After more than three years since its original announcement, The Church In The Darkness has finally released and I can definitively say that the team at Paranoid Productions has created one of the most riveting worlds I have experienced in any game this year. Excellent voice acting, an insane level of world-building, as well as a thrilling, tough, and rewarding stealth gameplay experience makes for an engaging and engrossing experience.
But, The Church In The Darkness is held back from being a masterpiece by a few nagging issues and quality of life features that can make later playthroughs more tedious and annoying than they should be.
The Church In The Darkness takes place in the 1970s. You play as Vic, an ex-cop who travels to the Freedom Town Cult in South America at the behest of your Sister, as your nephew, Alex, has joined the Cult. Your goal: infiltrate the compound and get Alex out.
Freedom Town, or the ‘Collective Justice Mission’ as those living there prefer to call it, is a community that preaches Socialism, unity, and a general feeling of togetherness, under the guise of Christianity. Led by two figureheads, Rebecca and Isaac Walker, the community emigrated from California to South America in the middle of the Cold War and the Civil Rights debate in America. As such, they believe they are seen by the US as a threat and are paranoid that the United States Government or the CIA will destroy what they have built.
As a result, Rebecca and Isaac stockpile weapons and the cult has allied themselves with local generals to add more armed forces to its community. So naturally, they are not going to let you walk through the door.
The Church In The Darkness begins in the same way every time. You start at a random infiltration point on the outskirts of the Freedom Town Compound and are tasked with finding your way in, gaining any information you can about the whereabouts of Alex, and getting him out.
The opening hours of the game are very much a learning experience, core mechanics such as how to subdue and kill enemies stealthily are explained, but that is only scratching the surface of what is possible. The core focus of The Church In The Darkness’ gameplay is about observing your surroundings and planing out a strategy. The central feature that aids this is the ability to see every enemy’s vision cone by holding ‘Circle’. This is your main weapon. Knowing where enemies are looking and when you can sneak past them is essential to success. If you get too close to them, they will start to shoot.
The real brilliance in the moment-to-moment gameplay is that you can combine this mechanic with a number of items to aid you if a situation becomes deadly. You are able to throw an unlimited amount of rocks to distract enemies, though you can also use consumables, which are found by searching desks, lockers, and chests lying around Freedom Town. For example, a Radio Transmitter will create a loud noise distracting anyone near you, bringing them to the Transmitter’s location and allowing you to sneak into buildings you couldn’t previously access.
Chloroform meanwhile can be used to knock out enemies for longer, giving you more time to explore a building for supplies. Disguises will tighten enemy vision cones. You can even find weapons, such as a Pistol or Shotgun – but they should be reserved for sticky situations when you are surrounded by enemies and need a quick escape. Ultimately, you have to be stealthy, as Vic can only take a few bullets before becoming stunned, unable to move, and an easy target.
It is important to hide the bodies of both dead and knocked out individuals, as if you are spotted near one out in the open, guards will immediately pull out their weapons and not ask any questions. Also, weapons are not silenced, meaning that if you fire a shot, everyone in the surrounding area will run to your position and start firing back. You are trying to sneak your way in, not murder everyone and the game forces you to abide by that principle, as it should.
If a situation does turn sour, the best option is to run, use a Health Kit or the Painkillers you can find in some buildings, before re-approaching the situation. The Church In The Darkness is a game about trial and error and finding the best way to approach a situation on the fly, instead of being spoon-fed how to play. It is incredibly enjoyable to discover what works best and make split-second decisions when necessary, almost as if you are infiltrating a cult in real life.
The Humans Behind The Cult
As you work your way deeper into Freedom Town, you will meet friendly civilians who are willing to talk to you and discuss their thoughts on living in the compound. For example, Billie, an elderly, black woman joined Rebecca and Isaac to get the chance of a fairer, equal life, beyond anything she had experienced in the United States.
Each of these characters will help you locate Alex. They have their own character missions as well, which involves you searching for documents in White Chapels to bring them what they ask for on your first meeting. Billie is looking for a lost photo of her Husband, whilst another character, Theresa, hopes to find a location of where her sons have gone.
Finding documents becomes the other big focus of the game. All the documents are physical in-world items making them feel like they are tangible and actually a part of creating Freedom Town. It is a thrill discovering everything that is going on behind closed doors, such as, how the cult has a ‘Communications Director’ to rewrite letters and messages that sound too pessimistic about the community or could raise an alarm back home.
