I’ve sneaked through a tight wooded space, past an armed guard patrol and hidden inside a church closet – and yet no matter how awesome that sounds, The Church in the Darkness is still struggling to keep my full attention.
It’s 1977 and I’m sneaking into the Collective Justice Mission’s forest compound to find my brother, Alex. The US government has branded the organisation as a radical cult, forcing them to relocate and create a socialist utopia in the South American jungle. It’s a premise all too familiar for anyone who knows about Jonestown and Jim Jones, and although developer Paranoid Productions has avoided making direct real-world comparisons, everything from the setting to the dialogue is eerily similar.
As you explore the compound you are faced with multiple encounters with these deadly cultists. A common dilemma lies in how you approach each encounter. Do you sneak around them to avoid violence or do you attack to ensure they won’t find you later? This is partly where the game loses its focus due to basic enemy AI. These characters move back and forth between two points, chasing you for about five seconds if they spot you before returning to their posts. Worst of all, there’s no personality to these characters. I never felt bad about killing them, they are mostly robotic husks.
Much like other roguelites of its type, The Church in the Darkness features items that can be permanently unlocked for future runs. There’s a lot of randomisation in each playthrough, including key character locations, item spawns and even the shifting personalities of the cult leaders. This is one of the weaker elements of the game, where the roguelite structure is at odds with the ‘cults are dangerous’ narrative. Everything feels artificial, structured in such a way that deep world development is harder to achieve. After all, how can you tell a convincing story when an algorithm decides what aspects of that plot you discover across the whole playthrough? It may work for a game like Sunless Sea – where the story is more dependent on player agency – but Church in the Darkness just doesn’t have enough going for it to make a compelling narrative.
And for a game about sneaking through a highly fortified area, there are very few stealth mechanics available to the player. There’s no sneak button, not that it matters because guards can’t hear anything and they have a narrow cone of vision, making a trek through the compound a case of running quickly between each objective. On your first and second deaths, the cultists capture your character but you’re given a chance to break free, but these feel inconsequential due to how easy it is to escape, recover your gear and get back on track.
To break everything up, there are several cultists you can randomly meet on your journey. These characters are friendly and offer guidance for your mission while also presenting tasks of their own that can impact the ending you may get. Many of these missions are dreaded fetch quests – bring back items from certain locations – which are as exciting as they sound. With the game having a system in place for multiple endings, of which there are dozens, interacting with these people is a must for seeing the more elaborate outcomes, but also makes for a more tedious experience due to how familiar every mission feels.
I don’t think The Church in the Darkness is terrible, but it is rather unremarkable. The concept of cult idealism and its roots in political and social atmospheres is an interesting angle to me, and this subject definitely has a place in video games (look at how titles such as BioShock and Resident Evil handle the matter). But here, the clever writing is never given a chance to spread its wings, instead becoming a shallow roguelite with weak stealth and action.
Tested on PC
Also available on PS4, Xbox One, Switch
Developer Paranoid Productions
Publisher Fellow Traveller
Disclosure a copy of The Church in the Darkness was supplied by Evolve PR