For me, survival horror games have lost their edge. I remember actually getting scared while playing Resident Evil 2 ‘back in the day’ and have been saddened at the state of the genre since. While I love games like Resident Evil and Condemned, these series have begun to take a turn down ‘action game alley’ and have lost what made them so appealing to me in the first place. Granted, I have yet to play Resident Evil VII, so my opinions could change. Recently, while scanning a list of adventure games on the DS, I ran across a game I had enjoyed a LOT a decade or so ago and had somehow forgotten about. The game, Theresia: Dear Emile, seemingly came out of nowhere back in 2008 from Aksys games and was flooded under all of the other holiday games on the DS. It is a shame though as Theresia was probably the scariest game I’ve played in a while.
Theresia is an adventure horror title exclusively for the Nintendo DS. In this game, developed by WorkJam, players take on the roles of two different characters trying to understand their past, present and intertwined destiny. The first of the two stories, called Dear Emile, is the story of an amnesiac girl who wakes up in an abandoned complex full of corpses and traps left by someone trying to kill her. The other story, Dear Martel, can only be accessed after completing Dear Emile and stars a young scientist. The meat of the game is within the Dear Emile Scenario. I can’t reveal too much more about the storyline as it is very much veiled in mystery, and I do not want to spoil the fun.
The game follows the backdrop of a war torn country, with biological weapons and the horrors of war, as well as isolation and death. While other survival horror games resort to demonic forces or zombies as the main antagonists, Theresia pits you against an entire building that seems to be trying to kill you. Through the course of the game you come across many disturbing scenes like a pantry left alone so long that it is completely covered with ravenous bugs; piles upon piles of dead corpses; torture rooms for war prisoners; and even dead loved ones that cause horrible memories to flood in. It is this method of making me feel the desperation of the little girl I am controlling that makes this game so unsettling. In a way it reminds of the overly creepy vibe I get from many of the Shin Megami Tensei games.
The immediate realization I had after turning the game on, is that it plays almost exactly like the old Shadowgate series that was on the NES, N64 and computers. The game is presented with a first person view of corridors and hallways, much like an old-school first person shooter minus the gun. Also like Shadowgate, you have the ability to look at objects, touch objects, use a number of inventory items and in some cases combine said items. This is all pretty standard fare for a point and click adventure game for veterans of the genre, but Theresia does a few creative things with the set-up.
One thing that is immediately apparent is that Theresia does not want you to explore the game too much. There are many areas where in a normal adventure game you would find small trinkets hidden in desks drawers or barrels, for example. In Theresia, 99 per cent of the objects you can touch and examine are booby trapped and have to be disarmed or simply left alone. At the beginning of the game you come across a records room full of books, and you can look at a bunch of these books on the shelf. However, only a few can actually be removed as the others have spring loaded darts or knives hidden behind them. This means that in many places you are scared to examine the area too much for fear of instant death traps like electrified doors and acid. Throughout the game you do find elixirs for your life bar, so you can keep yourself alive much longer, but as the game progresses these are few and far between.
Most of the puzzles in Theresia are hard, not I’m going to kill someone if I don’t beat this hard, but hard nonetheless. Because of this, the developers have added a hint system into the game in the guise of a barbed wire covered pendant – or a mirror in the second scenario – that the protagonist carries with her. All you have to do is drag the pendant to the icon that represents yourself. The girl squeezes it, cutting her hand in the process, and a hint comes up. During my play through I did not have to use it very much because although the complexity of the puzzles is very steep, I didn’t really get stuck too often. I am glad this was in here though, as the hint system sometimes alerts you to things you may not have noticed.
An example of this complexity can be seen in one of the more laborious puzzles I ran across in the prison area. I had a block of ice I had fished out of a fridge that had frozen over, and needed a way to get the key that was frozen inside. My first thought was to hack the key out with an axe, but the game informed me that it might mess up the key, so the next logical step was to melt it. I later stumbled across a crematorium room that was used to burn prisoners, and assumed that this was the key to the iceblock. I had to figure out a way to light an incinerator found in said room, but the wood I carried was too big. And without spoiling all of the shocking twists and turns I had to go through, I ended up having to cover something with ethanol then burn it to heat a metal slab then retrieve the key with pliers after dumping water on the fire that had melted the ice. As you can see, this isn’t some simple adventure game, and it can be VERY time consuming. These puzzles were fun to figure out and, unlike similar games like Touch Detective, there were no huge leaps of logic that nobody could have figured out without the help of a strategy guide.
The controls for Theresia are fine, but not well tuned to the DS. Theresia does not use any DS functionality besides the stylus for the simplest of controls and the two screens, obviously. Personally I even found the stylus controls to cramp my hand up a little bit and played the game almost entirely without the stylus, only taking it out if I had to turn a crank or something. I feel that this was an oversight and makes the game feel even more like a port of a PC game, which it is not. The button mapped controls worked well but you could not do everything without the stylus, so it wasn’t really a great alternative control scheme.
The graphics for Theresia are a mixed bag. On one hand you have beautiful hand drawn anime inspired cut scenes that use stills, and the occasional well done 3D cinema scene. But this is sometimes undermined by the fact that, for the most part, the corridors and hallways all look like Wolfenstein 3D in some ways. In some areas the textures look very good, but in others they are like a retro PC game. I have a feeling this is because of how massive this game is, and better graphics would have taxed the small DS cartridge. The 2D rooms you stand in run separately from the 3D corridors, and look beautiful. They are hand drawn and are the norm for DS adventure games. With this in mind, and the exceptional art design and mood set by the game, it all seems to fit well.
Theresia’s next technical point, the sound, was also done very well. Like many survival horror games, the music consists of moody ambient sounds that set the tone for the game. The sound designer was able to harness his keyboard for true evil, as the music leaves you creeped out more so than the game in some ways. The music is often disjointed and not happy whatsoever, while other times you get a baroque funeral dirge blasting at you. None of these make you want to be in this horrible compound anymore. These musical arrangements really add to the game’s presentation and keep it as creepy as possible.
Theresia – Dear Emile is a very good and scary adventure game for the DS and, even though it is slightly different from most survival horror games presentation-wise, any survival horror fan should at least check it out. Although the dated graphics may be a turn off for some, the sound, art design, and retro feeling make this game a great choice for fans of the genre. Depending how much you explore, this game takes easily 15-20 hours to complete, which dwarfs many DS adventure games. Some may see this as a snail’s pace and will stop playing the game, but for others, like me, a longer game is appreciated. All in all, Theresia – Dear Emile is much underrated, and needs to be played.
Too bad the sequel was a mobile phone game 😦