Review copy provided by developer
Imagine driving out into the wilds of New Mexico, miles and miles from civilization, to an abandoned compound. Imagine arriving at dusk, picking your way through the crumbling fences, and poking around the dusty, moldering buildings. Imagine finding notes and keepsakes from the people who lived there, people who lost their lives there, and recalling their traumas as you stand alone in the still darkness of the desert. This is what Sagebrush challenges you to do, to walk these grim paths and face these terrible truths in abject solitude, accompanied only by the sprawling landscape and gentle creaks of the boards beneath your feet. And it does this so effectively that I can honestly say it was a more thought-provoking and horrific experience than most horror titles that try twice as hard.
In 1993, at the Black Sage Ranch in rural New Mexico, a mass suicide marked the end of the Perfect Heaven cult. Years later you have arrived alone, in an effort to make sense of this senseless act. The ranch remains untouched, allowing you to plumb the depths of the faith, the lives, and the doubts of the faithful. You’ll learn of their daily routines, their clandestine meetings, their shocking rituals, and the true nature of their leader. Only by following the trails of clues can you come to understand how they met their end, and how their final fate reaches far beyond that fateful day so many years ago.
To set you about your task, Sagebrush drops you by you car on the outskirts of the compound. With a few basic first-person adventure controls, you’ll find your way past the fence and into the abandoned homes and halls of the lost cultists. Here you’ll need to comb shelves and desks for all kinds of clues, from obvious ones like keys and tape recordings to more subtle ones like pamphlets and scriptures. The game does an excellent job of laying out a breadcrumb trail for you, because you’ll always know exactly where you’re heading next and what you find there will absolutely point you to the next stop on your grim tour.
And a grim tour it is, thanks to all its myriad parts working in perfect harmony. The lo-fi aesthetic really sets the tone in a big way, featuring warm, chunky pixels that evoke the rustic mystery of abandoned places while leaving plenty of room for your imagination to fill in the gap. There’s really no soundtrack, either, just plenty of unsettling ambient sounds like planks creaking and wind whistling that only grows more ominous the later it gets. The story makes the most of this atmosphere, too, dropping more and more indications of terrible misdeeds as the sun sets and the darkened buildings give up their secrets only in the glow of your little flashlight. That solitude I mentioned before becomes a powerful force as you progress, psyching you out when there’s really no reason to even suspect something afoot.
I really want to stress this point, because it’s what makes Sagebrush stand so far out from its peers. Late in the game there was a sequence in a claustrophobic area that had my hair standing on end. It was the kind of place where other indie horror games would hit you with a stinger or jumpscare, but without spoiling anything that actually happens here I will say that Sagebrush took no such cheap shots. And the end result was a persistent sense of dread, a feeling that this place I found myself in itself was the enemy, was the oppressive presence I feared, not some nebulous shadow man or loud noise. The end of the game only builds on this notion, with a sequence that took one of my most reviled tropes in modern horror gaming and turned it into something genuinely special and extremely effective.
By the end of Sagebrush, I was so impressed that I struggled to find fault with it. There were points where I didn’t follow the path quite so clearly and did some unnecessary wandering, and I did notice a bug or two with subtitles or texture clipping. But I struggle to recall those moments in light of the terrible revelations and dreadful places I visited, especially since so much of it happened in my own head. Sagebrush doesn’t jump out and scare you, it shows you something with horrific implications and lets you imagination paint the world with it. It creates a place where, by all accounts, you are safe, yet you spend your time studying the fears and traumas of people who died terrible, mysterious deaths. For my part that’s the best kind of horror, the kind that shows you something and lets you horrify yourself, and that’s what makes me put Sagebrush near the top of just about any indie horror list.