Now, this was a gamble, I can assure you.
It’s nothing to do with the developer, it’s due to the publisher pulling strings behind it. On Xbox One, Ratalaika Games’s name is synonymous with “cheap tat you can 1000g in an hour or two,” which honestly ruins the experience for most games. METAGal, for example, was an honest-to-god brilliant tribute title to Mega Man, but you can get all of the achievements by the time you completed the first mission.
Is there anything inherently wrong with that? I mean, surely you can just play the game afterward without worrying about a pointless number that means nothing? Yes, obviously, but that’s not the image that Ratalaika will obtain. You don’t think “cheap and objectively great entertainment” when you hear Ratalaika Games behind a title on Xbox One or PlayStation 4, you think “Oh boy, free Gamerscore! Free trophies! Stallion83, here I come!”
This is an image I think Ratalaika are aware of, and one they’re slowly trying to shed, in the same manner Sometimes You attempted. While it’s true that Ratalaika have been practically releasing a game a week on several different storefronts, they’re branching out to much more mature and respectable titles. Titles like Analgesic’s brilliant Even The Ocean, the Kinda Funny-featured One Night Stand, and today’s title, Sagebrush.
This is the debut title from one Nate Berens, a Michigan based one-man team who released Sagebrush onto Steam in late 2018. The project saw some modest and warm with its first release on PC, and now Nate is working on a retro FPS by the name of Effigy. Honestly, after this, I’m gunna have one eye permanently glued onto the direction of wherever Nate is at all times.
You play as a spectator to the aftermath of a fictional 90s suicide, involving a cult revolving around the angel Sariel. Father James has promised all of these people a chance for a free ticket into heaven, with a few notes glossed over in the small print, and one prominent figure is Lillian, who is approached by Father James’ wife, Anne.
Also, completely unrelated, but that double reference to Silent Hill 2 in the intro? Tight shit right there.
Anyway, it’s a walking simulator! A walking simulator with some light puzzle adventure elements. Y’know, inspect the thing, see if you have the item that can make the thing do the thing, and then you get another thing! It’s standard stuff, and it’s never so completely obtrusive that it stops from getting in the way of the real meat: a varied dish, this is.
One of the big things you’ll pick up immediately is the aesthetic, which is one in several titles kicking off the early 2.5D/3D low-poly graphics that were prominent in the sixth generation of gaming. This, Vaccine, DUSK, and the upcoming Anodyne 2 are all sublime flagbearers of this art style, and Sagebrush manages to make something new out of it.
The intro of Sagebrush is phenomenal at setting a tone. It’s almost like a love letter from the past to Resident Evil 7 from Resident Evil Classic. Nate almost perfectly encapsulates the same orange-lit skies that pierced the journey Ethan went on in Louisiana, and the shadows are much stronger than the light.
I can’t give the low-poly graphics much praise, however, since I can understand why people would be put off by it. It’s bad enough that Sagebrush is a game where the horrors are merely mentally-induced, but add on to the fact that it looks like we’re playing Unturned-meets-the-first-Silent–Hill? People aren’t going to come flocking to that, no matter how much money I charm them with.
There’s an air of unease around the whole site and the way it’s presented, and that’s before the creepy cult crap starts kicking in. It’s like an alternate-universe Firewatch, complete with unsure and short-breath commentary from somebody who’s under just as much duress as you are.
The music does try to kick the atmosphere into a bastard ditch, however. There’s something about the instruments used that aren’t synths that ruin the mood, due to the way they almost clip into the audio. It also doesn’t help with the horror element, which despite the music trying to ruin it all, doesn’t stop it from being absolutely perfect.
Sagebrush is what I’d call “ambient horror,” because I’m a pretentious prat about this. There’s no actual fear to tie into it, absolutely nothing is going to attack you, nothing is going to jump out and scare your heeby-jeebies into next Tuesday. It’s some of the same principles that apply when you think about being afraid of the dark: you know something obviously isn’t there, but it’s the concept and the mental instability of you not knowing that something obviously isn’t there, that’s what gets you.
After frothing at the mouth to several other people, begging them to play this, they’re hesitant to use the word “horror” to describe it, which is fair. Sagebrush is a game that never deals in absolutes, and it’s horror in the same way that the first season of Twin Peaks is horror. You’re focusing on something else, while the sinister shit plays in the background.
A fairly big chunk of Sagebrush is listening to audio logs, mostly from a female voice, and Father James himself. The writing definitely helps set you in with this sense of dread and nausea as you explore several buildings that the cult inhabited and listen to what went on in these halls in the past. No spoilers shall be had, but there are several finishing culminations relating to your exploration, and blackened blood is all Nate Berens needs to make you really, really fucking uncomfortable.
That being said, the writing does take liberties with inspiration and research material. The Silent Hill 2 reference in the intro is one thing, but when you’re ripping lines straight from the most infamous cult leader of all time, Jim Jones, and that’s when people begin to lose you. According to a friend of mine who eats, breathes, and sleeps stuff relating to culty happenings, he felt more that Sagebrush was tasteless in its approach, due to this.
Is it? Well, that’s completely subjective. The cult is a framing and it’s what the spectator plays in all of this that’s more important. It’s not there to glorify the likes of Jim Jones and such, and it’s more of a re-interpretation; A scenario from which you can see upfront — because I doubt any of you are itching to go to Guyana any time soon.
With that said, it does feel like Nate is afraid to go much deeper into just how disgusting some of these cult-induced incidents are. For example, the cult grounds have a school. You see the school jackets, you see the assignments left behind, declaring Father James as their idol, but their fate? It’s sort of scrubbed behind.
Come to think of it, all their fates are scrubbed behind. Anne, Leonard, Viola, so on and so forth, their faces are obscured and their roles toned down. You could put it down to a lack of resources, but then, what is a cult? A false shepherd, with a flock seeking any answers, let alone the right one. It’s a speech game, with which James won with several people, to live in his image. Idolatry may be a sin, but Father James was the one to lead these people to Heaven. Surely a claim like that would inspire adoration.
Sagebrush isn’t a long game, by any means, but it plays its punches close to the heart and kicks to the brain. Jumpscares never happen, but it’s that constant fear that the darkness will bring forth a spooky face that works. Even when you see light breach the trees for the first time in a while, you still expect it. You except something — anything but what actually does happen.
After finishing this title, I was shook. The events that transpired, the visions we see, the twists that followed, the constant dread that something is going to jump out and bite your tits off. It’s amazing how this was developed by one guy as a first-time title because this feels like a veteran’s efforts with a limited budget.
In the end, if you’re on a tight budget, and really need a horror game to play, make it Sagebrush. It’s a bloody slow burn of a horror game, despite its sub, two-hour length, but the journey it takes you on is emotional, respectful, haunting, and unflinching. Nate Berens may not have gone all the way with how he could approach subjects like Jonestown, but he still managed to create something that can still be considered “terrifying.”
This Review of Sagebrush was based on the Xbox One version of the game.
A new go-to title when it comes to more toned-down horror, Sagebrush is a masterful look at cults and their inner workings, with its only detriment being a well-executed aesthetic from 20 years ago.
Owner of the largest collection of indie games in the Western Hemisphere, and TimeSplitters’ biggest fanboy.