Horror requires intimacy. Without it, everything potentially scary in supernatural horror becomes silly instead of terrifying. Sitting under a blanket with a flashlight, in your living room on a windy evening—or even in a movie theater full of people impatient to scream—it’s possible to properly appreciate things that go bump in the night. Which is why making horror games for portable systems is such a questionable ambition. It’s almost impossible to get freaked out in the places you’re most likely to use your Nintendo DS, and while the bathroom is certainly an intimate locale, it just isn’t the same. That issue of venue is the first hurdle on Dementium II’s path to success. Renegade Kid’s horror sequel manages to clear it, but stumbles over questionable design and cliché shortly thereafter.
You play as William Redmoor, a faceless, silent patient at the Bright Dawn Treatment Center, an asylum that is apparently staffed by one nurse, one priest, and a handful of those Combine guys from Half-Life 2. The first moments of the game have you opening your eyes in recovery after brain surgery, then getting dragged back to your cell. Then the game goes full-bore into horror’s familiar tropes. Your vision blurs, and the prison cells warp into blood-soaked, iron-grated rooms populated by mutilated corpses and shambling demons with open chests. This atmosphere comes complete with a soundtrack bouncing between squalling, dissonant noise and ominous minor-key piano ditties. It’s back and forth like this for the game’s four-hour duration, as you work your way through the asylum, fighting grotesques and completing a few fetch-quest puzzles before fighting the monster trying to break through to the real world by possessing folks.
Dementium II is like a high-school cover band doing a Silent Hill tribute show: There’s talent behind the work, but it’s still incompetent. For every one thing the game gets right, it botches something else. The pacing throughout is pitch-perfect, letting you constantly move forward, a must for effective haunted houses. The setting, however, makes no sense. Why is there a harbor in a cave under the asylum/prison? If you were just in the boiler room, how the hell did you get to a church outside? The enemies are a hodgepodge of the multi-mouthed beasts, floating heads, and fanged worms that always pop out of demon realms. Familiar as they are, though, they make unsettlingly insane, haunting sound effects. The first-person combat is nice, but muddied by the touchscreen’s twitchiness. Which returns to the core problem of horror on the DS. If Renegade Kid wanted to make a low-cost, high-thrills horror shooter, why not as a downloadable home console or PC game? Nobody gets scared on the train to work.