits of an otherworldly horror are doled out for you to unravel. Soon after “The Matchmaker” scene, another killer crashes the party, kills your two cops buddies with your gun, then disappears. Ethan is left taking the fall for the murdering of two police officers. This sets up the bulk of the story with Ethan trying to stop this mystery killer and clear his own name with the FBI. The game itself is level based, with Ethan traveling through a variety of run-down and derelict libraries, sewers, farmhouses, warehouses, subway systems and mannequin shops- more on that later. In fact 99% of the game is you just trudging through crumbling, decaying shit-holes. The levels themselves are relatively non-linear while not devolving into abstract labyrinths. Most levels will contain a few special melee weapons like shovels, fire axes, sledgehammers and crowbars. Aside from being powerful ways of defending yourself, they will give you access to areas you could not get to otherwise. It is a pretty novel way of implementing a key system, as a lot of the times these weapons will function as such. The fire axe is especially fun because you hack down doors ala Jack Nicholson in The Shining. (Side note, I said ‘Here’s Johnny!’ out loud EVERY SINGLE TIME I chopped a door down in this game). Other times you will need to investigate a crime scene before you can continue through the level.
There are two types of collectibles to be found throughout the game. Yea, only two. It seems so minimalist compared to today games that can have their playtime padded out by an additional 50 hours or so. Simpler times, I guess. Also, they are actually tied to the plot. The more numerous ones are dead/dying birds. It is stated the birds are also being affected by whatever is driving the people mad. Only instead of becoming violent, their brains simply dissolve into mush and then they die; It’s pretty sad. The other type are these strange metal bars you can find. Not much is said about them, but they will almost be found with drawings of eyes surrounding them so I think they are important.
Now some people have taken offense to the perceived repetitiveness of the levels (See above: crumbling shit-holes) and while that would be a valid argument if this was a different style of game, since similar accusations were thrown at horror games such as Doom 3 or Quake I, it is my humble opinion that Horror is one of the few genres that can actually benefit from a more slow-burning uniform imagery or color palette. As a huge fan of dark ambient music I can say that a tense, atmosphere can be sufficiently achieved when you get the notion that it is unending, droning and oppressive.
The steak and potatoes of Condemned, and one of it’s biggest selling points, is the combat. Condemned is a bit of an oddity in that while it is a first person perspective game and guns do exist in it, it is not an FPS. The few guns you find are far and few between with no extra ammo; what you find in the clip is what you get. Most of the combat will be melee-based and ohh boy is it brutal. Time and technology may have rendered Condemned a bit aged, but the depressive, visceral nature of the combat is still second to none. It is the polar opposite of stylish fast-paced combat seen in games like Devil May Cry or even a Soulsborne game. It is deliberately slow with a white knuckle sense of tension. You can block, kick, or take a swing. On higher difficulties one or two wrong moves will end with you getting a hunk of rebar cracking your skull like a soft walnut. You do get a taser as a trump card to stun enemies and even steal their weapons. The taser has a cooldown so don’t think you can be happy-go-lucky with it. Also, enemies take no shit in this game.
AI in this game is actually pretty impressive. Most enemies in other video games are of two flavors. They will be tactical and hide behind cover taking pot-shots and verbal-vomiting chunks of random military jargon. The other type run in a straight line and beat your head like they have not eaten in three days and someone told them your skull was hiding the last bag of chips. On top of that, you have a stamina bar and no regenerating health. So woe be to those who think they can flake out on a fight and hide behind a dumpster so their plot-armor can mend itself. The enemies in this game are a cut above the rest: they will skulk in the shadows, flank you, and hide in wait for an ambush waiting for your oh so smash-able body to get within range of their gym door locker. Enemies will also block, kick, or even feign attacks to get an opening on you. If you take their weapon they will even retreat and seek out another piece of random debris to pound on you with. Some enemies will have guns; they are a top priority, because they have a gun and odds are you won’t. Another good reason to run into a hail of gunfire is enemies in Condemned do not have magic infinite ammo like most games, so if you kill them quick you could get a fully-loaded gun to wreak havoc with.
Enemies come in all shapes and sizes. Random bearded hobos, relatively clean-shaven hobos, female hobos, but unfortunately no bearded female hobos. You even come across emaciated sewer junkies who crawl around on all fours and generally give you the creeps. Eventually, you come across guys that P90-X professionally and can easily break you in half if you’re not careful. Towards the end of the game I even saw a guy who looked like the Nemesis from Resident Evil 3 got really, really, fat. Those guys could throw some serious hands. The single most interesting enemy encounter took place in the mannequin shop I mentioned earlier. Here you come across people wearing the mannequin pieces like armor over their skin and will pose as mannequins in order to catch you off guard. It is exactly as creepy as you would expect. At one point I turned a corner, saw a mannequin in a real aloof pose and leaning on a cane. I looked away, then turned back to see the “mannequin” was staring at me. He then grabbed the cane and started swinging. It was an incredible and unique moment of horror for me. Now I
won’t spoil too much end game content, other than to tell it eventually cranks the supernatural aspect up to a solid 7 and gives a rather fun final boss who looks like kind of like a Cenobite.
The graphics are not cutting edge by any stretch even for that time still, they do get the job done and it does not take away from the story or gameplay. While the character models are a bit blocky, the animations for them are quite varied and fluid. While Condemned may not have reached the iconic status of other horror games from that era, it is still a great game you should not pass up on playing.

