Being an atheist by nature, I had mixed feelings about Gray Dawn, a psychological horror game heavily influenced by religious themes and featuring plenty of Christian imagery. Playing as a priest made me question even more if I would enjoy this game without feeling like I was being “conditioned”, although it did look promising.
I decided to cave in and step into the shoes (and stole) of Father Abraham, circa 1920, a priest living in a remote village in England. The altar boy is missing, and the priest is also accused of the murder of other children, making him question his sanity and his loyalty to God.
This probably sounded as unappealing for you to read as it was for me to write, and don’t kid yourselves, Gray Dawn is filled with religious depictions and sayings, more than enough to make you roll your eyes and wonder if you did the right thing picking up this game. Well, let me tell you that despite this ambiguous feeling, there is something good coming from Father Abraham’s own personal guilt trip simulator.
Knocking on hell’s door
Gray Dawn may be themed around heaven, but you’ll have a fair share of demonic imagery, exorcisms, a display or two of properly devilish beings, and a decent amount of ‘woah’ moments. The environments are incredibly detailed, and the jaw drops even harder to the floor by the moment you realize that developer Interactive Stone is comprised of three people. That’s right, three people made this wonderful looking game, with fantastic vistas that will often make you take a break from hearing satanic voices and praying left and right. It’s nothing short of amazing, and as you progress the locations get better and better.
This is some truly remarkable landscape design, with impressive architecture that is said to be inspired by actual locations and mysticism of Eastern Europe, in particular Romania. I’ve lost count of the times that I tried to make my way through the bushes to reach these amazing buildings as soon as possible, and while there is this one house defying the laws of physics that I was unable to reach (I’m pretty sure it’s just scenery), you can pretty much enter every building you see, sooner or later.
It’s not only the architecture that is dazzling. Nature is just striking, bucolic scenes with birds flying, flowers of every color and postcard worthy places everywhere you look. The darkest – read devilish – scenes are also filled with character, particularly the one with the volcano spilling red lava and ash polluting every inch of the air. Weather is varied, obviously scripted, but you’ll go through all the flavors – sun, rain and snow – and come out impressed, especially with one interesting mechanic, but more on that later. Interiors are incredible as well, an impressive feat for such a small indie developer, with detail oozing from every corner – scary sculptures, demonic mannequins, and risking the possibility of a spoiler, when you see those fire-red skeleton horses, you’ll be wanting to give the game’s artist (singular) a standing ovation.
Is it the greatest looking game of this generation, then?
Heavens, no! There is only so much a small team can make, and clearly their Achilles heel lies on the character models. Now and then you’ll spot a few buddies, mostly children, but also adults later, and these are clearly at odds with the rest of the graphical quality. It seems like they came straight from a game developed around the year 2000, with their wax doll looks and inexpressive faces. I know there is a doll theme to Gray Dawn, as you’ll notice from the starting room, but this lack of character detail is surely not an intentional part of it.
Oh well, we can’t have it all, I guess.
But wait, let’s go back to the good stuff. At heart, and if you squint a lot, Gray Dawn can be considered a walking simulator. However, this would be distorting its merits, as it is more than that. For starters, it has a reasonable number of puzzles, some of them extremely easy (you can find the missing pieces close to you), others incredibly complex due to lack of guidance or failing to discover a vital hotspot. There’s a pleasant balance between exploration, storytelling and puzzles.
About the storytelling… Oh man, you must prepare yourself to endure some truly cringeworthy voice acting, mostly from Father Abraham and the boy, David, but this is the overall undertone of the entire game. These are some very flat deliveries, even during the tragic moments, and the priest is especially guilty of this. I mean, satanic voices and gore aplenty around me, but let’s always keep a low, monotone, serene voice. This would be an amazing display of self-control, if I didn’t know that it is, pure and simple, terrible voice acting.
Seasons don’t fear the devil
For a while, Gray Dawn introduces this clever mechanic, and it should be distinguished as it certainly was the subject of plenty of hard work from the developers. Father Abraham gets hold of this heart-shaped music box, and by winding it he can switch between seasons, most precisely Spring and Winter. Now you’re walking through this wonderful nature-filled location – let’s ignore the fact that you just went through a cemetery – and suddenly, you can turn that same place into a snow-covered, desolate scene, also beautiful but surely a lot chiller.
Is this just for looks, then? Double the trouble just for a few “hey, that’s nice” comments? Not at all. This is a fine gameplay device, as each season has its own circumstances, its own elements affecting your progress. For example, during the Winter this bridge is collapsed, hindering your progress, but if you switch to Spring, you can now cross the lovely bridge as it has not yet succumbed to bad weather. How about the sealed doors from this orphanage? Let’s skip to a previous Winter and you can step inside as any regular visitor. It’s ingenious for sure.
I can’t say the same about the story of Gray Dawn, however. Let me make this clear: there is clearly a lot of thought and various plotlines at work in this game; it just feels a bit too contrived. Perhaps it’s because of the religious undertone, or clues that I may have missed as I didn’t finish the game in a single playthrough (it can be completed in four hours). I understood the main mystery and I believe I can make sense of everything that happened with the boy (this is an easy one) and Father Abraham’s lover, but I didn’t get all the set pieces. In fact, I’m pretty sure some of them are not meant to make any sense, being delusions of a man slowly losing his grasp of reality.
You have to approach Gray Dawn as a psychological horror game first, ignoring the religious theme as it is mostly a support for a gripping, yet somewhat convoluted story. Rest assured, you’ll be exploring demonic places and seeing satanic events right from the start, in a perfect balance between good and evil.
Did I enjoy my time inside Father Abraham’s twisted, unstable mind? Hell yes!