The Church in the Darkness feels perfectly crafted for a 2019 audience. As a piece of entertainment alone it stands to benefit from the renewed interest in the enigmatic cult leaders of the past few decades. Recent hits like Netflix’s Wild Wild Country or Quentin Tarantino’s film Once Upon A Time In Hollywood have tapped into a morbid fascination general audiences have with the darker corners of humanity.
It’s not just this resurgence of cult fascination that sets up The Church in the Darkness for a home run though. The backdrop of the political and social turmoil of the 1970s the game draws from is beginning to feel less like history and more like mistakes doomed to be repeated. I don’t imagine I’ll be alone in seeing more than a few reflections of our current social struggles in the game.
Which is maybe why despite its simplistic mechanics and occasionally shabby presentation, The Church in the Darkness lands with such menacing impact. It’s an indie title no doubt, and the clash between the game’s ambitions and its limitations are laid bare on repeat playthroughs, but there is such a bold vision here that it barely registers in the moment.
The Church in the Darkness Review
The Church in the Darkness drops you right in the thick of it. You play as the aunt, or uncle, of a nephew who has fallen in with an outwardly well-meaning group hiding out in the South American jungle. The Collective Justice Mission has been gifted an isolated but sprawling bit of land and has put down roots in the form of Freedom Town, a ramshackle collection of farming facilities, housing and places of worship. You’ll need to infiltrate the town, make contact with your nephew and hope to survive whatever you encounter along the way.
Before the game begins you’ll get to chose the skin colour and gender of your character and some pieces of equipment to help with your infiltration. The gender choice is neither here nor there, though individual players can certainly infer more from the game based on this choice. However, playing through this experience as a black man or woman feels almost fundamental given the racially charged historical context of the time. Freedom Town means different things to different people and the game never pretends to not understand what it would mean to a person of colour attempting to escape 1970s America.
Search and Rescue
It’s in the moments you don’t find what you need, though, that The Church in the Darkness starts applying pressure. Each time you replay the rescue mission several elements of Freedom Town will be altered through procedural generation. Item placement, NPCs, quests and even the personalities of the cult leaders themselves will change for each new playthrough, ensuring Freedom Town will always keep you on your toes. This design choice does wonders for the game’s replayability and paired with well-balanced difficulty options, there is a lot of ground to cover in The Church in the Darkness.
My first two run-throughs saw me, fortunately, find a townsfolk disguise almost immediately as well as a veritable bounty of painkillers. The disguise offset suspicions long enough to slow the detection speed of the cult members while the painkillers give you a shocking boost of health if you wind up caught in a shootout. These tools saw me mostly breeze through the town but upon diving back in the third time I couldn’t find a disguise until I had explored almost the whole map, effectively encouraging me into a different style of play.
The randomised town and item effects can’t disguise the overall gameplay feeling a little too rudimentary at times. All of the mechanics serve their purpose well enough and the lack of more complex systems never got in the way of the fun I was having. The Church in the Darkness felt more arcadey than I would have liked but it never veered so far off course as to be unengaging or frustrating.
War and Peace
Where The Church in the Darkness falls short with its gameplay, it more than makes up for with tone. The air around Freedom Town is thick with dread and humidity, giving you almost no reprieve save for the rare moments a bird will gently glide overhead. A brief moment in which the natural beauty of the setting overrules the suffocating presence of man.
Loudspeakers constantly drone with messages from the cult’s charismatic leaders, only interrupted by a downright unsettling folk tune about the merits of hard work. A message of don’t complain, don’t stop and don’t believe anyone but the leaders all set to an admittedly catchy tune. The constant radio blasts intertwine with the organic sounds of a wild jungle mere meters away; there is seldom a moment’s peace in Freedom Town and it’s all by design.
Granted, given the era the game is set it, peace was alluding many more than just those in Freedom Town. The Church in the Darkness faces the social and political issues of the 60s and 70s head-on, with numerous references to conflicts such as the Vietnam War, Stonewall riots and the emerging alternative economic ideologies like socialism. The few residents of Freedom Town who aren’t afraid to speak to an outsider have some harrowing stories to tell from this time and the game treats these narrative beats with the respect needed.
Follow the Leader
These heavy issues are grounded by the married couple at the head of the Collective Justice Mission, Rebecca and Isaac Walker. While the Collective Justice Mission itself is a hypocritical hodgepodge of progressive politics and barbaric rules, the Walker’s are the human face of the cause and both will challenge you on your true purpose in the town.
Ellen McLain, most known for her work as GLaDOS, shines here, embuing Rebecca with a balance of power and vulnerability that reminded me fondly of the late Carrie Fisher (the highest of compliments, in case you were wondering). But the entire cast does a solid job of bringing the world to life, an especially tricky job given the multiple different takes on each character required by the actors and script.
That said, the same element of randomisation that works so well for the world can actively work against the narrative’s weighty ambitions. The commitment to replayability is admirable, and giving players a variety of preacher personalities to encounter keeps things fresh, but as a result, no single personality variant feels as deep as you’d like. Like the shortcomings of the mechanics, it won’t hamper your enjoyment but does feel like a missed opportunity to delve as deeply into the politics of the era as these events may require.
It’s a true testament to the team at Paranoid Productions that they not only tackled such heavy material for their game but mostly pulled it off. The Church in the Darkness may not provide players with the same depth of mechanics as other action/stealth titles but that should not be why you seek out an experience like this one.
In a time when marketers are tripping over themselves to distance their games from the overt politics they draw upon, The Church in the Darkness unapologetically runs in the opposite direction. Freedom Town isn’t just a facsimile of a political movement, it’s a borderline reenactment that asks players to take its world, and history, seriously. A mission I only wish more games would be so bold as to send its players on.
The Church in the Darkness was reviewed on Playstation 4 using a digital code provided by the publisher.
Game Title: The Church in the Darkness
Game Description: From Paranoid Productions, The Church in the Darkness sends players deep into the South American jungle amid the political turmoil of the 1970s.