Before I lost interest in the whole affair, I used to spend a bit of my free time wading the primoridial ooze of Steam Greenlight listings, looking for anything that merited my rather fickle attentions. One of the games I stumbled across in this process bore the cryptic title of Eleusis, which ostensibly fell into the increasingly popular sub-genre of “scary” adventures. Although the game had been previously released through smaller online stores, it hadn't crossed my narrow radar until that point, so I gave the demo a twirl and came away with two distinct impressions: 1) it was rather pretty, and 2) the gameplay seemed a bit boilerplate and unremarkable but held promise. And so, I gave the game an optimistic thumbs-up vote and pledged to revisit it if it ever cleared the Greenlight gauntlet. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one intrigued, as it was Greenlit soon afterwards and has now been formally released through Steam.
So having played the full release, does Eleusis manage to live up to its promise?
At the very least, it’s still pretty. The presentation of Eleusis is top-notch, especially considering it’s largely the work of a three-person development team. The graphics are well done, and while they won’t be confused with a big budget commercial release, they can hold their own against most anything in the indie world. The downside, being made using the Unreal Development Kit, is that everything tends to have the engine's characteristic otherworldly shininess, as if the entire world’s had a onceover with a coat of lacquer. There’s also not much in the way of variety, as most every texture in the game is a variation of rock, dirt, grass or wood, but it works okay given the game’s rather limited scope and setting.
The sound design is similarly minimal. On occasion, a bit of spooky music pipes in when you hit certain locations or trigger an event, but it’s generally pretty subdued, and most of the time you’ll likely only hear your footsteps, some crickets or running water. There’s nothing remarkable about them, but the environmental effects are fine, and the game isn’t really worse for the general lack of mood music. Variety notwithstanding, the graphics and sound work well together and do a fine job of establishing a general sense of creepiness.
The game is presented in the first-person perspective, offering the full range of controls associated with typical 3D engines. You can walk, run, strafe, duck and jump, some of which become, for better or worse, necessary at various points during the game. Eleusis makes use of physics to an extent, meaning that certain items in the game can be physically “picked up”. The targeting reticule turns into the standard hand cursor when you come across an interactive object. As opposed to a regular inventory object, however, clicking on a physics-enabled object (e.g., bottles and rocks) and holding down the left mouse button will let you pick up and carry the item (i.e., magically levitate an object in front of you) as you stroll about, for as long as you feel like holding down the button. Right-clicking while holding the item will let you give it a spirited toss. Once I discovered this, I naturally felt inclined to fling about everything that wasn’t programmatically nailed down until the novelty wore off, but these objects are all composed of an indestructible, rubber-like substance. Regrettably, this feature remains a novelty (with one unfortunate exception) and isn’t put to use to solve puzzles or otherwise interact with the world.
The game starts promisingly (if not routinely), with a nameless protagonist driving through the (presumably, based on the title) Greek countryside on his way to an estranged family reunion, when an untimely (or is it?... cue spooky music) rockslide smacks into his SUV, stranding him in the proverbial middle of nowhere. Armed with a backpack of infinite interior dimensions (aka an inventory), a flashlight and journal, you set about finding some manner of roadside assistance, which inevitably escalates (as is tradition) into a grander mystery of epic and dire proportions, with the fate of the world eventually hanging in the balance.
In the beginning, I got a rather pleasant vibe reminiscent of some of the better “traditional” horror-tinged adventure games, such as Scratches, Dark Fall and Barrow Hill. Eleusis provides a similar atmosphere, dropping you into a remote setting with a rather simple goal, where you can practically choke on the threat of lurking horrors presumably hiding behind every rock. Leaving the safety of my car behind for a wooded trail with naught but faint moonlight and my pitiful flashlight illuminating the way and the wind whipping the leaves gleefully about filled me with a fantastic notion of anticipatory dread. Pity it couldn’t last.
The tricky part with horror or suspense-themed games is maintaining the nail-biting without resorting to hair-pulling. Tension is a fickle mistress and quickly gives way to irritation when you get stuck on that one damnable puzzle for half an hour, or boredom, since the spooky hallway isn’t quite as spooky when you’ve been forced to backtrack through it a dozen times. It takes a pretty tight design to sustain tension without falling prey to adventure game design tropes.
The game is divided into three chapters: Chapter 1 provides the introduction and setup, Chapter 2 comprises the bulk of the gameplay, while the final chapter provides a brief climax. Eleusis comes pretty close to getting it right for the first chapter of the game. The pacing is relatively tight, and a fine balance is held between nudging you along in the right direction and letting you explore a bit and solve a few puzzles without becoming a slog.
Unfortunately, the second chapter, which I’ve dubbed “The Quest for Keys”, takes a few too many pages from the Adventure Game Design 101 Handbook. The puzzles in Eleusis are mostly inventory-based fare, consisting of the standard “use x on y” template, the "x" being a key and the "y" being a door for approximately 90% of the puzzles. If I had been able to just kick in a few locked doors or hop over a couple of rather small yet insurmountable gates, the game would have been done in about 20 minutes. At one point I was able to craft a lockpick, but in traditional adventure fashion, it only worked on the one specific lock of the dozen-odd such in the game. This also meant that part of the challenge in a few instances was just sorting out which damned door I was supposed to unlock, which exposes another of the shortcomings of the game design.Continued on the next page...