Condemned: Criminal Origins – Final Review

Condemned: Criminal Origins is characterized by an overwhelming bleakness, manifest both in its narrative and its environmental construction. Regarding the former, the game seeks to convey a mostly grounded, human story, analyzing the psychology of the player character, Ethan Thomas, who gradually descends into madness, given the betrayal he experiences at the beginning of the tale, and the inherent emotional difficulties attached to his profession as agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Framed for a gruesome murder he did not commit, Thomas is forced to go rogue, all in efforts to decipher the precise nature of that betrayal. In a clever narrative device, Thomas is not alone in this investigation, companionship and assistance arising when considering Rosa, a forensics expert with the Bureau who trusts Thomas completely, believing his innocence. A special relationship exists between them, which is highly compelling – here the human aspects show themselves.As the narrative progresses ever onward, manifold other plot threads emerge, primarily centered around a serial killer who kills other killers, thusly dubbed “Serial Killer X,” or simply SKX. A bizarre sort of relationship exists between this murderer and Thomas, creating a considerable degree of intrigue, the game becoming a detective tale of sorts, the gradual solving of mysteries becoming key focus of gameplay. But with its narrative ambitions, again bleakness is returned to, matters morally grey, ambiguity and excessive violence abounding.  

When regarding SKX and his immense depth, a sort of moral justification for his murders is present, though naturally this is a dichotomous statement – some may regard murder as despicable always, even if the act of killing is advantageous for the world and its inhabitants; SKX is bringing these killers to justice, ridding the world of potential threat and disaster, though again, he is taking life, man’s most precious endowment. Therein lies the commanding ambiguity. In the act of murder – whether it be justified or no – SKX mimics the Modus Operandi of the killers he is bringing to justice, in some instances embracing the gruesome torture which characterizes one especially menacing figure, logically dubbed “The Torturer.” SKX is of a profound sort, a very compelling villain, who seems to have a warped, secondary motivation for murder – gratification of sinister pleasures, receiving pleasure in pain and death. Matters are gritty, and very rare is the immersion-breaking inclusion of supernatural elements; they crop up occasionally, though, destroying the game’s pacing and disrupting its tone. Given this, I was more attracted to the worldly horrors, rather than the supernatural ones, which seem almost forced; with their presence, the generic is evoked, even as they uniquely center directly around Thomas, his preternatural instincts, which manifest in violent hallucinations, adding depth and fragility to his own character. 

The game’s environments are similarly bleak and brooding, traditionally bathed in total shadow. Though the evocation of atmosphere here is a masterful achievement, technically the title falters, with very poor texture quality and character modelling, understandable when considering the game’s relatively advanced age. Still, these limitations do not stifle the game’s creativity, its emphasis upon darkness, the environments stifling and consistently claustrophobic, as almost the entire narrative occurs within the interior of buildings, whether those interiors belong to a sprawling subway system or dingy apartment complexes, all reflecting a fallen world with their considerable disrepair. Environment diversity is immense, too, each level decidedly unique, though still thematically linked in the universal reverence of darkness. An abandoned department store is visited one moment, eerie mannequins, majestic and menacing, dispersed throughout, contributing to the atmosphere, which is only enhanced further by clever sound design, ominous Christmas music still blaring from speakers, despite the long abandonment, suggesting some life remains in the structure. Just as soon as this environment is exited, other, similarly creative locations are visited, an old school among them. A sprawling basketball court, contained within the school, is then navigated though, a symbolic gesture accompanying that navigation, as the court is completely bathed in light, reflecting the optimism of childhood, that even as the property is derelict and abandoned, some of that youthful hopefulness persists. But in somewhat of a flaw, the game is of a hyperlinear sort, debris and other cleverly positioned items funneling the player in one precise location, which imparts focus but completely destroys the joy of exploration, even as collectibles are dispersed throughout the environments, encouraging sleuthing, though they are of a mostly pointless sort.    

