It seems that survival horror games have been stuck in a bit of a rut, lately. Thematically, they seem to have run out of material, continually recycling the same tired formulas inspired by Day of the Dead, Jacob's Ladder or Japanese Horror Flick X. The argument should be that, once you see something the first time, it shouldn't be nearly scary the second (or third or fourth) time around. (This hasn't stopped dozens of permutations of the same horror flicks either, but that's neither here nor there.) Perhaps one of their biggest problems - like so many video games - is that they draw their inspirations a bit too closely from other sources. Even the progenitor of the genre, Alone in the Dark (and eventually its spiritual successor, Eternal Darkness), draws heavily from Lovecraft, if not ripping it off completely.
Ecstatica, developed by a British development team helmed by one Andrew Spencer, and published by Psygnosis, is a PC survival horror game that doesn't seem to be directly inspired by much of anything, except perhaps pure craziness.
Ecstatica is usually referred to as "that game where everyone is made out of circles for whatever reason." If you want to look cool around the math nerds, the technical term is "ellipsoids," because they're oblong, whereas circles are not. They're also gouraud shaded, which helps them from looking too bizarre. The game came roughly around the time when 3D graphics were becoming more prevalent, but before 3D accelerators. It may look a little bit silly when compared to Origin's Bioforge, a similarly styled game released just a year later, which used higher quality textured polygonal models, similar (and arguably superior) to Resident Evil. It's definitely a wacky experiment - Accolade did the same thing with their (terrible) "fighting" game Ballz - but the bizarre style works completely in the game's favor.
Why? Because, despite how odd the characters look, despite the fact that they look, fight, and move like wired puppets, despite the fact that it could be a kid's game at first glance... it is remarkably violent and disturbing. In other words, Ecstatica is a game of contrasts, and it works brilliantly.
The game begins when the hero (or heroine - yes, you can pick) rides into a deserted town where things appear to have gone terribly, terribly awry. The town is mostly deserted, with dead, bleeding bodies left impaled on their kitchen tables, or hung upside down on crosses. The surviving townspeople are either drunk or crazy. You can sort of piece together everything by listening to their ramblings or occasionally picking up some scattered diaries, but the general gist is simple - stop whatever evil is in town, and get out with your life.
Of course you're being stalked by the monsters in town the entire time. Right at the beginning, if you unsubtly charge into the village, you'll be pounced on by a werewolf, beaten into unconsciousness, dragged into one of the houses, hung by your feet, and then beaten senseless until the werewolf gets bored of it. Yeah, there's a lot of gore, not to mention torture (and some completely random full frontal nudity). It's actually kinda rough.
Said werewolf will continue to stalk you, wherever you go. Apparently it's possible to kill him by wailing on him for five straight minutes or so, but that's almost unfathomable. Whenever you see him, it's usually just much easier to run and hide. You can find closets and baskets to hide in, and hope he goes away. The soundtrack will usually indicate when you're in danger with Psycho-esque shriek noises, at least. You can't always shake him off your tail though, which is a pain. The village is filled with other weird monsters. Rummaging around are little Piglet-type creatures, which are easily destroyed one-by-one, but can gang up you, drag you into their underground lair, and tie you up, Gulliver's Travels-style.
You can fight back, of course. The entire game is controlled with the numeric pad, which is a bit awkward at first, and means that it's basically impossible to play with a gamepad (there's no native support for it, anyway). You can punch or attack with your sword, you can duck, you can dodge, and that's pretty much about it. Trying to fight tends to be an exercise in futility, though, because your character is slow to attack, and the enemies are usually much, much faster, which can easily spell your doom if you're cornered. There's no on-screen life meter, per se, but your character limps when badly wounded, and slowly regains health over time. Like most other similar games, the hero controls like a tank, although since you can't change directions while running, you'll often need to stop, change directions slightly, start running, stop, change directions again, and so forth. Additionally, the constant camera angle changes are quite disorienting, and make navigation far more difficult than it should be.
There's a distinctly British sense of humour to go along with the horror. One of the first obstacles is a gigantic, burping, farting bear who swats at you haphazardly if you get near. In one of the houses, you find a knife lying on a table. Try to pick it up, and the table comes to life, cursing you with a British/Three Stooges accent and fighting you like a boxer. There's a little girl whining for her teddy, who seems quite unfazed by all the violence and can easily face the denizens with merely her slingshot (an evolved version of Newt from Aliens perhaps, or a prototype of Laura from Silent Hill 2.) At one particular point, the hero stops, looks around, and then proceeds to take a leak in the corner of the screen. It's all gloriously weird. The title screen calls the game Ecstatica - A State of Mind, almost alluding to the suggestion that the whole experience is a weird fever dream.