There is an entire chain of letters that tell you how one person convinced Isaac, to begin using cages on trespassers, which then became using cages on members of Freedom Town who weren’t contributing enough, eventually ending with the cult using cages as a punishment mechanic for anyone who steps out of line even slightly. Some documents even delve into the backstory of the characters you meet, describing in detail the horrors of their lives before Freedom Town in graphic detail and allowing you to sympathize with why they joined.
The game feels like a barrage of the best moments in a documentary, those moments where a new secret gets unveiled that adds a new layer to everything you just experienced and makes you see those in the cult in a completely different way.
Adding on top of that is the fact that The Church In The Darkness is a roguelite, and with every playthrough, the motives and personalities of Isaac, Rebecca, and Alex can all change. This leads to 19 distinct endings that tell you how the cult and the public perception of it changed based on your actions.
Small actions like if you play lethally or stealthily can have an effect on the ending, though bigger shifts in the character’s motives have a much larger effect. For example, if you decide to find Alex, kill him, and get out (which you can totally do) Isaac and Rebecca will tell the people of Freedom Town and the media that Alex was killed by the CIA or an operative of the US Government, strengthening the bonds between the people of Freedom Town and allowing the Cult to thrive.
On one playthrough Rebecca might be the more draconian leader and you can decide whether both her and Issac are a danger to the people or leave the cult in the hands of Isaac or the crazed Rebecca. Alex’s personality shift feels a little less significant. He may want to leave on one playthrough, stay on another, and help the people of Freedom Town but still question the actions of Rebecca and Isaac on a third. This can change how you end up engaging with Rebecca and Isaac in that run, but you can always just tell Alex to follow you and he will. Eventually, leaving the compound if you want. therefore, the effects of his personality feel a little more trivial.
Either way, discovering the inner workings of the cult and having that affect your ending is extremely rewarding and the game truly shines during the runs where you learn the most and your actions have the most effect on the community. I also found it really helpful that when starting a new run you can choose to pick a scenario that you haven’t experienced yet and still has an ending to be unlocked in, making it easier to discover new conclusions to the lineage of the Freedom Town cult.
Finally, all of the characters have excellent voice acting that feels true and accurate to who they are. You can hear the frailty in Billie’s voice and the desperation to find her children in Theresa’s. Whilst the list of characters isn’t extensive, it is bolstered by the phenomenal performances of both Ellen McLain (GLaDOS from Portal) as Rebecca and John Patrick Lowrie (Sniper from Team Fortress 2) as Isaac. Both of them pull off the Cult Leader persona excellently, seeming both empathetic and also crazy at the same time, depending on the scenario you are in.
How Is A Rouguelite So Unreplayable?
Whilst you still have secrets to uncover about the cult and storylines you haven’t completed, The Church In The Darkness is an immensely satisfying experience to replay, especially as you can begin runs with weapons, disguises, and health items in your inventory as you discover more endings.
However, once you have discovered most of the things there is to know about the Freedom Town cult, the lack of quality of life features really starts to dampen the experience. The worst offender? Not a single piece of dialogue can be skipped. Yes, that means that in every single playthrough you have to listen to every piece of dialogue from every character you talk to in order to progress with their mission or get a certain ending, even if you have done it before.
On top of that, picking up some documents will play a lengthy piece of narration from the author of that document that also cannot be skipped.
The lack of skippable dialogue grows tedious, but the map feels like a chore to explore during later playthroughs with small narrow paths and important characters and locations feeling far too spread out. There is also an incredibly annoying speaker system that plays indoctrination messages over and over. Lines repeat often and there is even an irritating song that can play over them that goes on for at least 90 seconds.
You have to do the same thing over and over again, but it doesn’t become easier to do that in later playthroughs. It just feels like a bit of a chore to explore and avoid enemies, especially on a higher difficulty where one mistake can end a run.
A Realised World Lacking Some Quality Of Life
Paranoid Productions should be immensely proud of the world they have built in The Church In The Darkness. The Freedom Town cult feels fully conceptualized and realized. It is a joy to learn who has what influence and where, as well as discover why people came to the cult in the first place.
But, it feels like the game needed a bit of polish when it comes to its replayability. The lack of individual audio sliders and the inability to skip any dialogue feels noticeably absent and the ability to open up shortcuts between sections of the map would have been a nice addition. However, these issues are tolerable for a large chunk of the game as the exploration, discovery, and infiltration gameplay of The Church In The Darkness are excellent.
The Church In The Darkness is available now on PS4.
Review copy provided by publisher.