Developer Santa Ragione sketch out a truly engrossing folk-horror, Alexander writes.
Folk horror, from The Wicker Man to The Excavation of Hob’s Barrow, tends to elicit a highly specific mode of unease, one instinctively relatable to the social animal that is the human being: the vague certainty that everyone around you is privy to some vital piece of information you’re missing. This summarily describes the mood for Saturnalia’s cast of playable characters, who find themselves in the Sardinian town of Gravoi during the festival of St. Lucia on 21 December 1989. All are outsiders but somehow connected to the reclusive island community.
But this is no idyllic Mediterranean paradise. Rather, it’s a craggy fortress that a feeble sun paints the colour of rotten yolk, where the sea shimmers beneath jagged cliffs like a vast oil spill, and a sulphurous mist rises from the cobbled streets come sunset. Befittingly, it has been barricaded for the duration of the festivities so that none can escape after the mass you’ve been rudely excluded from has concluded, only for a masked entity to start prowling the winding alleys and deserted thoroughfares. Thus, sneaking through the labyrinthine town, cowering behind Piaggio tricycles, and breaking into local establishments, each of our wards pursues their individual agendas – Anita clarifying the status of her illicit affair with the local sacristan, Sergio discovering the fate of a lover left behind decades ago, and so on – alongside the shared goal of surviving the night and leaving the accursed place.
An open-world horror-adventure that plays like a southern European riff on Pathologic, Saturnalia benefits immensely from the same refusal to explain basic mechanics, whether that’s the areas it designates as safe or the precise function of key items. It adds to the sense you’re a stranger here – an unwanted one at that. The resultant disorientation is
not just true to the setting (as anyone who has become lost in these maze-like villages can attest to) but also a brilliant means of ramping up the tension to near-unbearable levels, when every confused turn runs the risk of trapping you in a dead end with the creature at your heels.
As your investigations shed light on Gravoi’s guilty past, the pieces of criss-crossing individual histories are assembled into a mosaic of persecution and abuse that highlights another genre hallmark: the struggle between modernity and tradition. It’s here that Santa Ragione’s otherwise brilliant horror experience falters, its progressive bluster deflating in the eagerness to paint each of the local residents a different hue of bigotry with almost no exception, and its stereotyping of the “provincial mindset” just as misguided as the conservative attitudes it purports to denounce.
Saturnalia’s hollow politics aside, the underlying experience is among the most eerie, engrossing, and original in what has been a marquee year for horror indies, enhanced by distinctive aesthetics and an all-pervading air of mystery conveyed by the setting and reinforced by its opaque mechanics. As a real-world travel guide, Saturnalia won’t be much help. But it makes for a hell of a horror game.
At once engrossing and frustrating, Saturnalia is a unique folk-horror experience.