Dementium: The Ward is a lot like getting a generic Blue Riband bar in your trick-or-treat basket. It just doesn't quite have the appeal of a Mars bar. Or a pound coin. It's chocolate, of sorts, so you know you'll still enjoy scoffing it down, but it's just not that exciting. In other words, the finely-tuned first-person gameplay of Dementium is a sweet treat even though its flavor is largely generic, lacking the suspenseful horror promised on the wrapper.
The game wholeheartedly embraces the survival horror genre's greatest cliché by casting you as an amnesia-prone John Doe who finds himself trapped within an abandoned hospital. Propelled by a sense of flight and the basic need to survive, our main man wanders the various wards of Redmoor Hospital in search of an escape. It's your job, playing from the perspective of your avatar's eyes, to fend off all manner of ghastly creatures, figure out what's happening, and ultimately locate a way out.
Navigating the hallways of Redmoor Hospital requires good self-defence and puzzle-solving skills. Dementium primarily hones in on a particular breed of contemplative action, although puzzles pepper its gameplay, too. The game is organized into chapters, with each one tied to a significant puzzle or action sequence. It's well-paced and appropriately portioned for handheld play.
Between short bouts of combat, you tackle simple puzzles that unlock new areas, unravel threads in the story, or provide a new weapon for use. Puzzles almost always involve deciphering a code or combination with which to unlock a door, cabinet, or box. As well as being utterly uninspiring, none of the puzzles are taxing and plenty of clues are provided to help you figure them out.
Through the course of the adventure – which isn't very long – several weapons that can be swapped by tapping icons on the touchscreen come into your possession. You start with a flashlight and nightstick, subsequently adding a pistol, shotgun, and other more powerful weapons to your arsenal. In total, seven such survival-aiding items can be found, although a handful are located only by completing optional puzzles.
Learning to utilize the strengths of each weapon in relation to different enemies is important to staying alive, especially since ammunition is limited. Enemies range from zombie-like maws with split-open chests, slithering leeches, and screaming heads that lunge at your in mid-air. None of these foes present a fearsome challenge on their own, especially chest maws which frequently corner themselves against walls. Even bosses aren't that smart one-on-one, in fact.
Group several enemies together, however, and you're in trouble.
Fear is palpable in Dementium not because the enemies are scary, but rather because of the penalty exacted for in-game death. Die and you're forced to start at the beginning of the current chapter. This can be awfully frustrating when you've made it to the end of a chapter and perish. As a result the game derives its tension artificially out of a fear of having to replay sections, and not genuinely through atmosphere or suspenseful situations.
Other issues handicap the title's attempt at horror. The in-game tempo is too slow to be frightening since it's often easier to run away from enemies than fight them. Additionally, audio cues always announce a monster's presence, which effectively destroys any element of surprise. The game's use of light – or, more accurately, absence thereof – is quite effective, although having a flashlight that cuts through the darkness complete destroys the effect. Ultimately, Dementium isn't as much a horror game as it is a first-person adventure. It just isn't that scary.
Contributing to the lack of suspense is the fact Dementium borrows heavily from other survival-horror games. Of course, this comes as no surprise given its highly derivative premise – there isn't anything here that you haven't seen or played elsewhere. From the little girl that runs through the hospital corridors to never-ending stretches of blood-smeared walls, everything smacks of countless other tales you'll have experienced in books, at the cinema or on console.
Still, while nothing about Dementium is truly original, its appearance on DS is inventive. Aside from currently being the sole representative of the genre on the handheld, it does well in working with the hardware's unique features. Take the controls, which are nothing short of brilliant. Movement is handled via the D-pad, whereas sliding the stylus on the touchscreen controls the camera. Although other titles have attempted this first-person configuration, it works remarkably well in Dementium thanks to a high level of polish and precision.
Equally impressive are the visuals. Dementium manages to squeeze a PlayStation-quality presentation out of Nintendo's handheld. The graphics won't blow you away, but they are distinct in a sea of two-dimensional DS titles. Hardware limitations do affect the audio quality, which is fairly poor – effects end up garbled in the speakers, although the music is decent.
The candy-coated presentation does much to make up for the generic taste of this title. While the controls and basic structure of its gameplay work well, it simply doesn't engender the sort of horror it promises. Nevertheless, despite its flavour being dulled by too many obvious tricks, Dementium ends up a bit of a treat.