There’s a fair amount of nostalgia for the survival horror games of yore, with their fixed camera angles, somewhat clumsy controls, and other dated aspects adding to the challenge and the overall oppressive feel of the game. So, what could be better than revisiting that feeling on modern-day PCs, completely free? A lot of things, actually. Waterboarding, perhaps, or non-anesthetized surgery.
Grave Prosperity, an indie offering from LDC Studios, is now two “Parts” deep into its first proposed “Volume.” All four Parts are slated to release for free at the Grave Prosperity website, and are intended as a demo of what the series could be in future volumes with a better budget backing the project. While there are a few elements in place that show some promise, as well as a passable (if confusing thus far) story for a survival horror title, it’s going to take a great deal of work to make the game serviceable.
Like many a horror tale, Grave Prosperity starts off with some rather mundane fare. Girl goes to club, girl gets stood up by her date, girl gets hit in the face with a sledgehammer. No, really. Turns out the girl, whose name is Amber, has a stronger face than expected, as she wakes up in the woods, the remains of her car dangling from some foliage above her, confused and alone. A wander down a convenient pathway, in attempting to find help and treatment for her dislocated shoulder brings Amber to a mysterious, castle-like structure surrounded by stock photos of parks, which turns about to be an abandoned asylum, replete with monsters and a lack of obvious exits. A bit trite, to be sure, but Grave Prosperity makes an effort to show reasonable levels of isolation and dread, as well as a concurrent side story with Amber’s sister Miki, who’s worried about Amber’s disappearance. The writing is believable and flows well enough, though the in-game text is riddled with glaring spelling errors, to a degree that makes mistranslated Japanese games of the 8-bit and 16-bit eras comparable to Shakespeare.
Unfortunately, what could’ve been a tolerable but trope-ridden tale is wasted on a mess of a gameplay scenario. Controls are a little awkward, even with a walk-through for ideal control set-up available at the start of the Volume 1, Part 1, mapping a run option you’ll rarely use to a button that would be in a much more optimal place for attacking. Whether or not you go with the default layout or tweak it a bit more to your liking, input response times start to lag once enough is going on simultaneously, and Grave Prosperity doesn’t seem particularly open to pressing a direction and trying to attack or interact with the environment simultaneously. This tends to further cripple combat that’s already terribly clumsy, which is already made difficult enough by a combination of precise hitboxes and imprecise movement, never mind the tendency of some enemies’ strikes to turn you around mid-strike. The boss fights, which are limited to only one per Part, are rendered nigh-impossible by these shortcomings, a situation further exacerbated by the dialogue the player will have to sit through innumerable times as they reload their save. Amber’s skills can supposedly be upgraded, but the system that enables as much is convoluted and makes little sense. Grave Prosperity tells you early on that certain amounts of experience will yield skill points, but the meager benefits you get from each kill feel randomly exchanged for skill point gains, some of which come twice in a row for subsequent kills, leaving the player baffled as to what their progress may actually mean. Couple that with a supposed experience threshold for skill point gains that’s absurdly high considering how many non-respawning enemies exist to defeat and how little experience they provide, and the entire system just seems futile, if not insulting.
Visually, Grave Prosperity is a mixed bag. Amateur, 3-D rendered backgrounds are alternated with, and occasionally integrated into, stock photos of real-world locations, which can be prove visually jarring. All of the settings are plagued by fixed camera angles, which can lead to confusion upon exiting one scene from a given side and arriving on the opposite side of the screen as you enter the next area. Character scaling to portray depth is limited when it’s even present, leading to some interesting size comparisons between your avatar and her surroundings. And, while they add to the “abandoned, creepy place” mystique, a great deal of the environments are dark to the point of being impossible to navigate. Even some of the well-lit areas feature hard-to-find or seemingly blocked exits, along paths that turn out to not be paths at all. In tandem with your character’s tendency to flail their legs rapidly as you grind your way along invisible walls, things end up less than pretty.
The characters themselves are decently rendered, albeit in a way that makes them feel like they’d be more appropriate on a console release from a decade ago. Crafted as the sort of doll-skinned, oddly proportioned fashion that finds itself more recently in games such as Second Life and some of the darker corners of deviantArt, the cast of Grave Prosperity all look unique enough to be memorable without needing any outlandish visual cues to distinguish them from one another. Granted, one of Amber’s own distinguishing characteristics is her distinct inability to hold a machete properly, as she keeps the blunt edge facing outward the entire time, but that’s still memorable in its own, dysfunctional way. In-game characterization relies a great deal more on the game’s voice acting, which is surprisingly good, at least when it comes to the leading ladies. Both Amber and her sister Miki are portrayed in such a way that’s believable and emotional without getting particularly overwrought, which makes for a nice contrast against the entire male cast, who consistently seem to just be phoning it in.
Even with the mess, on the whole, Grave Prosperity manages to be, there are still some high points. While a bit awkward given the character models, there are a variety of animated sequences for every kill, whether Amber happens to be on the delivering or receiving end, which range from satisfying action-movie barrages of blows to over-the-top, acrobatic ridiculousness that may very well leave you in hysterics. Other animated scenes go with some of the story sequences and pop up at unexpected crux points throughout the game, and it’s nice to see they at least tried to step it up on the presentation front. The game’s ambient audio suits things nicely, both in the dark, atmospheric pieces that float through the halls of the asylum complex, and the incidental music for some of the other story sequences, like the generic, thumping jams pounding in Club Hype. There’s a self-control mechanic that comes into play in the second Part of Grave Prosperity, in the form of a button-mashing quick-time event, which is used to override attempts at demonic possession and could be great as it pops up in future installments, seeing as it’s not overused or abused.
Intent and execution, however, are two vastly different animals, and a game cannot stand on just one of those two pillars. LDC Studios has a vision for Grave Prosperity, to be certain, but it’s not one that many are going to want to fight through the gameplay to see at this point. Between the weight of the entire game’s production being on one man’s shoulders, and RPG Maker probably not being the best choice of engines for what LDC Studios is trying to do, Grave Prosperity ends up an exercise in masochism for anyone willing to play it to any great length. If you’re feeling adventurous, feel free to download it and give the creator feedback on the game’s home page, as he invites brutal honesty. Just be sure your controller’s fairy sturdy, as you’re bound to be throwing it rather often.