1997 Dreamforge Intertainment
Designed by Mike Nicholson; Chad Freeman, Jason Johnson, Eric Rainer Rice, Tracy B. Smith
Reviewed 1998 April 14

Rating +2 Linearity straight, segmented
Reasonability deductive Connectivity minimal
Difficulty easy Relevance moderate
Interface 3rd paned simple Real-time occasional

You are Max, a scientist working for a medical firm. After a car crash, you wake up in a dingy sanitarium, not knowing who or where you are. However, you soon discover that this reality is transient as you pass into other dreams. These dream worlds slowly reveal who you are: not just your name, but your fundamental nature. You will also uncover the story of your research and the crash, but it is almost incidental to the exploration of your character.

The dream worlds are generally surreal scenes incorporating episodes from your past together with your fears and regrets. The characters in these worlds include some people from your past as well as fictional or mythological characters that were once important to you.

Sanitarium has only a spare traditional plot, but is instead a marvelous examination of the psyche of Max. It's pleasantly disturbing with its dingy graphic design. It's also frequently gory, but the violence is implicit, not shown. Each segment reveals something of Max's past, his concerns, or his fears.

There are a handful of real-time challenges, but Sanitarium is a case study in how such challenges should be used in adventure games. Quick or frequent clicking is never required, and you never have to worry about having a nearby saved game since failure automatically restarts you at the beginning of the real-time sequence. Furthermore, your previous progress is retained. Instead of being an arcade challenge, the real-time is used to frame a different kind of puzzle, requiring intellectual solutions instead of reflexes.

There are also a lot of standalone, irrelevant puzzles. They are nicely dressed up in the theme of the game world, but they are still door locks by Rubik and plumbing by Escher. There is one big maze which is surprisingly relevant, given the theme and the chapter.

The game starts off with very easy challenges and gets more difficult as you progress towards the end. The intention is nice, but unfortunately the game never gets very difficult: it's one of the easiest games I've played. It's also notably linear. This helps its story and Max's character development, but the individual segments should have been made a bit more open.

The visual design is great, without needing excessive video hardware. It clearly presents the worlds, and generates a thick sense of atmosphere. The sound design is similarly top-notch, with good use of directional ambient sounds.

The presentation of the world is a bit unusual, for an adventure. It has the common third person perspective on a panning background, but it uses an isometric view on a very large vista. Entering a substructure (like a house in a field) causes the walls to disappear, rather than a background change. This is a common presentation in role-playing games, and Sanitarium proves that it is a good interface for adventures, too.

Sanitarium is an easy game and linear, so it plays relatively quickly, yet it is not short. There's a lot of story to go through, even if you move through it quickly. Any longer and it would have been dragging on. It's an excellent game for novices. For seasoned adventurers, the story is great but the game is weak. Although it's a good starter game, it's probably a bad choice for the kiddies because of the disturbing themes and gore.

Beware! Here are some spoiler-ridden notes on the game. They're only recommended for people who have played the game and want to see some of my rationale for my evaluations.
David Tanguay's Game Reviews
Here's a description of all the gobbledygook in these reviews. It's also a bit of an essay on the nature of adventure games.