It is currently 14.95$ on Steam in case 5 pennies is a deal breaker for you, because I got it on sale so it totally was for me.

The Consuming Shadow- Minimalism Maximized by B.B. Blazkowicz

The Consuming Shadow is a 2D rogue-like survival horror game by Yahtzee Crowshaw. In it you play as a character known only as “The Scholar” who is tasked with stopping an invading “Lovecraftian” god by discovering and completing a banishment ritual at Stonehenge.

Game-play is split between plotting courses across an overland map of England in your car and exploring various “Dungeons”. I chose the title “Minimalism Maximized” because the game executes a dizzying level of subtly and complexity using only the barest of bones.

One of the first things you notice when opening the main menu is a rather simplistic 2D art style. I would argue that not only does this not take away from the horror experience, it actually can and will add to it. Here in the main menu you see a silhouetted player character hunched over a desk in a nearly pitch black room giving a basic summary of plot details.

Within the menu itself you have the option of beginning your journey or killing yourself. This is a masterfully crafted execution of both the games tone, and one of it’s central game play mechanics. Clicking on ‘Kill Yourself” starts a mini-game where you frantically tap the mouse to keep a silhouette of your character from putting a gun to their head and pulling the trigger.

After you begin your journey you find in yourself in your car with a map of England and a variety of procedurally generated towns. You will notice a sixty hour timer on your screen. Time management is a vital factor here. If you fail to die within sixty hours, the invading god will do what he does. Which is invading, and killing you. You have a health, sanity, and ammo count meters to contend with. Also here is another great moment of subtly. In your rear view mirror is a post it note with the words “Don’t look back” written on it.

At first it seems almost whimsical, but as your sanity wanes, you start to see it as a call for clarity in a world going mad. Your car is where you can heal from a refillable med-kit, and take narcotics to temporarily restore sanity (albeit with diminishing returns).

You can also find your book of clues and a spell book. Clues will logged as you find them. They are integral to completing the game. They are randomly sorted each play through to always keep you guessing. Your main concern is to discern the identity of the invading god and the correct runes needed for his banishment ritual.

This segues nicely into your spell book. Here you keep all the spells you have learned. You can use a variety of spells that can heal, illuminate areas and highlight your goal in a dungeon or damage enemies. Using spells saps your sanity there is a steep risk/reward aspect at play here.You will also receive texts from time to time in your car.

They run the gamut of job offers from your employer, The Ministry, family texts that can add or subtract sanity and random numbers or threats from cultists. Also you can sort through equipment you find in dungeons and purchase from towns. These while not necessary, they can be extremely useful.

This section of the game has a somewhat Oregon Trail feel with traveling from town to town in a non-linear fashion while coming across a variety of random encounters along the way. The texts and encounters only occasionally have a massive impact on your play through. Most of them exist to add flavor and immersion to the game world  Towns themselves will consist of either friendly towns or towns that have fallen to the shadow.

Friendly towns give you the option to scavenge for supplies and a hospital for mending wounds, refilling med-kits and buying more drugs. All of this is conveyed through a simple but effective images of towns with accompanying text.

