Saturnalia from indie developer Santa Ragione is a game that’s rich in both mystery and horror thanks to its unique, unsettling atmosphere. For horror fans, it’s a commendable offering with plenty of moments that are sure to get under your skin. For those more averse to horror, Saturnalia’s core foundation is composed of mystery elements such as puzzle-solving, item collection, and town exploration that are all equally as engaging and worthwhile.
Additionally, Saturnalia offers a wealth of settings to adjust and accessibility options that’ll help guide just about anyone through the game’s cramped, claustrophobic corridors. Regardless of what sort of experience you’re looking to have, Saturnalia aims to satisfy and does so quite well for the most part. That said, there are some issues with the controls and camera that can detract at times from the otherwise immersive, engaging survival horror on offer in Saturnalia.
Ghosts of Gravoi
Set in a fictional Italian town called Gravoi, Saturnalia takes place around the 1989 December winter solstice festivities and follows a group of four characters who return to the town for different, yet equally dark reasons. The first character introduced to players is Anita who’d previously visited Gravoi in the past to assess the town’s mines.
At that time, she met and fell in love with a married man named Damiano. It’s revealed at the beginning of the game that Anita is pregnant with Damiano’s child and is now returning to both finish the work that brought her there in the first place, and tell Damiano about the baby.
Right from the jump, something seems off about the town of Gravoi as you get acquainted with it and guide Anita to different key locations. As the game progresses, Anita is introduced to a terrifying and mysterious entity referred to as “The Creature” that stalks the streets of Gravoi, along with Saturnalia’s three other main characters: Paul, Sergio, and Claudia.
The first of these characters that players are introduced to is Paul who’s a photojournalist and friend of Anita’s and has returned to Gravoi in an attempt to unearth details about his biological parents. Next is Sergio who was previously exiled from Gravoi due to being gay, but has returned to help care for his ailing father.
Lastly, there’s Claudia who’s a lifetime resident who now wishes to leave after the tragic passing of her aunt and the town’s inadequate, empty response to it. Together, the four will work to unearth clues while evading death as a result of run-ins with The Creature, who can be quite aggressive at times in pursuit of its prey.
For the most part, Saturnalia does an exceptional job at balancing narrative elements for each of its characters, in addition to helping the player get a deeper understanding of the town’s sinister secrets. That said, there are times the weight of some of the character’s personal struggles take a bit of a backseat to the gameplay with its maze-like map and creature encounters.
Aesthetic wise, Saturnalia is nothing short of lovely thanks to its hand-drawn design, surreal feel, and skillful use of color and lighting. For example, the use of eerie purple tones at night, and how the bright yellows from light sources like matches stand out sharply in contrast.
Audio is minimalistic and more effective for it as things like the sounds The Creature makes as it scuttles around feel all the more unsettling. Music in the game, like what’s played during the opening credits, also does a great job at adding to the atmosphere where nothing is quite as it seems.
Saturnalia’s gameplay largely consists of exploration through various areas within Gravoi from the Villa characters like Anita stay at to the local Mines. Moving through the town, even at the beginning of the game, stirs up feelings of unease thanks to its small, yet disorienting layout full of cramped corridors and twisting paths. This is something you’ll notice more and more as you explore as you’ll need to pay close attention to what might be around you in order to collect clues and items that’ll help you dig deeper into each character’s story.
Being aware of your surroundings will also help you avoid the aforementioned creature that calls Gravoi home and looms as an ever-present threat in the background. To further complicate things, if your actions lead to all four characters being caught by The Creature and dying, the layout of the town will reshuffle and reset.
As such, whatever routes you managed to memorize and become acquainted with during your previous run will have changed, forcing you to start the process over from scratch. The use of random levels in a survival horror like Saturnalia is extremely clever, and acts as a strong motivating force to be cautious rather than take unnecessary risks. Not to mention that on a standard run, you’ll also lose any tools and consumables you might’ve collected, though progress and key items will carry over.
If the process of map reshuffling and item loss proves frustrating, Saturnalia is also a standout in the survival horror genre thanks to its generous selection of difficulty settings to help tailor the game to your personal preferences, along with helpful accessibility options.
For example, you can choose the “Adventure” difficulty which will help you avoid map reshuffling, while also making The Creature less aggressive. If you prefer a more challenging experience, there’s a Permadeath mode where character death resets everything completely, not just the map. And, as a fun bonus, there’s an “Italian Extreme” mode as well with no mission list, no interactive maps, and permadeath.
As the game says in its description of this mode, “Good luck.”
If you dislike the game’s presets, you’re free to create your own custom difficulty setting by toggling things like village layout changes on or off, mission lists being visible or not, and things like infinite matches and infinite stamina. The game doesn’t exactly hold your hand, but to help further you along outside of its difficulty options, it does give you missions and objectives that make it easier to know what’s expected of you, which I really appreciated.
In terms of Saturnalia being a survival horror, there are indeed survival elements for players to manage in the game such as disposable matches you’ll want to use sparingly, which feels reminiscent of titles like Amnesia: The Dark Descent. You also have stamina you’ll need to manage, with stamina draining as you run. There’s no combat in Saturnalia so if one of the four characters gets caught by The Creature, and this will almost certainly happen to you at least once, that character is fairly screwed.
Despite the game’s mystery, puzzle-solving, and exploration elements, at its core, Saturnalia is still a horror game. And an effective one at that. It’s not perfect, though. I had some minor issues such as the game not wanting to read some or all of my mouse and keyboard inputs. For example, there were times where the game wouldn’t let me select “New Game” or “Continue” from the menu with my mouse, but would if I plugged in a USB controller.
The camera can also be a bit of a pain to work around, feeling sluggish when turning corners for example, or something you have to fight with as you look around smaller rooms. In addition, there are instances of stiff character movement and interactions while exploring or attempting to evade The Creature that are more noticeable with mouse and keyboard than when using a controller.
Saturnalia is a refreshing entry in the survival horror genre thanks to how willing it is to welcome players of all backgrounds, and how well-designed its core gameplay elements are. Gravoi never feels safe and there always seems to be something lurking in the shadows, even before you become acquainted with The Creature.
Meanwhile, each of the game’s characters come with an interesting, yet heavy backstory attached that’ll pique your curiosity and inspire you to dig deeper. At times, the narrative can get lost in the chaos of trying not to get all four characters killed, but when it’s present, such as in items and clues, it’s gripping and will haunt you long after you’ve beaten the game.
This review is based on a digital code for the Epic Games Store provided by the publisher. Saturnalia is available now on PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Series X | S, Nintendo Switch, PC exclusively on the Epic Games Store, at a price point of $19.99 (USD). The game is also free to redeem on the Epic Games Store until November 3, 2022.
- Creative art style, creepy atmosphere
- Exceptional sound design
- Approachable puzzles with helpful clues and prompts
- Plethora of adjustable settings, accessibility options
- Engaging narrative blend of horror and mystery
- Stiff movement, awkward camera
- Mouse/keyboard input refused to work at times