Beyond its story telling, the game is pretty minimalistic. The first major puzzle simply involves finding three ingredients for a potion, so you can turn into a squirrel and fit through a tiny passage. This quest takes up roughly a fourth of the entire game. Most of the remaining puzzles simply involve fetching stuff. There's no real inventory system to speak of. You can never hold more than two items at the same time, and usually one of your hands is wielding a sword, anyway. The game world itself is pretty small, consisting of the tiny village, a nearby field, a monastery and a castle. If you know where you're going, you can probably beat the game in less than two hours, although the relatively open-ended nature means there's lots of stumbling around to be done.
While Ecstatica is certainly rough around the edges, it remains a deeply fascinating game, just for how bizarre it is, and its brief length makes for a welcome afternoon adventure.
The sequel picks up right where its predecessor left off, with the hero (male only this time) and the witch-in-training Ecstatica fleeing from the foresaken village. Their good fortune doesn't last forever, though, as the couple is beaten by a horde of monsters and imprisoned within a gigantic castle fortress. After escaping, it's up to the hero to once again to rescue the damsel, so the two can escape with their lives.
Ecstatica II offers many improvements, and vastly expands upon almost every aspect. The game can now run in SVGA, with much smoother ellipsoids, and the models are far more detailed, to the point where they more closely resemble humans, although they still aren't textured. From a technical standpoint, it's much less laughable, but at the same time, from a certain perspective, actually ends up working against it. The bizarre, low-tech appearance of the characters is largely what lent to the appeal of the first game. Here, the orcs still have big googly eyes, but it's still missing something. But it's not only that - the random NPCs are gone, too. You get to rescue a priestess early on, who occasionally gives pointers via voiced lines, but that's about it. Most of the bizarre humor is completely absent too, and it is sorely missed. There are still tons of bodies strewn throughout the castle, but even the violence has been toned down just a little. The visuals are much darker than its brightly colored predecessor, with a permanent blood red sky.
Ecstatica II's game world is also substantially larger than that of its predecessor, by several orders of magnitude. Like the first game, you're still rarely given any clear sense of direction, except that you can't open certain doors until you obtain items from later in the quest. The overall goal is to obtain several Eldersign pieces strewn throughout the castle. Obviously, this also results in a much, much longer adventure.
The first Ecstatica was more of a slow paced, survival horror type game, the kind that primarily focused on evoking a constant feeling of dread and despair. The sequel, on the other hand, is far more action focused. It loses much of the intensity, and instead trades it in for a sense of never ending chaos. It's not uncommon that you'll fight three or more enemies at the same time. Furthermore, they respawn indefinitely, and will almost never relent in their pursuit, requiring that you stop and fight every time something runs on to the screen.
Thankfully, the fighting has been beefed up a bit - you now control your character with the arrow keys, and holding down Control will activate the attack stance while holding Alt will allow for a variety of acrobatic dodges. Your character also moves much faster, so it's easier to launch attacks, but the hit detection still feels awfully dodgy, and it's rare that you can find any camera angles that work to your benefits. There are many more weapons to find, including magical items, as well as several magic spells. The enemies are still fast, but they're significantly weaker than in the first game, especially if you set the game on Easy mode. There's actually a visible life bar on screen at all times, and enemies will occasionally drop health potions. You can also find treasure spread throughout the castle, which can be exchanged for a full life replenishment if you have enough dough. It's quite expensive, though.
Ecstatica II is one of those sequels that sounds monumentally superior to its predecessor on paper, but not quite in practice. It's larger and more complex, to be sure, but not necessarily better. Despite all of the new weapons and attack abilities, the amount of combat is tediously excessive. The huge castle is an architectural marvel to behold - almost up there with Sony's ICO, which wasn't released for another seven years or so - but there's no in-game map, and it's easier than ever to get lost, especially with all of the backtracking. Its ambitions should be applauded, as it still offers a fantastic, spooky world to explore, but it really could've used some refinement.
In between Ecstatica and its sequel, Andrew Spencer Studios worked on one more game that wasn't a direct successor to the series, but also used the same ellipsoids technology. At least in the beginning - after the project was put on hold to finish Ecstatica II, it was to be reconceived as a polygon-based game, so development team member Ken Doyle. However, the de facto creative director apparently didn't put up with that and quit the company. Then the whole project eventually fell apart.
Urban Decay would have moved the scenario from medieval villages and castles to a gritty modern crime story set in the slums of an American city, but kept the same disconnect between the inherently goofy look of the graphics and lots of harsh violence (at least in its first iteration; there are no known images of that supposed polygonal version, if it even ever went that far) and the red sky from Ecstatica II.