“Unexpected horror” isn’t really a specific category in gaming but between this and Ecco the Dolphin I think there’s a very strong case for the sorta-genre’s inclusion in the unwritten videogame canon. While Ecco’s fears were based more in physical survival – those ancient fears of drowning, of being mercilessly torn apart by predators, of alien monsters sucking your entire family out of the ocean and into a giant Giger-esqe spaceship at any moment – this is more like abstract nightmare fuel, the sort of half-remembered fever dream that forces you bolt upright in bed in the dead of the night, gasping for air. Technically this is also nothing more than another puzzle game, although in this one you’re a formless consciousness trapped on a twisted landscape, desperately hiding in corners from something that can devour your very essence simply by looking at you.
Welcome to Sentinel Returns!
On the great gaming Likelihood-of-Getting-A-Sequel-Released scale that I just made up, this is somewhere around Star Fox 2 levels of flying-pigs, if not worse. Who exactly was writing in to magazines (now I’m showing my age) begging for an updated version of The Sentinel in the age of Wipeout and Metal Gear Solid? Nobody, that’s who. Not even those with pages and pages of scrawled passwords earned from surviving a journey into the depths of the original’s ten thousand levels, or people who can’t see this GIF without shuddering. The 1986 home computer classic by Geoff Crammond may have been very well-received on every format it was ported to at the time but it also seemed to be one of those games that faded away with the hardware it rode in on, the weird concept and abstract visual design making it a hard sell even on the more popular formats it was ported to. Please don’t mistake that for an attempt at a thinly-veiled “You had to be there to really appreciate it” dig at anyone – it isn’t. It’s more that successfully conveying the tension interspersed with outright panic that comes from a game that’s mostly about absorbing trees and hiding from something that stares at you to death isn’t normally the sort of thing that gets people rushing off to try it out.
Now I’ve established how difficult it is to explain what’s going on… let’s try to explain what’s going on.
Bar a few deliberate changes to speed and timing both the original The Sentinel and this 1998 PC/Playstation remakey-sequel play in exactly the same way, the only major difference beyond the presentation is you may find that what is officially the “Robot Host” in Sentinel Returns is sometimes referred to as either a “Synthoid” or “Robot” when discussing the original.
The goal of each level is to transfer your consciousness from one robot host to another, planning your moves carefully so you can finally gain enough height to see the Sentinel’s base, absorb it, and move on to the next challenge.
Naturally it’s never as simple as it sounds: The titular Sentinel is always standing at the highest point on the map, rotating at a fixed speed and direction. If it sees you – and it probably will – it will stop rotating and stare directly at you, removing one unit of your hoarded energy per “tick” until you either move out of its line of sight or die panicking as you desperately scan the landscape for a safe spot you can place a new robot host on and then warp to it while you still have the energy to do so.
Energy management is everything in this game. You always start with ten units; enough to gain a little height from a few self-created boulders and a robot host to transfer yourself into, everything else must be earned in the level itself. The base value is a tree, worth one point of energy – these are also the only non-hostile entities that naturally occur on the map. The next thing up in this bizarre food chain are boulders, created by you on any clear visible spot as a way to give a new robot host the elevation needed to view new parts of the level – these cost two energy to create, and as with everything else return the same amount of energy back if you reabsorb them. One up from that are robot hosts for yourself and enemy Sentries – basically mini Sentinels with the same energy-draining capabilities as their bigger level-ending counterpart.
Just as you can convert anything you can see the base of into energy, the Sentinels and Sentries scattered across the terrain will also stop to devour anything you’ve created and left on the map. You can use this fact to warp to an exposed vantage point while keeping them busy with a stack of boxes, or to place a sacrificial robot host in front of you while you quickly move elsewhere. To prevent this from becoming unbalanced or impossible to win, the Sentinel and Sentries don’t store or destroy any energy they consume but immediately convert it back into extra trees, distributed at random around the map.
All of these little rules come together to create an interesting tug-of-war over a single resource coupled with a deadly realtime game of cat and mouse that forces you into harms way if you want to succeed, assuming the level’s layout ever gives you the opportunity to truly hide from the Sentinel’s gaze in the first place.
But Sentinel Returns has a problem here: As I mentioned before everything above applies just as much to the very first version of the initial eighties release as it does to Returns; the first game already did everything it set out to do, and it did it perfectly. So how do you update such a carefully balanced experience for a modern 1998 PC/Playstation audience without losing everything that made it such a strangely compelling ordeal in the first place? Taking a game out of the original creator’s hands is always a risky business; even the most well-meaning and knowledgeable of superfans can miss the point, or nosey publishers can try to force more readily-marketable hooks in there that would knock a game’s delicate balance out of whack. Thankfully neither of those scenarios happened here. Developer Hookstone recognised the strength of the original’s gameplay and rather than tinker for tinkering’s sake they really homed in on the twisted nightmare feel of the original, wrapping Returns all up in what can be best described as a grotesque steampunk-horror bow.
So this means you don’t pick a level, you inject a screaming mutated embryo with some sort of dubious liquid before plunging into a loading screen that looks like an open coffin. Trees are no longer the almost childlike vivid green triangles of The Sentinel’s but instead emaciated organic shadows of their true selves. The Sentinel itself has gone from resembling a hawklike totem to an imposing quasi-human shape of organic matter fused with metal.
All of this could have easily felt cynical and insincere – an “xtreeeme (dude)” makeover for the sake of being “edgy” and “mature” – but it actually feels very measured and restrained in practise. It’s all very weird and unsettling in a satisfyingly non-specific way, presenting the player with something that’s nightmarishly “wrong”, like a pulsating fleshy-boulder for them to stand on, than going for a more in your face look how dark I am, like a real grown-up mood. The manual is equally muted, offering no story or explanation that goes beyond “Hey, this is all a bit weird” and the endings, should you manage to work your way through all six hundred and fifty levels, are equally inscrutable.
Sentinel Returns is the perfect update, a respectful and considered remake that keeps everything that worked (which in The Sentinel’s case was the whole lot) and adds only enough to make it more palatable to modern players. It’s not one maverick director’s re-imagining of the concept or a publisher marking their territory on a dormant IP for legal purposes but a truly authentic Sentinel experience, just as worthy of the name as any other port.
However the series has once again slid out of view, and while Returns may be easier to buy and play than any other version thanks to it’s excellent Playstation port (the PC version shown in the screenshots here, while lovely, is a bit of a pain in the backside to get working) it’s as difficult as ever to convey what a horrifying trial it can be, and what an excellent puzzle game is lurking underneath all of that pressure and dreamlike logic. In spite of these hurdles it is however absolutely worth your time, and even now a game like no other.