"This indescribably surreal game has that morbid, yet oddly playful atmosphere that could only be cooked up in Russia."
Back in college, I accidentally took a course in modern Russian literature. It was a happy accident, as I got to read some pretty neat books that I never would have read otherwise. One of those books was Moscow to the End of the Line by Venedikt Erofeev; a book I could only describe as "indescribably surreal." That same description popped into my head after playing the first episode of Leviathan: Last Day of the Decade. This indescribably surreal game has that morbid, yet oddly playful atmosphere that could only be cooked up in Russia, and it manages to do so while subtly nodding at some of the more sinister aspects of popular fantasy realms in clever ways.
The denizens of Leviathan live in constant fear of The Decade. Whenever the urge strikes him, Leviathan's ruler will enact a 10-year period of pestilence that shrouds the realm with a plague that kills all but those people of pure noble blood. It's the first day of the decade, and 8 year-old Oliver Vertran (the protagonist you assume control of) is not having a good day. A poor noble who has fallen on hard times, Oliver is beset by harsh teachers, even harsher bullies, and the harebrained scheme of a best friend who wants to try summoning a demon to even the odds between them and their tormentors.
That night, young Oliver manages to summon a vargoille demon (like those in Dungeons and Dragons), much to both his delight and consternation (since said demon can be annoyingly chatty). Oliver is also witness to his perplexed mother's brutal murder at the hands of a diabolical family benefactor and his baneful "shadow" demon. This is how the first episode ends, and the remaining episodes take place 10 years later. The decade is on its way out, and Oliver can begin his vendetta-driven investigation on his mother's murder in earnest.
Oliver also finds out that his family is connected to a powerful, mystical tree (named Tree) who speaks to him through dreams. If Oliver makes poor decisions that deviate him too far toward the path of "aberration" then it's Game Over. Unfortunately, it's all too easy for a vendetta-driven boy with a demon familiar to overplay his dark powers. Of course, the morality compass is blurry, and even the most righteous path is filled with moral ambiguity. Fate cannot be changed in Leviathan's storyline, but how Oliver reaches certain junctures can vary. For example, when Oliver is confronted by a bully about his demon, Oliver will be responsible for the bully's untimely demise. However, whether Oliver is directly or indirectly responsible will affect his level of aberration. In other words, the supposed "paragon" path is delightfully devious.
There are five planned episodes, and this release collects the first three. This tale of mystery, intrigue, and conspiracy touches upon many heavy themes such as demonology, class wars, identity, repression, even incest — should you chance to find it. The various themes touched upon in Leviathan are handled with a deft hand, making them mature and surprisingly believable. The writing is pretty good, but there are some localization foibles here and there regarding spelling, grammar, and occasional instances where the dialogue reads more stiltedly than colloquial conversation would dictate.
Similar to some of the Russian literature I've read, the pacing in Leviathan is quite deliberate. Patience is definitely a virtue in this game, and it encourages players to search everything, talk to everyone, and glean as much detailed exposition as possible. Some exposition may be irrelevant to the story as a whole, but it does flesh out this strange world and make it feel more alive. Unfortunately, there are also times when the pacing is unevenly fast, in that sometimes awkward jumps occur for the sake of moving the story forward. None of this is inherently bad, and the game remains intriguing, but it was noticeable to me.
The game does not have any voice acting, but is punctuated by sparse, yet effective, music. The most involved, and best, piece of music is the delightfully funky "battle" theme whenever Oliver finds himself embroiled in a conflict. The vocal song performed during the title sequence is also quite good and reminds me of music from bands like Evanescence or Lacuna Coil. The lyrics are in English, but I would like to hear this song sung in Russian if such a version exists. Outside of the music, the myriad sound effects do their job well and highlight the appropriate contextual actions.
Leviathan itself is a curiously surreal mix of traditional fantasy and steampunk. Arcane magic coexists with modern touches like steam trains and communication crystals that operate like today's cell phones. It's a world that doesn't make sense, but it somehow works, given the whole package. The beautifully drawn backgrounds use a color palette that lends a sense of gravitas to the world and adds appropriate hints of surrealism to the gritty realism, making this bizarre alternative world eerily relatable to us. The same could be said of the character portraits. They look like well-painted portraits of people, but with subtly exaggerated features. These faces animate during dialogue, and some of these exaggerations, like the almost predatory teeth of the school bully, are cartoony without being amusing, maintaining the darkly peculiar atmosphere. Demons look macabre, some people look almost demonic, and even the mildest characters have that air of intimidation that only a Russian can carry.
Gameplay is classic genre gameplay. Oliver seeks out items, carries them in his inventory, and uses them in appropriate situations. There is no twiddly item manipulation or puzzle solving, but inspecting items for further details is required to progress the story. Pixel hunting is virtually nonexistent as well, thanks to a button that highlights all available hotspots. Like a visual novel, there are a lot of dialogue choices, some of which affect storyline progression more than others. There are also some interactive cutscenes where Oliver's decisions can affect the outcome of a physical altercation. It is possible to die during these altercations and get a Game Over, so strategy is important. This is a game that is driven more by story than by gameplay, so the gameplay merely needs to get the job done without needless gimmicks or convoluted mechanics.
I must say, I'm currently enjoying Leviathan: Last Day of the Decade. I say "currently enjoying" because as of this writing, I have only played the first three episodes and need to wait for the next two. I badly want them, because I'm already invested this far into the intriguing story and the third episode ends on a massive cliffhanger. I recommend that genre fans check out the first episode (as it's free) and see for themselves whether this uniquely atmospheric game is to their liking.