The gameplay proper is split into two distinct pillars: investigation and combat. Regarding the former pillar, Thomas, being of the Bureau, possesses rather elaborate forensic tools, which are employed often throughout the narrative, and while logical and intuitive to use, something magical exists around these devices, imparting a certain distinctness of identity within the title. Some of the Arkham titles have similar ambitions, but this title – even though preceding the starting of that series by several years – greatly surpasses them in complexity, the investigations conveying the sense that Thomas truly is an agent, possessive of all the training and knowledge which that position implies; here is an abundance of novelty and innovation. Certain of these tools, though seemingly mundane, are warped into something greater, as with the digital camera, rather plain in construction, though here used to great effect. More exotic tools are wielded as well, like a UV light and a scanner which illuminates liquid substances and other particles critical to the investigation.

But Thomas, even with these skills and his peculiar abundance of otherworldly “instinct,” cannot solve these affairs single-handedly – there is always endearing Rosa, possessive of considerable knowledge, aiding Thomas always, supplementing his skills with her own. The investigation is won solely because of their eager collaboration, the uniqueness of their relationship, sometimes seeming merely professional, while at other times notions are advanced that something deeper exists between them. She is a bastion of security and stability, both necessities when considering Thomas’s considerable instability.   

The second key pillar is related to combat, split specifically between melee combat and combat centering around firearms; this former split, though, occurs far more frequently, the majority of the campaign fought at close range, with the game’s immense quantity of melee weapons, literally ripped from the environment. But firearms, when they are employed, are highly rewarding and immensely effective in all scenarios. In efforts at achieving and maintaining balance, these weapons are fairly scarce, often located in concealed or protected areas, though other times they are wielded by deadly accurate enemies, and can promptly be seized from their corpses. A massive sense of empowerment accompanies their use, as almost all enemies can be felled with a shot or two to the head; the damage output is very high, while a fair degree of diversity is present, with the inclusion of seemingly meager pistols, through to a pair of shotguns and even a rifle towards the conclusion.

 In a clever decision – again made in efforts at balance – ammunition is scarcer still, none locatable in the environments; Thomas is left with whatever ammunition is present within the weapon at time of collection. Once this weapon ammunition is spent, the gun becomes completely useless; it can promptly be wielded as a melee weapon, though the reach is tiny, the damage output low. But reflecting a desire for immersion, available ammunition is found by inspecting the gun, like pulling the magazine from a pistol to measure the bullets contained therein. It is a seemingly simple inclusion, but a creative flourish which reflects the developers’ love of creativity, while also engaging the player on a more fundamental level. A needlessly long health bar, present at all times, does clutter up the HUD somewhat, partially destroying immersion, though mostly it is preserved.   

But given their mentioned scarcity, guns are rarely employed, melee weapons instead receiving greater emphasis. A considerable degree of flexibility is on offer here – at least superficially. Manifold weapons are wieldable, most of them literally ripped from walls, as with pipes and pieces of rebar. Many of these, then, are of a conventional sort, though in other instances the game shows its imaginative qualities, with paper cutters wieldable while exploring the school area, or various billboard components, large and unwieldy to use, though maintaining some effectiveness, given their greater damage values.

Certain of these weapons serve a secondary role, having environmental uses, as with a fire-axe, which can rip through especially flimsy doors, and a hulking sledgehammer which can be used to shatter locks. A crowbar rounds out these items, used to pry open doors or crack into weapon-storing safes. These items also serve the practical purpose of weaponry, each possessive of strengths and weaknesses, as with all weapons in the game; some have a large reach, while others have a rapid swing rate. Complexities are on offer here, and choosing precisely what weapon to wield creates a tactical consideration. Ultimately, though, the game shows its basicness in that almost all weapons can lead to success, though the handling is naturally different. Timing is important in combat, and is mainly a fusion of swiping, blocking, and kicking; these systems remain engrossing, shallow though they may be. A handy close-range taser rounds out player flexibilities in melee combat.  

