The Church in the Darkness is a difficult type of experience. From a creative standpoint, it wonderfully recreates a time in American history when cults were an issue. Brainwashing the lost and promising something greater drove cult leaders to prey on people. The Church in the Darkness puts players in the shoes of Vic, an ex-cop looking for his/her (gender is the player’s choice) nephew, who has joined the Collective Justice Mission. The CJM is run by Isaac and Rebecca Walker, who started the group in Oakland, before going to South America. While the premise is intriguing, The Church in the Darkness failed to convert me into a believer. Let’s dive in.
Live or die by your beliefs
The Church in the Darkness is a top-down adventure game that lets you play in your preferred style. Pacifism or straight-up murder can define your character. Everybody in the South American camp is there looking for a new life. Many trust Isaac and Rebecca, while others are having second thoughts. Ultimately, most people in the CJM are loyal to their leaders. Knocking out or killing enemies without hiding bodies will send the commune in a panic. Guards fill the grounds with guns. They will shoot first and ask questions later. Running or fighting is an option, but resources are limited. It may feel great to kill someone, but every bullet counts.
By holding the B button, you can see the line of sight of everybody you come across. Characters in yellow are civilians, orange are grunts with pistols, red are heavies with shotguns, and green are important people. There are so many characters on screen that it becomes overwhelming. Some moments are so stressful because it feels like you can’t run anywhere without being caught. Sometimes, that’s the truth. In those moments, I found myself wasting bullets to fight and I even threw rocks to lure guards in my direction. My heart pumped because of the helplessness I felt running around the campsite. My issue is that it often felt more stressful and overwhelming instead of fun.
You can pick up pistols, shotguns, chloroform, and cyanide pills, among others to dispose of enemies. When Isaac and Rebecca rally their troops to hunt you down, Vic can disable or reset alarms to take the heat off him. It’s truly a game of choice, but sometimes freedom isn’t the best thing.
Wishing for something linear
The Church in the Darkness isn’t predictable because there are multiple ways to complete your objective. With 19 different endings, players are given the freedom to do what they want. Your choices will have an effect on the ending you get. Killing enemies will have Rebecca and Isaac lamenting on the intercoms about how they knew America would come after them at some point. They will tell their followers how people are being killed. Even some characters you need to talk to will treat Vic differently depending on decisions.
After losing all of your health, Vic is captured by the Walkers. Sometimes you’re a prisoner who can escape and continue the mission. Other times, you’ll be shot down and forced to start the game over. Your choices affect every single aspect of the experience. It’s a creative decision that’s both a blessing and a curse. I love molding my own journey, but sometimes it’s a little too much. The roguelike elements don’t feel like they belong. After losing, you can restart the same game again, or start with a completely different style of cult leaders. This randomness adds to the replay factor, but it came at the cost of my enjoyment.
I don’t mean to offend you
The social climate in 2019 is way different than it was years ago. There are things people say that are no longer acceptable. The Church in the Darkness is set in the 1970s, and because of that, the dialogue reflects the time. Rebecca, Isaac, and others talk about racism, LGBT issues, and their take on religion as a whole. While I played the game with an open mind, it’s still jarring to hear characters use hateful comments and terms that may be triggering to some. To its credit, The Church in the Darkness reflects the time period it takes place in 100%. In a time when cults like Jonestown were part of American current events, Paranoid Productions created an authentic feeling experience. It’s just difficult to hear some comments without feeling some sort of unease.
Conclusion: Don’t drink the Kool-Aid
I love the topic of cults. Some of my favorite horror films like Safe Haven and The Sacrament revolve around cults. As someone who is religious, I don’t find myself getting offended by much. Since playing The Church in the Darkness at Pax East 2017, it has been on my radar. Unfortunately, the end result didn’t impress me. The gameplay is stressful to the point of being overwhelming, the randomness feels unfair at times, and the overall experience doesn’t live up to its intriguing premise. Vic goes to South America looking for a family member, but in all honesty, he should’ve just stayed home and forgotten about his nephew completely. The Church in the Darkness isn’t terrible, it’s just a game that exists that I will never play again. After unlocking five of the nineteen endings, I’ll just leave Isaac and Rebecca in peace.