I didn’t really go into Strangeland with any preconceived notions, other than a fondness for Wormwood Studios previous game, Primordia. It’d be a strange, surreal ride regardless, but coming in with no expectations, knowing nothing about it other than the title, and letting it just overwhelm the senses is Strangeland at its best. It’s a bleak, eerie adventure, darkly funny at times and deeply, terrifyingly depressing at others, but an assault on the senses from start to finish—and I absolutely mean that as a compliment. The less you know about it going in and the more you can just let yourself drown in it, the better.
If those words have at all piqued your interest, stop reading right now, and go play Strangeland.
But if you must know more, here’s the deal: you awake outside a nightmarish carnival (the titular Strangeland) in the middle of a black void, with no memory of how you got there. After a decidedly creepy clown-shaped entrance welcomes you with a couple of jokes, made all the more unsettling for how nonsensical and unfunny they are, you step through its mouth, into the big tent, just in time to see a woman throw herself into a well. It’s a shocking thing to witness, but you’re soon informed that she does this all the time—by a disembodied head in a glass jar, a talking raven, and a mysterious voice at the end of an old-timey payphone, no less.
Welcome to Strangeland.
With the heavy atmosphere well and truly set, what follows is an effort to try and stop this woman from repeatedly killing herself—at least, at first. It’s a classic point-and-click adventure game, but taking place in this surreal world that turns the already roundabout logic of adventure games on its head. It’s a game where sometimes you need to throw a stone at a raven to make it scream “Ow, my beak!”, so that a blind old eccentric who speaks only in quotes of old sages can scribble “beak” on some paper, so that you can use that page as a work order for a talking furnace to make yourself a dagger. It’s a game where sometimes you need to fling yourself down that well, just so you can die and take yourself back to where it all began.
Sound frustrating? It can be, but that’s deliberate, and in a far more substantial way than a simple throwback to the moon logic of yesteryear’s adventure games. Strangeland is, ultimately, a game about grief—not so much about the stages of grief and the grieving process, but about the shock and that comes with finding out that most horrible news, having your world turned upside down, and trying everything you can possibly think of to fix what can’t be fixed. It’s a game that sometimes makes you feel like you’re pushing a boulder up a hill because that nonsensical, desperate effort that always ends up being in vain is exactly what it wants to explore.
But don’t be put off. There’s also a built-in help system that means that, no matter how abstract a puzzle or how obtuse the clues to its completion may be, you can (almost) always get a hand when you need it. You’ll be ridiculed for it—not in a jokey, mocking, try-to-make-you-feel-dumb way, but in that’s more depressing, that’s more hopeless, that makes you feel more lost even though you’ve been shown the way forward.
Sometimes even that isn’t enough, with the occasional clue that’s too vague or can be interpreted in different ways—or, in one case, when even the hint-giver will give up on you and just leave it at “Surely even you can figure out something this easy”. I’ll freely admit that I’m terrible at adventure game puzzles (I play them for the story), and I got stuck often, despite the hints given. Yes, that’s frustrating, and the balance between meaningfully obtuse and annoyingly so isn’t always spot on. But its a momentary frustration that adds to the tone, the atmosphere, the theme of flailing against the inevitable end of things.
The setting brings so much to this atmosphere, too. A decrepit old carnival is going to be creepy at the best of times, but when it’s drifting in the middle of an empty void, little islands floating listlessly in the nothingness, that mood ramps up tenfold. Add in the eccentric personalities you find within the nightmare, whose odd senses of humour only adds to the terrifying surreality of it all, and the atmosphere gets even heavier. Laced through impeccably detailed yet blocky pixel art that’s almost completely void of colours that aren’t brown, purple, and shades of grey, and with an industrial soundtrack that’s somehow both mesmerising and painful on the ears, and you’ve got that assault on the senses I was talking about before. How fitting, for this sort of nightmare.
But ultimately, there’s a message of hope. Eventually the sisyphean task of trying to save the unsaveable gives way to acceptance. No matter how terrifying or oppressive, how futile your efforts to fix things, every nightmare eventually comes to an end. It’s not always a happy ending, but there’s peace and relief, if nothing else.
The way Strangeland brings all its different pieces together is remarkable. The adventure game format is a time-tested and familiar one, and here is a game that manages to use exactly what makes it so well-known to turn the genre on its head to undertake an insightful exploration of a less well-traversed side of grief. And to do it with so much atmosphere, to so well and truly overwhelm the senses with what is, on a purely mechanical level, a simple little adventure game, is particularly impressive.
The very nature of what Strangeland is means it’s not going to be for everyone—there’s something inherently alienating in its bleak premise and puzzles that make the odd dose of frustration a thematic design conceit. But if you’re on the same page, this haunting, uncanny, strange adventure is one that will sit with you.
Developer: Wormwood Studios
Publisher: Wadjet Eye Games
Platforms: PC via Steam (reviewed)
Release date: 25 May 2021
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.