Enemy A.I. is impressive throughout, both in combat and without. When engaged in melee combat, they can feign attacks, goading the player into action, all the while placing them in a vulnerable situation, the enemies provided with an opening to easily land their blows. They are effective at blocking, too, and combat can be intense, especially in moments where multiple enemies spawn at one time, some of them possessing guns. Erratic are their movements, some crawling about bestially, less human than animal, some actually suffering from disfigurement and mutilation, furthering their menacing, distressing nature. Aesthetically, a fair degree of variety is present, as when regarding these shambling creatures, relative to the still-human grunts traditionally fought in the opening; while certainly of shattered mind, they do retain their humanity. Hulking enemies, with considerable damage outputs, are especially threatening, even as their movements and attacks are heavily telegraphed. Still, the tactics required to best these various foes rarely change from situation to situation – the entirely of combat is merely comprised of that blocking and striking, no matter the victim, his size or mental state; still, there exists here in combat profound potential, which is rather frustratingly, only illustrating its faults.

The conclusion is paradoxically frustrating and satisfying, as combat is overemphasized, droves upon droves of enemies spawning. In an interesting, admired decision, though, the game culminates in an external area, namely an abandoned apple orchard, which is promptly set ablaze for narrative reasons. Having embraced the claustrophobic for so long, something refreshing exists within this environment; occurring at night, it is a beautiful occurrence, even as that darkness results in very low draw distances; the game departs from claustrophobia, but only just. Flashlight lost in the struggle and arson, a flaming plank can be used as weapon – and as torch, piercing though the darkness, a further reminder of light and how tangible is victory; the moody again arises. Here, though, the game’s occasional bizarreness of structuring is made apparent, as for a considerable duration preceding the fire, it was the detective aspect which received greatest emphasis, the internals of the orchard navigated, puzzle-solving and investigation abounding.

 Having these contrasts so vividly painted, the game can feel disjointed, though success is achieved when considering the vacillations between these two systems, their variance maintaining variety and player engagement. In this instance, the investigative nature rises as more compelling, a brutally difficult boss battle – which spanned roughly thirty minutes, given the immensity of difficulty – illustrating again the basicness of combat; it is a mostly unsatisfying conclusion to the gameplay, though the narrative conclusion is of a decidedly different sort, with a difficult moral dilemma presented to the player – SKX has finally been detained, and his fate rests solely within Thomas’s hands; spare the mentally fragile killer and toss aside all the efforts expended; or simply shoot the poor man, making the efforts fruitful. Ultimately shooting the man, I regretted the decision on the instant.  

Condemned truly soars in its creation of atmosphere, its constant embracing of the bleak and the gritty, never shying away from violence or a sometimes distressing psychological analysis, conveying Thomas’s rapidly deteriorating internal state. Enemy design can be distressing, their movements conveying their own mental destruction, while the environments they inhabit are engrossing and diverse, often busy in construction despite their overwhelming linearity. Immersion, too, is clung to throughout, even as the first-person perspective is departed from in the game’s many cutscenes, which paint the picture of an especially compelling narrative. Even in terms of gameplay, successes are present, though much of the combat seems underdeveloped. But here are admirable gameplay decisions: Condemned actually feels like a game, with actual gameplay systems and mechanics. Not only does it embrace horror, but it plays like a conventional shooter or other first-person game might, vastly detached from the new horror craze, which has rapidly descended into the mere realm of “walking simulators,” not unlike Amnesia: The Dark Descent, which I have recently completed. The game succeeds in a manner similar to how Amnesia succeeds, all the while providing engaging gameplay. Technically, Condemned may show its advanced age, while combat may not be as enriching as possible. But still it succeeds as a horror title, abounding in innovations, which still have not been bested, the detective systems perfect illustration of this commanding uniqueness.  

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