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Lora's Adventure Game Reviews: Sanitarium

Sanitarium (Game release date: 1999)
An engrossing psychological thriller with sumptuous graphics and an eerie nightmarish plot.

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Highlights: Brilliant mystery plot, creepily bizarre dreamworlds,
frightening moments, immersive play, forgiving interface
Lowlights: Awkward movement controls,

Sanitarium is a little gem of a horror game, following the surreal travels of a man who may be amnesiac, may be insane, may be dreaming, or may be the victim of a deadly medical conspiracy... or perhaps more than one of the above. To help figure out the truth, you control his journey through the sanitarium and several increasingly bizarre and dangerous dreamworlds.

This is a puzzle-based adventure game in the tradition of Zork, and it is one of the most wonderfully immersive games I have ever played, with sumptuous graphics and an eerie plot whose baffling twists and turns really do all make sense in the end. Sanitarium is rather short (two friends and I played it through over the course of a single weekend) and suffers from movement flaws, but it's hard to dwell on the negative with a game whose plot honestly had me arguing with my friends for several chapters about whether or not our character was sane, then reached a conclusion which satisfied all of us. A rare treat.

Style: Sanitarium is a puzzle-adventure game with a third-person birdseye interface. You control a single character. The plot is a psychological thriller and there are supernatural, horror, and mystery themes. The game is untimed except for a couple of realtime puzzles which you can attempt as often as you need to, and no manual dexterity is required. Combat and leveling are not elements..

Series: Sanitarium is not part of a series. It is a completely stand-alone game produced by Dreamforge.

Finding Sanitarium: This is an older game but is still fairly popular-- as of my latest revision of this page (in 2010), it was still pretty easy to find a copy. Here it is for sale on Amazon.

Getting Sanitarium to Work: I didn't have any problems getting Sanitarium to run on Windows XP, but some people have reported it locking up frequently on XP. If this happens to you, there is a patch available on this site.

Hints For Sanitarium:I do not have a walkthrough page for Sanitarium myself (it is a very linear plot and would not benefit much from my low-spoiler treatment). There is a terrific hints page at UHS which reveals only one hint at a time, so you won't accidentally learn the answers to future puzzles while scanning for the one you're stuck on.

Pitfalls In Sanitarium: There are a couple of frustrating pixel-hunting puzzles. Don't worry about the real-time challenges--if you fail one, the game will simply start you over at the beginning of that challenge again. There's no way to die or lose your previous progress in this game.

Game Length: I finished it in less than 15 hours and probably more like 10. Of course, that was in collusion with two other veteran players, and it might have taken me longer on my own. Even so, this is definitely a short game compared to other graphic adventures--but since there's not much excess travel or other time-wasters to contend with, it's got as much actual gaming content as many 30-hour games.

Age-Appropriateness: This game is rated T (for 13 years old and up) due to suspense/horror themes and violence. I'd really think twice before giving it to a younger teen, too. There's no sex in this game, nor is the violence especially graphic (lots of images of bloodstains and corpses), but some of the nightmares are really successful at inducing terror. To be perfectly honest, if I'd played this game as a 15-year-old, I would have had trouble sleeping for a while. Use your judgment.

Lora's Sanitarium Review: (Outstanding)

Plot and Quests: The main plot is outstanding, one of the best I've ever seen in a computer game, with all the individual quests contributing to a coherent and thoughtful whole. The only drawback is that like most graphical adventures, there is no flexibility in this game--there is a single plot to unfold, and a single way in which to unfold it. No alternate solutions, no choices to be made. Sanitarium has a brilliant story, but you have no input into it.
Puzzles and Mental Challenges: Sanitarium is chock-full of puzzles, and even the ones that seem ridiculous have some thematic importance. Most of them are relatively easy, but the plot itself is actually quite challenging to figure out. It kept my friends and myself guessing till near the end of the game.
Characters: You only get one PC in Sanitarium, and you cannot customize him at all. You do get to choose from several different conversational options, but even so, you get the definite feeling that you're playing somebody else's character. Since his amnesia is so important to the plot and so remarkably well-handled, this is more appropriate and less frustrating than it can be in other overly scripted games. The other characters in the game are well-done, though the voice acting is often way over the top.
Gameworld: Sanitarium starts in an eerie insane asylum and progresses through several original and spectacularly moody locales which may or may not be real. Though some of them are a little better done than others (the one with the Aztec stone god really dragged), the overall effect is engrossing.
Gameplay: Like most modern graphical adventures, Sanitarium is really just your standard Infocom game with graphics and sound appended. That isn't inherently a bad thing--I loved those old Infocom games--but this genre really has not advanced much since the '80's where gameplay is concerned, and as your main character ambles slowly across each lovely setting for the 30th time to pick up yet another clue, a veteran gamer just can't help realizing: Hey, this was much less of a pain when you could just type "E,E,N,E,NW,N,look." :-o There is no way to lose this game (other than quitting); puzzles can only be done in the same, linear order, and it's impossible to paint yourself into any corners.
Interface: The interface is competent, but not great. The speed of movement is slow, and the game requires your character to be standing in very specific positions in order to examine or activate many objects, so a lot of the player's time is wasted in watching the character walk or manevering him around in a corner. The few instances of realtime combat or puzzles are frustrating due to maneuvering issues, but thankfully Sanitarium will automatically restore your game to the beginning of any challenge you fail, so you won't lose any of your progress this way.
Ambience: This is one of the most immersive games I've ever played. The grimly surreal graphics are beautifully rendered, the music is spooky, the cutscene movies every time the character regains some of his memory are compelling. The only flaw in the excellent horror mood was some of the voice acting.

Lora's Recommendations: I recommend Sanitarium for anyone who enjoys psychological thrillers, suspense, or horror stories; in fact, I recommend playing at night with the lights out, for maximum creepy effect. However, Sanitarium isn't just a thriller; it's also a well-written and eerily illustrated adventure game with the potential to appeal to any fan of the adventure-game genre. Unless you have an active dislike for scary stories, third-person graphics, or puzzle-adventure games in general, this game is very much worth your time.

If You Loved Sanitarium: You may like the Czech horror-adventure game The Black Mirror, which also offers up a hair-raising mystery plot that really does provide enough clues for you to figure out on your own. Be aware that The Black Mirror is darker than Sanitarium, though, with violent murders, supernatural evil, and an unhappy ending. Two very well-written graphic adventure games that may appeal to people who enjoyed Sanitarium's clever plot are the absorbing fantasy The Longest Journey and the funky magical-realism/film-noir Grim Fandango. Finally, Planescape: Torment is a more action-oriented game that does involve some tactical combat, but if you liked Sanitarium, you may really enjoy the mesmerizing Gothic ambience and excellent suspenseful plot in Torment.

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