deSPIRIA‘s scrappy survivalist future of deadly secrets and grisly monsters, a setting where people try to eke out a life for themselves amongst the decay as androids play the roles of shop assistants and murderers while a powerful religion oversees all, is something of a spiritual sequel to the supremely atmospheric PlayStation title Dark Messiah.
As before it’s a sombre experience filled with expressive but distinctly plasticky CG models of doomed characters trying to avoid brutal deaths in a harsh and unforgiving landscape where the usual rules of safety and fairness rarely apply. This slightly unreal look suits deSPIRIA’s dreamlike experience to a tee, creating a visual blurring between humans, androids, and even reality itself in a world where the power of the mind is the greatest force of all. Enhancing this hallucinatory mood is an ambient soundtrack more concerned with conveying emotions than melodies; a muted, ominous, jumble of heartbeat rhythms and harsh buzzes, a soundscape where notes cut off before they naturally finish and repetitive snatches of incomprehensible vocals float in the air.
One person trying to make their way through this desolate world is Allure Valentine, a young woman raised by the church who possesses the ability to read the thoughts and feelings of those around her, as well as glean brief emotive snapshots from certain objects. The way deSPIRIA handles its star’s special skill (and one of the player’s most frequently used game mechanics) is nothing short of magnificent: Text is treated as living art, as individual elements whose physical behaviour depends entirely on the emotional state of the person Allure’s “Mind Diving” into at the time. Some people’s minds quickly create very clear full sentences in neat rows. Some distressed individuals repeat single words over and over until the distorted text begins to overlap itself to the point of illegibility. Some incomplete thoughts fade away before they’ve even fully formed. Broken laughter may sprinkle haphazardly across the screen like raindrops on a windowpane or you may catch the briefest snatches fear or panic – “It hurts” “Help me” – or context-free fragments of truths hidden amongst the internal noise “Children… %X2#0&… spiria…” that don’t reveal their meaning until much later. It’s a ceaselessly disturbing effect, one written and presented in such a way it never loses sight of the fact Allure’s forcing her way into somebody else’s most personal thoughts or bearing witness to things human minds were never supposed to see.
The free-roaming 3D sections found in its technical predecessor have been removed entirely and replaced with prerendered areas to explore using a clickable hotspot interface. Many of these locations offer full player-controlled 360º views of wherever you’re standing (impressively these don’t appear to curve or warp as you turn, even when panning past close-up objects), and those that are more restrictive tend to pop up in in tight spaces where you’d only find yourself staring at a blank wall if you could turn all the way around anyway. Movement between these areas are all linked together either by short (and impressively seamless) FMV sequences that play when walking from one location to another or helpful descriptors of where a door of path will lead, making it easy to keep your bearings even in dark tunnels or cramped city streets. Further assistance comes in the form of the colour-coded labels automatically applied to all points of interest within your current field of view: Grey is an interactive object or piece of scenery – a switch to turn on, a locker that may contain an item, perhaps something that would benefit from a Mind Dive. Yellow text will move you between two points in the same area – up some stairs, or down the corridor. And anything with a green label will take you to a whole new area, which in deSPIRIA’s case can mean anything from a small and simple room with no exits off a main corridor to a secret underground warren of doors and tunnels.
At fixed points during Allure’s story as well as at random when moving around certain dangerous areas battles against other gifted individuals (“cursed” may be more accurate) break out with her and them usually flanked by two helpers, known as Minds. These fights are as surreal as everything else, an attempt to display an abstracted representation of a struggle between two wills rather than a visual record of actual physical combat. The main enemy is always represented by a large (and effectively animated) prerendered sprite, while their (and Allure’s) Minds are fully modelled 3D “monsters” with both sides special attacks laid on top of everything else. It’s an arresting effect, showing everything to be equally “real” in very different ways, and these Minds come in all sorts of strange forms, some pulsating and plant-like, others with teeth where teeth have no business being. They’re always strange enough for you to feel you’ve never seen anything like them before, yet always familiar enough you can’t help but be reminded of flesh and offal and unnatural organic growths.
As these psychic clashes follow a different set of rules from the usual heroic adventuring party the tactical options available to you alter depending on whether it’s Allure’s turn or one of her Minds. Only Allure can use items, summon new Minds from her small pool of reserves, or sacrifice a waiting one’s HP in exchange for a powerful blast that unleashes a strong attack as well as a beneficial effect on the party at the same time. Minds are restricted to using “magic”, defending (which always restores a portion of their MP), or retreating from battle, appropriately subservient to (and dependent on) Allure while still being more than capable of turning the tide of battle – deSPIRIA is one game where the status effects and buffs/debuffs its “magic” brings are powerful, useful, and stackable tools to be used against all and sundry – including bosses.
Allure becomes more powerful in the usual RPG way – gain experience points (either by investigating important people/places or winning fights), then level up at set thresholds – but her Minds can only be improved by visiting special facilities and then infusing them with “emotions” awarded at the end of battles. Think of Shin Megami Tensei‘s demon summoning/fusing system and you’re at least halfway to understanding that one.
deSPIRIA is thick with atmosphere. There’s a constant undercurrent of violence bubbling away beneath the surface, always close enough for even the most innocent-looking person to descend into madness or mutation without warning, or for the plainest rusty door to trigger a blood-curdling scream or prompt an attack by a crazed android with torn skin revealing bare metal or brandishing their own body parts as weapons. For an adventure-leaning experience (the game describes itself as “Mind Role Playing”, which is as accurate as it is unhelpful) you have a surprising amount of freedom, the story even slightly altering in some instances depending on the decisions you make as Allure slowly uncovers the truth about the church she works for – the same church with its own dark secrets, secrets it’s prepared to kill its own people to keep. The game doesn’t reach the point of having major branching plot threads or completely separate incidents for Allure to investigate but there is more to discover if you make the effort to go poking around places you shouldn’t, and as a player you do believe you’re in the middle of an evolving and connected web of events and that the things you do have purpose and meaning. It’s a densely plotted tale with a heck of a lot going on and little time to explain, packed with incidental details that tie into important events even if their significance is never pointed out to – or potentially ever discovered by – the person playing. It’s this craftsmanship that keeps deSPIRIA’s wildest moments from appearing ridiculous, that makes it worth investing time and energy into reading psychic imprints left on dirty furniture and clashing with people who have goop where their heads should be. deSPIRIA’s about as weird as game’s can get, but it’s never weird for the sake of it.