Fans of first-person shooters and survival horror games haven’t had many opportunities to enjoy these genres when away from home. For all of its market dominance, the Nintendo DS has definitely been lacking in those areas, but publisher Gamecock Media Group and developer Renegade Kid are looking to change this with their latest offering, Dementium: The Ward. Dementium brings a mature attitude that is rarely found on the popular two-screened handheld, with an ESRB rating to match.
The game starts off with you waking up in an unlit room in a run-down medical facility of sorts, possibly a sanitarium, with no memory of who you are or why you’re there in the first place. If the monotone recording instructing you to evacuate doesn’t convince you to get moving, then perhaps the blood smeared all over the place will. Before you leave the room, you find a notebook with “WHY DID YOU DO IT?” scrawled across one of its remaining pages, suggesting that maybe you do belong here after all…
Are you a murderer? Well, even if you’re not, those patchwork zombies certainly are. And since you seem to be the only one left alive (and human), you might have to address more important issues than your missing identity — like survival.
Survival is an appropriate word for Dementium, as it plays more like a survival horror game than a “shoot anything that moves” FPS, despite its camera perspective. Ammuntion is limited, with your primary weapon mostly being a guard’s nightstick; sometimes, it’s better to just run for it rather than fight. As you progress through the ward, you can acquire firearms that allow you more accuracy and greater range — assuming you can shoot in the dark. Like Doom 3, Dementium requires you to choose between holding a flashlight or a weapon, meaning that if you want to defend yourself you probably won’t be able to see your target unless it’s right on top of you (or underneath you, in some cases).
This would be frustrating enough without having to handle the DS’s first-person control scheme (Metroid Prime: Hunters used a similar method). For the right-handed, you move using the D-pad and use your held item by hitting the L button; the R button switches between your flashlight and whatever weapon you last selected. Everything else, from looking around to accessing subscreens (notebook, map, inventory, and options), is handled via the touch screen. Lefties can reverse everything if they prefer, using the XYAB buttons to move instead.
If you’ve never attempted this method of control, then you may not appreciate how awkward this is. In order to properly manipulate the movement and attack controls, you want to be holding the left side of the DS as you normally would; however, since your right hand is occupied by holding the stylus, you’re stuck supporting the other side of the handheld on your leg or possibly little finger. No matter how you decide to tackle that problem, this makes the game somewhat physically uncomfortable to play for extended periods of time. This effect may be somewhat lessened if you have a DS Lite rather than the heavier original DS, but it is something to keep in mind.
Mentally, playing Dementium is also uncomfortable, but this time it’s mostly intentional. Your flickering flashlight barely illuminates streaks of blood and other signs of a zombie infestation in the gloomy halls, while an audible health indicator (in concert with an appropriately EEG-like display on the touch screen) constantly thumps away in the background. A suitably creepy piano score and a constant downpour of rain provide even more ambiance, while zombies groan, whistle, and make other unsettling noises to let you know they’re around before they start trying to eat you alive. You can jot down information that might help you solve puzzles in your notebook, which is a small comfort, but at the end of the day it’s just you against a hospital full of bizarre, mutant zombies… the origins of which might creep you out even more, should you discover them.
Unfortunately, there is also a demoralizing aspect to Dementium, which is its biggest failing. If you fall victim to the zombies, then you’re forced to start over from the beginning of the chapter rather than from your last save point. This can result in you losing a substantial amount of progress, which can and will make you throw up your hands in frustration. Additionally, while ammunition and health pickups do not regenerate when you re-enter a room, the enemies do, making backtracking undesirable — and probably suicidal.
The intense (and unforgiving) difficulty and control scheme form an imposing barrier to really enjoying Dementium, but in spite of that roadblock, Dementium is a solid gaming experience and an interesting change of pace from the usual DS fare. The difficulty made me abandon the quest as soon as I had to restart a lengthy chapter, my curiosity about the storyline being totally overcome by my intense frustration. Bear in mind that this game isn’t fit for general audiences; if you’re a fan of the survival-horror genre, then maybe you won’t mind the seemingly arduous challenge as much as I did. There’s a good game here for those willing to put up with its quirks.