Fallen towns are where the meat of the game-play is located. Here you will find “dungeons” consisting of various realistic settings like hospitals, parks and warehouses. Objectives will be rescuing a hostage, closing a dimensional rift, defeating a large creature or finding an important artifact.

I am going to leave an important note here, imagine it as a post it note on your rear-view mirror. You, will, die. You will die a lot. It is not simply a Dark Souls combat style of masochist difficulty, it is a central game-play mechanic.  Completing dungeons, killing monsters and piecing together clues about the impending gods arrival all give you experience. The difference here is, you only level up when you die. Every level unlocks birth signs which are used to boost your stats at the beginning of each new journey.

Birth signs are placed in the sky near astrological symbols which confer health and sanity bonuses, to other things like loot drops, research buffs, spell effectiveness and larger ammo capacity. Combat consists of using your pistols for ranged, or pistol whipping for melee. Here lies one of my favorite aspects of Consuming Shadow and one of my favorite types of horror game combat in general. Combat in horror usually falls into one of three categories. On one extreme you have the Outlast/Amnesia style horror combat, where there is basically no combat. You’re a wet paper bag lost in the wrong side of town.

You stealth about and run when you realize you suck at sneaking. On the other end is the Doom 3/Dead Space style combat. Your a sentient oil drum filled to the brim with whoop ass. you mow down all sorts of monstrosities and neer’do’wells with gleeful abandon. The Consuming Shadow falls into that happy medium between the two ala Resident Evil 1-3 or Zombi.

A wonderful chunk of corned beef and sour-kraut between two slices of wholly different loaves of bread. You have means of defending yourself, sometimes it is the better option. Other times, it is not. The dungeons are procedurally generated making each play through fresh and new. Here you will encounter various ghastly creatures and occasional cultists; human foes who cast profane magic at you.

Taking damage or leaving rooms with enemies in them result in sanity loss(among other ways) While sanity mechanics have been implemented in other games, I find Consuming Shadow executes it almost to perfection. As your sanity drains, a whole host of uncanny visual effects begin happening.

Translucent black botches appear on the screen, a grain effect fades in an out. Sometimes the silhouette of your character will disappear entirely, doors will shift about and enemies that only exist in your mind will appear. While are all well and good despite being cribbed to some level from Eternal Darkness, there are other sanity effects that nail the atmosphere and horror like a professional sniper.

One in particular is when the objective text at the beginning of a dungeon is replaced with “kill yourself” “die die die” etc, only to seamlessly transition back into the normal text while your reading it. The other major one is far more sinister. Various commands in the town and car sections will randomly be replaced with the “Kill Yourself” command for a few moments. You will accidently hit this. If you succeed at pulling the gun from your throat, you have a high chance at recovering some sanity, But, it gets progressively harder every time you enter the mini-game. While It is never stated in any way, a lot of background story telling is at play here when infer that even when you are completely out of ammo, you still have one bullet left. It is a great reinforcement of the despair and morbid atmosphere in this game. Even when your characters head is held high, they still know in the back of their mind the only fail safe way to save themselves from the darkness is to simply end it all.

The endgame of all this is to discover enough clues about who the invading god is to form the correct banishment ritual. The place of his summoning will always be found at Stonehenge, the farthest point from where your journey begins.  When you die, or complete the game (you lucky bugger) you’re presented with a rundown of your characters actions. This is one of many moments where Yahtzee really flexes his writing chops and despite their random nature, I found all of them compelling and enjoyable. See you only get one life in Consuming shadow.  A hallmark of the rogue-like genre is “Permadeath” So when you die, it’s game over, start over. For most games in this genre it works to make a steep difficulty curve. In the Consuming shadow, it allows for a multitude of great stories to Emerge. For example, within the lore it is stated to be multiple parallel universes. That means, that every single play through is a canon play through. Neat huh?

I believe I covered most of the meat that is Consuming Shadow. Now I am going to move on to the even meatier bits. The filet side of the T-bone steak if you will. When you die, you will find a bestiary tab unlocked in the main menu. Here is a list of all the enemies you encountered and a percentage of your knowledge about them. While this is hardly new in games, the way it is executed is. The writing on them is unveiled piece by piece, sometimes ending in the middle of a word. For me, this created an almost addictive sense of going back and raising as much hell across England as possible just for a few more lines of lore that were denied to me. You will also discover diary pages giving background info leading up to your characters involvement in the plot. With the Insanity Edition now out for some time, you can play a number of challenge modes including an endless descent version of the Stonehenge dungeon. You can even unlock three hidden characters with their own unique stats and abilities. (Minor Spoiler warning) One of them MIGHT be one of the main characters of previous Yahtzee games. While this game does have a lot of variables left to random number generation, they fit to together cohesively and lead to some truly unique and horrifying scenarios.

