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Game Preview — Stygian: Reign of the Old Ones

By Ron Scopelliti

Like the state itself, the works of Rhode Island’s most famous author are a mixed bag of the good, the bad, the brilliant, and the downright weird. H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction sometimes forces you to wade through a quagmire of affected language, stock characters, and tired plots that are eventually driven from your mind by amazing concepts, images, phrases, and creatures that make you regret any prior complaints.

Despite the author’s literary shortcomings and well-documented racist and xenophobic tendencies, Lovecraft’s creative melding of science fact, science fiction, horror, and fantasy raised the “weird fiction” genre to a new level, and his ongoing influence has expanded from a cult following to a worldwide phenomenon. This is evident in the fact that an upcoming computer game based on Lovecraft’s writing is being developed in Turkey.

Cultic Games, an indie studio in Istanbul, recently released a free public demo of “Stygian: Reign of the Old Ones.” Though the game itself is apparently far from complete, a demo is available for PC from the Steam distribution platform (store.steampowered.com).

The single-player role-playing game features hand-drawn 2-D graphics and turn-based combat that the developers appropriately compare to that in the classic “Heroes of Might and Magic” game series.

Stygian’s developers made the creative choice of having Lovecraft’s well-known imaginary town of Arkham, Massachusetts magically transported to “a twilight realm between dimensions.” This allows them to merge Lovecraft’s environment of 1920’s New England with the alien environments he created, and even add in his “Dreamlands,” an alternate universe entered through dreams.

The character creation system allows you to select your character’s gender and profession, as well as his or her age, which influences the character’s wisdom and physical statistics. You can also choose from a number of pre-fab characters.

The game starts out with a dream encounter with the mysterious “Dismal Man,” though separating dream from reality isn’t always easy in the Stygian realm. Waking from the dream in your guest room at the Old Eel House, you set out into Arkham to explore the mysteries hinted at in the nocturnal encounter.

The town is portrayed in muted earth-tones and shades of gray, punctuated by flickering gaslights in the windows of inhabited buildings. The characters have a stylized flatness that befits the dreamlike environment. The eeriness is enhanced by an atmospheric soundscape that occasionally becomes contextual, as it is with the jazz trumpeter in the Old Eel House Bar.

At least in the demo version, Stygian is a rather slow-moving game, but Lovecraft’s stories didn’t move at a blistering pace, so it seems appropriate. What didn’t always seem appropriate was the dialogue, which often struck me as too modern. Overall, however, Stygian does a good job of creating the sort of ambiance I’ve always imagined when reading Lovecraft.

So far in the game, the mood of Lovecraft’s fiction is best captured after stepping through the doorway to Schmidt’s Antiques, with its collection of arcane books and curios, and an owner who’s obsessed with keys. I have a feeling these keys will play a pivotal role as the plot progresses.

The demo itself has quite a bit of content. I was at it for over an hour, which admittedly included some fumbling about to learn the controls. Even at that, I’m not sure if I explored everything there is. I’m definitely planning to go back and give it a second shot, so I’ll be fully prepared to dive in when the full version of Stygian arrives.

While the release date is listed on Steam as “2019,” this may be a conservative estimate on the part of the developers. They explained in an update on the game’s Kickstarter page: “We don’t want any more postpone declarations during the production because we know how some of you feel about them.”

I’d heartily recommend logging onto your Steam account, downloading the free demo, and checking it out. For more info, and to keep up with the latest developments, visit stygianthegame.com.