Saturnalia review: Unsettling but unpolished adventure is full of scares

Sam Smith

Saturnalia is an old-school survival horror game based on scary Italian films from the 1970s, but should you spend a few spooky evenings playing it?

At first glance, Saturnalia looks like it could be a Silent Hill game from the PS3 era. However, the game uses its own distinct art style in which all character models are hand-drawn to set itself apart from similar survival horror games. Still, Saturnalia is clearly inspired by the classics in this genre.

The game is a third-person rogue-lite horror adventure where the player controls four separate protagonists as they explore a procedurally generated town – while something evil hunts them in the darkness.

Saturnalia key details

  • Price: £19.99/$19.99
  • Developer: Santa Ragione
  • Release Date: October 27, 2022
  • Platforms: Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PS4, PS5, PC

Based on the spooky folklore of Sardinia

As well as traditional survival horror games and 1970s cinema, Saturnalia is also heavily inspired and influenced by the folklore of Sardinia, a region of Italy rich with unique traditions and culture – as well as a history of mining precious materials. Saturnalia itself is a real-life winter solstice festival that predates Christmas and has been around since Roman times.

The game’s fictional mining town, known as Gravoi, plays a pivotal role in the story and gameplay, as the four characters try to solve a mystery and stay alive. Each character has their own personal quest and story, and this can end prematurely if they die before the credits roll. So, depending on who survives the night, players will unlock a different ending.

At the start of the game, we control Anita, a geologist who’s visiting Gravoi with her colleagues for a survey of the local mine – which has been opened for the first time in years. During her stay in the town, Anita had an affair with a married man and has become pregnant. She must make a decision to either stay in Gravoi to raise her baby or leave now that her geological survey is complete.

The only problem is, opening the mine again has unleashed something evil on the town and this entity now stalks the characters, trying to pick them off one by one. We won’t say too much about this aspect of the game as we don’t want to spoil it for players, but the horror gameplay involves a lot of stealth and running away from this stalker which we always found to be thrilling.

Saturnalia horror gameplay
The game will remind players of old-school Silent Hill at times.

Something lurks in the darkness

In some horror games, like Resident Evil, once you learn the stalker’s game mechanics you can play the system and overcome it by manipulating its own limitations. For example, for some reason in the Resident Evil 2 remake, Mr. X can’t enter any room with a typewriter. This becomes clear soon during his periods of stalking and strips away a lot of the fear.

This was never the case in Saturnalia and, like the Alien creature in Alien Isolation, encountering the entity was always stressful and spooky without avoidance or escape ever feeling like a chore. However, the same can’t be said of the game’s exploration mechanics. While walking around Gravoi can often be exciting and atmospheric, it can also be confusing and dull at times.

The game provides an elaborate mind map, various in-game map boards, and an array of clues to help you progress, but should you get stuck you’ll soon find your patience tested. The good news is, those who persevere will be rewarded for their efforts.

When you know where you’re going and have an idea in mind of what to do next, the roughly ten-hour run time of Saturnalia flies by, but hit a wall with your progress and the cracks really start to show. The game doesn’t always do a good job of nudging you in the right direction, but this uncertainty is deliberate though and has been designed to encourage exploration and put you on a collision course with your stalker.

Saturnalia creature
A mysterious and murderous entity stalks the characters.

Tailoring the terror

Luckily, the game has a variety of difficulty adjustments that can be very helpful if you get stuck. There’s an auto walk feature that we used once or twice when we were unsure of where to go. Also, the procedurally generated map changes every time all your characters die. If this isn’t for you, that can be turned off. Essentially, you can streamline your experience in Saturnalia, or go in completely blind, depending on your preference.

We are huge fans of the game’s art style although it took some getting used to. The hand-drawn characters can be a little janky at times, resembling awkwardly posed marionettes, but this soon adds to the creep factor and gives the game a unique and unsettling flavor. The atmosphere is claustrophobic and oppressive with the buildings feeling like they’re closing in on you in the candlelight and the game’s use of colors while you explore dark corners while shakily holding a lit match is like nothing else we’ve seen before.

The game’s narrative reminded us of the iconic and utterly terrifying horror film Don’t Look Now with Donald Sutherland in that it feels like the characters have been pulled into a bad dream, and that’s exactly what Saturnalia will give players once they make it to the end. It also reminded us of the tragic fairytale The Little Match Girl at times, even having an art style similar to some adaptations of that story.

Saturnalia horror
The game’s use of color throughout is used to highlight different things – such as the creature.

The Verdict – 7/10

Saturnalia is for the horror game and cinema aficionado who’s looking for something different to play this Halloween. The game is far from perfect and will frustrate and confuse some players, but those with an eye for the creepy and the quirky may find their new obsession.

This is a game that requires a dark room, an open mind, and plenty of patience, but those who can muster up these things will have a good time – just don’t be surprised if you avoid the dark for a long while to come.

Reviewed on Xbox Series S

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