First-person, story-driven games are popular amongst indie developers, making it difficult to truly stand out in the overpopulated genre. Sagebrush does go someway to distinguish itself with its low-res style graphics, but nothing much else. However, this 2-3 hour menacing mystery experience blends excellent atmosphere and tension, with a genuinely creepy narrative centred around a cult’s activities to such great affect. It addresses many dark and mature themes, using horrifying examples of real-world cults in its narrative with care, while exploring the thoughts and reasons that lead people to seek answers within dangerous cults. This all leads to a hard-hitting indie adventure that often nails its execution.
To what lengths would you go to in the face of hardship and feeling lost in the modern world? This is one theme that Sagebrush explores in its narrative. Cults are often attractive premises to look at in a game’s story, the mystery, reasons behind joining and the activities carried out. In Sagebrush, you investigate Black Sage Ranch, where the cult of Perfect Heaven once resided before the entire flock took their own lives in a mass suicide. You’ll explore the empty grounds and buildings, in a bid to uncover the truths of the lives and issues leading up to the suicide itself. The various people you hear about in the notes and audio tapes are decently fleshed out. It is discovered why these people decided to join the cult, as well as the problems and arguments they had amongst one another.
While you wonder around the ranch, you will slowly unravel the lives of the numerous members of the cult, through strewn about letters/notes and audio tapes. Checking the school, chairs and desk are scattered around, pictures and books are left on the floor. Reading notes about one child called Juliet who is having difficulty with the cults teachings is hard to hear, particularly when we later find out the gruesome and inhumane punishments that the members go through. Slowly walking around the dinning area to find out the remnants of what people did is truly worthwhile and helps build up our understanding of the events leading up to the tragic event.
Sagebrush tackles some really dark and gruesome themes. We slowly piece together the disturbing things that happened to the people that lived here. We eventually gain access to the building where the various torture methods are carried out. Discovering notes that describe why each person is punished is hard to read. In addition, Father James, the cult leader, is uncovered to be taking advantage of his flock and sexually preying on the women, using his position and cult religion to manipulate them into sleeping with him. This aspect of the story is woven into the narratives of other characters in a well thought out manner. All of these threads are well executed and weave together into a thrilling and horrific tale, with a strong ending told in a unique and genuinely eerie way.
In terms of gameplay, this is where the issues start to arise. You have an item menu where you will gather various things to help progress, although most of these consist of keys to unlock doors. You might obtain some wire cutters and fuel, but not much else. Furthermore, although you can wonder around the map from pretty early on, there isn’t really any need to due to the way progression is handled. If you simply follow through the story you will visit every location anyway, therefore there is no point in trying to explore outside of the story, particularly since many of the buildings are locked until you find the right key anyway. Also, there is no puzzles to solve or similar activity to bring difficulty to the experience. You simply explore one location, find an item that will unlock another section somewhere else, rinse and repeat, it ends up feeling too linear than expected. This does sour the experience somewhat, since there is nothing else to do except finding more clues and notes to help flesh out the story and context.
While at first glance you might be mistaken to think that this is another indie horror game, that isn’t the case. The dark premise and abandoned area may provide an excellent setting for a horror experience, but Sagebrush uses these aspects in a similar way that enhances the overall tone. Wandering through the various buildings and locations is a haunting activity. While there is never any danger or jump scares, the game does a great job at building tension and a creepy atmosphere. Some smart audio design really helps in putting you on edge and the low-fi graphical style works well in building upon this chilling adventure. Doors will shut themselves behind you after a few seconds that never fails to slightly jump me and fear that someone is nearby. However, a weird audio glitch means that the sound of doors closing doesn’t lower with distance away. This means that you could open a door and be 15-20 meters away and it sounds as loud as it does close up, like it is just behind you. It’s a slight issue and quite a comical one at that. This doesn’t stop the game from having such an excellent and unnerving atmosphere.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time in this chilling mystery game. While it doesn’t really innovate in any way, and the simple gameplay may ruin the experience somewhat, Sagebrush still stands out well in the crowded genre. The dark and gruesome themes it explores are handled with care and I was kept engaged till the very end of my 2-3 hour playthrough. A great graphical style and smart audio design helped build a truly chilling adventure that kept me on edge throughout. It may not be the best game of its type I’ve played, but its intriguing story and premise made Sagebrush a short experience I would remember for some time.
Score = 7/10
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