One in particular for me was when I had reached the bottom of Stonehenge. I collected all the clues and prerequisites for the proper banishment ritual, found the summoning room and cleared it of all opposition. Sounds good so far right? Well, By this point my narcotics wore off and I had lost every last bit of my sanity. With no sanity, you are unable to concentrate enough to use spells. I had no options left, I had no time left. I was a madmen running around in the stygian catacomb under Stonehenge with every last piece needed to put an end to the machinations of the invading god, and with it’s altar right before. Alas, I was to far gone to complete the ritual. I died a broken man with the key in my hand, and the lock at my feet. Other standout moments include being chased by various death-less beings after completing a dungeon objective and being forced to escape. At first it seemed a simple jump scare, but combined with low visibility, sanity effects and the need to overcome regular monsters still lurking about, it became a rapidly rising scene of nail biting tension.

In moments like this the simple art style really brings adds to the horror. The monsters are detailed enough to give your form, but vague enough to let your imagination fill in the rest.

The sound track like any good horror sound track, gives the atmosphere weight and depth. Somber piano melodies with haunting synth inspired sections remind me of the classic Resident Evil games with a touch of the Silent Hill franchise. The Consuming Shadow is a brilliantly executed game. It’s simple art style is deceptively sinister.

The sound track sends chills up my spine at all the right moments. The combat is beautifully clumsy. While some may not like it, it does reinforce the notion that your character is just as meagerly equipped to deal with absolute horror like any person existing in the real world. The writing is top notch, and one of the greatest strengths of this game.

Now that I have finished gushing on about a game whose developer I admit to be a fan of most all his content, I will finally quit dragging my feet and get into the flaws. I do this in order to maintain a thin veneer of objectivity.

My first nick-pick would have to be the near uselessness of lock picking. You start with three lock-picks, finding more is scarce. I accept that. The problem arises when the chance of picking a lock starts at 15% and only goes up by 5 for every failure. While you can up your lock picking chances by placing a birth star near the proper astrological sign, nearly every single dungeon has a set of keys to be found making it practically useless. Especially when you can just beef your health and melee damage like me and become a insane gains-bro running around in body armor pistol whipping the ever-loving shit out of H.P. Lovecraft’s rogue gallery. Another nitpick would be the birth sign leveling system. It changes the placement in the sky with some signs not appearing at all. While I understand the merits behind it, I find it most displeasing when I am unable to be a hulked-out maniac.

Sometimes you are forced to a playthrough with a load-out you are not familiar with or not really wanting to play with. One major gripe I do have is lack of any ability to hold more than a single clip of the three ammo types for your 9.MM. I understand and prefer for horror games to have an inventory management mechanic, but any ammo you find that is over a full clip just disappears.

On the same note of inventory, money is incredibly scarce, which is fine in and of itself. The problem is when you find yourself lucky enough to have more equipment than need be, but nobody on a whim to sell to for some badly needed scratch. There have been plenty of playthroughs for me where I found myself staring at a syringe full of that sweet, sweet, drug-stuff and scratching the skin off my neck but no money to buy it. Even though I did have a garbage barge full of ammunition. Apparently the concept of bartering is the first thing lost when cosmic terrors descend from beyond the stars.

The Consuming Shadow was developed on the game maker engine By Ben “Yahtzee” Crowshaw. The sound track was composed by Mark Lovegrove.

I would recommend The Consuming Shadow to anyone who enjoys a good horror game and has no problem with occasionally putting a bullet through their own throat.

I give it 4/4 banishment runes.

It is available on Steam for the low price of 10 American dollars. (Value of American dollar is subject to change on a moment to moment basis. …Sorry I didn’t vote for him.)

Guest post by B.B. Blazkowicz.

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About B.B.

“B.B. Blazkowicz is a horror fiction writer currently tied to a chair in an Antarctic research facility. A bearded man who smells of Scotch says one of us is assimilated. If you are reading this please send me transportation to
your densest population centers.”