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The original Shadowgate on the NES was one of my favorite games, specifically because it had so many ways to kill you. Some folks regard this as a weakness but I appreciated both the creativity in fatal hazards and the grim, oppressive atmosphere granted by their proliferation. Later on I became similarly enamored with games like IVAN, Spelunky, and TowerClimb for their vast array of mortality-impairing threats. It’s with similar regard that I hold Disturbed, a simple text adventure through a fantasy land that wants you very, very dead. It doesn’t have much more going for it than that, but morbid types will definitely enjoy the ride.
You play a poor, unnamed farmer in a land on the brink of doom. A strange blight has fallen, turning crops to ash and sapping the life from livestock. Without some relief you’ll surely die on your failing farmstead, so you set out in search of something to cure the malaise. Exploring the surrounding environs reveals that the blight is spread far and wide, and you’ll need to take matters into your own hands to stop it. It’s not like you have much of a choice, considering how all-encompassing the inky plague is.
Disturbed plays out over dozens of static, hand-drawn scenes with choices to make in each. They might be as simple as taking the left or right fork in a path, or as complex as solving button codes or navigating mazes. They never get THAT complex, mind you. This is a simple game, forever ushering you along a mostly linear path with few items to keep track of. The game opens up in the latter half to allow you to scurry about and assemble what you need to stop the blight, but again it’s a pretty simple sequence of events.
Every scene and action is described with some solid, moody writing that matches the grim monotones of the graphics perfectly. The words are a constant reminder that the land is dying and you are not safe anywhere, and that’s mostly true because plenty of scenes have parts that can kill you. Some are obvious, like trying to cross a field of black fungus or attacking a bear unarmed. Others, though, are not. Innocuous tasks like reaching into a well or diving into a lake or even laying down in your own bed can earn you a gruesome end and a trip to the main menu. Luckily you can save from any dialogue box, and you’ll need to make the most of that to keep from wasting time on unplanned deaths.
Ultimately the game is a lot of trial-and-error, attempting to do everything until you finally learn the proper sequence in which to do these things. While the deaths never get old I can see how they might grate on some, since it’s virtually impossible to get through the game without dying at least a few times to unclear choices. That’s the real sticking point, that many of the deaths feel unfair for how they sneak up on you unannounced. I’m no fan of this in principle but here it hardly seemed an imposition, granting me enough entertainment from the skeletons and mandibles of my demise to keep me invested.
I managed to finish the game after 45 minutes and a boatload of deaths, so it’s not unthinkable that old adventure fans could finish it even faster. It’s a tight experience with a wonderfully gloomy look and feel, though at the price of killing you stone dead every five minutes or so. The puzzles are simple enough that its really more about what order you complete them in than how you complete them. I can’t say there’s anything super compelling about Disturbed but I enjoyed my time with it, and always looked forward to new deaths on the horizon. Every game needs a hook after all, and there’s no reason this one can’t be strange and varied demises.