Numerous games have explored what happens when insular societies revolve around cult-like personalities, from the Ayn Rand rhetoric of Andrew Ryan in BioShock to the grassroots gospel of Joseph Seed in Far Cry 5. The Church in the Darkness proposes a more grounded, indie perspective on the subject, with procedurally generating elements to keep things fresh. Unfortunately, shallow stealth gameplay and a lack of interesting ideas cause this movement to stall out far sooner than it should.
While a stealth-action game at heart, The Church in the Darkness takes more than a few pages from the roguelike genre, with discreet, permadeath-enabled playthroughs each lasting anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour. Your goal of each run is always the same: to surreptitiously enter the cult’s compound (dubiously named Freedom Town) and locate your missing nephew, Alex. The compound layout is static from one playthrough to the next, but most of the particulars change, including item locations, which NPCs you might run into, and, most intriguingly, the personalities of the two cult leaders, Isaac and Rebecca Walker. Like the in-game cult it focuses on, The Church in the Darkness is based on solid ideas. The implementation of those ideas is where things start to fall apart.
From a gameplay perspective, The Church in the Darkness offers a simplified, top-down version of the stealth-infiltration action series like Hitman have been serving up for years. Countless guards patrol Freedom Town, requiring you to skirt their vision cones (visible on the easier difficulty levels), dispense lethal or non-lethal takedowns from behind, or toss stones to lure them out of the way. These well-trodden mechanics (along with the ill-advised guns-blazing approach) make up the totality of the core gameplay. While you unlock new weapon types and can find items like alarm clocks to use as distractions, they are superfluous and less efficient than sticking to the basics. Only disguises, which shrink enemy vision cones, are worth going out of your way to search for in the various cabins and buildings littered throughout the map. Simply put, the gameplay gets dull far too quickly for the amount of replays The Church in the Darkness encourages.
Unfortunately, The Church in the Darkness doesn’t fare much better from a story perspective, either. Because Isaac and Rebecca’s personalities change each playthrough, you need to surmise the threat they pose as you search for your nephew, then respond accordingly. However, these personality differences are mostly binary – either both Isaac and Rebecca are “good,” both are “bad,” or the two are split one way or the other. Which versions you’re dealing with isn’t particularly hard to deduce; various notes and documents you find while scavenging offer clues, as do conversations with NPCs. When you do finally find Alex, his posturing is a dead giveaway; he’ll either want to stay, leave, or be undecided based on which scenario you’re dealing with.
To be fair, these modest permutations do lead to some wildly different outcomes. In one playthrough, I extracted Alex with little concern for the rest of the camp, and afterwards the “bad” leaders convinced the rest of the collective to take cyanide pills, resulting in mass casualties. In another playthrough, after determining I was dealing with the “good” Isaac and Rebecca, I chose to join the cult, and the group went on to enjoy 30 years of prosperity. At first I enjoyed how disparate the endings I discovered were. Over time, however, they undermine any kind of overarching message or contemplation of the intriguing themes The Church in the Darkness attempts to explore. Sometimes group think and hero worship lead people down a bad road that ends in death and destruction. Other times it’s hunky dory, apparently? Regardless, each ending is only comprised of a few lines of text and some pictures anyway, which makes seeking out the rarer endings less compelling.
Because your options for dealing with the cult are limited, it doesn’t take long to exhaust the most sensible solutions. It’s kind of like being handed a few slices of bread, ham, and cheese and being asked to make a meal out of it. A ham sandwich is the obvious answer. A cheese sandwich is also viable, if a little less exciting. But then what? Put the bread in the middle? Going out of your way to discover less-than-ideal solutions to a problem you’ve already solved a dozen times isn’t fun when you’re confined to such simple mechanics. Ultimately, the most memorable endings I ran into were not intentional. On more than one occasion I had a playthrough grind to a halt because Alex cornered me behind a church pew or a tree with no way to bypass him other than knocking him out. It may qualify as emergent storytelling, but not in a satisfying way.
My biggest beef with The Church in the Darkness, however, is a pragmatic one: Isaac and Rebecca’s propaganda blares continuously over the loudspeakers scattered around Freedom Town, and you start hearing the same repeated diatribes on capitalism, inequality, and military aggression on your first playthrough. Those hoping for a unique take on cult behavior and theology should look elsewhere, as all of the themes are painfully familiar and as nuanced as an angry J. Jonah Jameson rant. These messages aren’t just annoying – they also muddy Isaac and Rebecca’s personalities. While the procedural generation tosses in a few lines specific to their personalities for a particular playthrough, the vast majority are pulled from a far too limited pool of generic recordings, making runs blend together. After several hours of listening to the Walkers’ greatest hits on repeat, I was ready to leave Freedom Town for good.
Despite offering myriad endings and some extra content that unlocks the longer you play, The Church in the Darkness does little to justify sticking around to see it. A half-dozen runs will give you a good sense of the narrative scope and gameplay, without offering anything particularly novel to keep you invested. I went into The Church in the Darkness hoping for a thought-provoking look at how cults operate and entice their followers, but ended up leaving Freedom Town disillusioned.