Original Release: 2003, Platform: PC, Developer: Idol FX, Publisher: iGames Publishing, Image Source: GOG
Nosferatu: Wrath of Malachi is one of the most interesting horror games I’ve played in some time. Not necessarily because it’s good, mind you. In fact, when I look at the long list of games my various Escapist cohorts and I have reviewed over the past few years, Wrath of Malachi is perhaps one of the most imperfect. The thing is, for all it does wrong, I still found myself (mostly) enjoying the heck out of it.
Much of this has to do with its expert use of atmosphere. While it never quite reaches the level of horror masterworks like Resident Evil 2, it still does a great job of establishing a mood that’s deeply and thoroughly spooky. The environments are shadowy and gothic, while the music, played out against a backdrop of gusting winds and booming thunderclaps, works well at putting you on edge even when there’s technically nothing to fear. The game, like the best horror movies, uses the basic tools of sound and visuals to leave you feeling perpetually unsettled.
I also loved the premise. Taking place in 1912, the game centers on the Patterson’s. A family of British aristocrats, they’ve gathered at Castle Malachi to attend the wedding of their eldest daughter to a mysterious Romanian count whose fortunes could revitalize the family’s waning status. Not all is as it seems, however. When the player character, James Patterson, arrives, he finds the castle overrun with monsters and his family imprisoned or worse.
That might sound a bit cliche, but that’s kind of the point. The story and setting are a deliberate homage to classic horror movies. The game even goes so far as to put a faux film grain filter over all of its visuals. Moreover, while the concept might not be all that original on the surface, it’s used in the gameplay in some interesting ways. Most pointedly, where another game might have focused on conquering the evils of the castle, your primary objective in Wrath of Malachi is tracking down and rescuing your family.
It’s a task that’s easier said than done. Every time you start a new game, the locations of the Patterson clan are randomized. Every time you play, your family members will have completely new locations. Topping things off, the game includes no map to guide you and has a ticking clock that kills the Patterson’s if you don’t find them fast enough. And trust me when I say that you’ll want to. Whenever you save one of your relatives, they’ll reward you with an item that will help you as you delve deeper into Castle Malachi. If they die, your chances of getting their item goes with them, making the rest of your adventure that much harder.
Or at least it would, if the game were actually difficult. I played on Medium and, save for the earliest hours where I was still learning the game, I never really found Wrath of Malachi to be all that challenging. Some of that is due to many of the enemies being under-powered. Whether you’re fighting a deranged villager, a leapy demon beast thing (should probably figure out what those are called) or a hellhound, many of your foes can be killed with a single blast from a musket or flintlock pistol. Even with all the odds stacked against you, it’s not that hard to stay alive and save the day.
The game can, at times, also be easy to manipulate, both in large and small ways. Take the aforementioned leapy demons. Your natural reaction when encountering one will most likely be to gun it down with a musket blast. However, if you’re willing to experiment a little bit, you’ll soon find that your basic punch (a.k.a. the attack you never use in any other game) is almost embarrassingly effective against them. Your fists are so fast that the poor buggers won’t have a chance to defend themselves. You can literally pummel them to death like Apollo Creed coming out of retirement.
Far larger than that little cheat however, is the way it’s possible to exploit the randomization system. You see, it isn’t just your relatives that get randomly placed. The positioning of ammunition, health kits, and enemies is also something that’s procedurally generated. Unlike the locations of the Patterson’s, however, these smaller pieces of the game’s greater puzzle are re-shuffled every single time you load a save file. Now just think for a minute about what that means. On the one hand, this does work to help establish the game’s aura of unpredictability. On the other, it’s way too easy to turn it toward your advantage.
Let’s say, for instance, that you’re low on health and come to a room with a treasure chest. In any other game this would be a moment of minor suspense. Will it have the medkit I need? Will this be my salvation? Or will it contain another item that’s useless to me right now? In Nosferatu, all you have to do is save your game before you open the chest and then you can just keep reloading your game until it contains the item you need. You can do the same with your enemies. While some rooms will have set monsters that you’ll have to fight, many others will be populated randomly. If you’re in a bad spot you can exploit the randomizing reloads to shuffle your opponents until you meet something you’re better suited. It goes without say that this can also demolish the game’s already sparse difficulty.
Not that the game doesn’t try to do things to make up for it. Wrath of Malachi will often try to make things harder by falling back on jerky maneuvers like spawning enemies directly behind you. I can recall so many occasions where I’d search a room from top to bottom, turn my back on a corner I’d literally just finished looking at and suddenly find myself under attack by a monster that wasn’t there before. Granted, it was pretty startling when that happened, so I guess that it technically made the game scarier. That said, it never stopped feeling cheap when that happened.
In the end, your satisfaction withNosferatu: Wrath of Malachi, will really hinge on your ability to deal with problems like that. While it definitely has enjoyable things about it, its overall experience is fraught with niggling issues that can detract from its fun. For my part, I definitely bumped up against Wrath of Malachi‘s rough edges on several occasions. That said, the game is brief enough (you can finish it in under five hours) and my enjoyment of its premise great enough that I was able to get past that and have a good time. I can’t guarantee that you’ll feel the same way. That said, if you like horror games it’s definitely worth giving a try, especially when it’s only $5.99 at GOG.
Next week I’m going to forego my usual editorial and dive into another review: Sonic the Hedgehog 2! In the mean time, feel free to PM me any questions, suggestions or comments you might have!