I know my little corner of the internet is generally seen as ye olde curiositee shoppe of Asian gaming, but it’s entirely accidental – honest! The truth is I’ve always had a soft spot for good Western games, even if I don't show it very often. Ecstatica is one that caught my eye thanks to the enthusiastic press it received in Edge magazine and other similar outlets back in the ancient past that is 1994, however as I didn’t own a PC until long after the fact finding the opportunity and excuse to buy and play it didn’t come around until a few weeks ago.
Ecstatica’s most immediately obvious draw is it’s graphical style that relies mostly on ellipsoids rather than polygons to create just about everything you can see that’s not a bookshelf, doorway, table, or other perfectly-flat object. The thinking behind this was to create environments and characters that looked more natural than the pointy-faced weirdos found in other titles released around the same sort of time and on the whole, this unusual approach works. Far from being another Ballz, Ecstatica looks and behaves like any other ‘real’ 3D game, with characters being correctly obscured by foreground clutter and player interactions with objects and enemies never looking like an explosion in a ball pool. Animations are consistently expressive and deliberately exaggerated, showing off fluid cartoon-like movement that compliments the brightly-coloured cast well. There’s a lot of unique reactions too, so well integrated into the game that when I got bowled over by that bloody werewolf or dragged off to a secret underground troll lair I just assumed I was watching a cutscene and not ‘allowed’ to move or escape myself.
The visual flourishes are certainly endearing but Ecstatica’s not a perfect game, and at times it feels like two people saying ‘We’ve got this fancy ellipsoid engine - now what the hell do we do with it?’ and trying to work out the question as they go along, resulting in a game filled with lots of really cool ideas that are executed in a well-meaning but ultimately wonky fashion. You best-guess your health based on whether you’re standing up straight or hunched over limping, and to view the items you’re carrying you glance at your character’s hands, as they have no other way of transporting collectables. This is a nice idea in theory but what it means in practise is one slot is almost always occupied by a weapon (a necessity if you want to escape the larger enemies that doggedly pursue you, will wait outside doors for you to come back, and can outrun you), with just one single slot left free for key items. To illustrate why this is an issue – there’s a very important ‘Do this or never finish the game’ puzzle that requires you to fetch and carry three items back to a particular spot in the village, and if you put them down somewhere along the way (which can happen if you’re trying to pick something else up and have to run from a sudden ambush) you have no way at all of tracking where you left them, forcing you to reload an earlier save or at worst, creating an unwinnable scenario as you search in vain for an object three pixels long in a sea of tall grass.
Another major issue is sadly the tone of the game – the back of the box claims Ecstatica is ‘A nightmare like none you’ve experienced before’ and ‘terrifying’, but it actually comes across more like Monty Python’s Black Knight than anything truly scary; the hero’s cowardly-clumsy personality is amusing but it also completely undermines the imagery of priests swinging from a noose in the church and women impaled on tables, and seeing the main enemies get together in the bar for a chin-wag celebrating your demise would have been better off kept as a post-credits ‘blooper reel’ style bonus than compulsory viewing after death – can you imagine Silent Hill 2’s Pyramid Head sitting on a chair saying to some horrific mutated nurse ‘Cor, this bloke must’ve really fancied his missus to come back ‘ere!’ as James’ corpse swings from the rafters? It’s as mood-killing and ridiculous as that. In isolation the strange-horror locations look the part and the black-comedy bits work well – but not together.
But even with these issues Ecstatica isn’t a bad game, just a flawed one that wants to shoot really high but isn’t quite sure what it’s aiming at – it’s certainly unique enough to be well worth spending a weekend experiencing the utter madness contained within first-hand. You’ll definitely have an enjoyable time stumbling around the village of Tirich and getting suddenly killed in many, many, ways; but I wouldn’t recommend trying to play it ‘properly’ as item hunting is frustrating and their intended usage far too obscure, even before you have to worry about dying instantly to invisible traps.