For a century, the literary works of HP Lovecraft have terrified and influenced fans of the horror genre, giving birth to both nightmares and creative inspiration. Tales such as The Call of Cthulhu, At the Mountains of Madness, and The Shadow Over Innsmouth have served to prompt the creation of everything from written works by other authors to tabletop role-playing games, films, and, finally, video games. In this modern day exists a proliferation of games clamoring over each other to claim the description of “Lovecraftian”—as if such a label legitimizes a title in the minds of those who love horror and the macabre. Though few of these games manage to encapsulate the atmosphere and overarching qualities of the late author’s oeuvre, Alessandro Guzzo’s The Land of Pain makes an admirable attempt.
Possession of several integral attributes is required for any horror-adventure game to succeed in its mission, as evoking the fight-or-flight response of players inured to violence can prove quite challenging. Setting, ambient atmosphere, and a high level of immersion are among the most important of these elements, and The Land of Pain delivers in all aspects. Even the initial loading screen and main menu assist in setting the stage, with eerie music whistling into the player’s ears, echoing with the hollow tone of woodwind instruments.
As the story commences, players find themselves in the shoes of a man grieving after the recent loss of his father. Seeking solace and comfort from his misery, he visits his father’s cherished getaway, a small cabin nestled deep within the forest. An initial hike through sun-dappled woods showcases the beauty of the game’s graphics and provides a brief introduction to both gameplay and narrative. Lush greenery surrounds the player as they travel over a dirt path toward a craggy overlook, which affords a breathtaking view of the valley below.
As might be expected from a game of this genre, the aura of natural serenity is short-lived. Upon returning to the cabin from a short trek to gather water, the protagonist finds a strange sphere of immense proportions has appeared from the ether to float above the grass. The first Lovecraftian element comes into play at this moment, for all the terror-filled events that follow could be avoided if the character simply did not interact with this strange item. In fact, one might argue that only a special kind of moron would reach out and put their hands on a weird metallic sphere that popped in from out of nowhere.
If the laws of common sense and rationality were adhered to, however, horror stories would not exist. Thus, the protagonist touches this bizarre orb and finds himself transported to a strange place—a forest much like the one he started in, yet somehow different. The thematic idea of alternate or parallel dimensions recurs throughout Lovecraft’s work, but here The Land of Pain falls prey to typical horror tropes. Not only is the protagonist shifted to another world, but finds himself locked in a cage, surrounded by darkness, and assaulted by pouring rain.
The remainder of the game takes place in this dark new land, with gameplay focused on exploration and discovery of items such as keys, hammers, saws, and other tools that allow the player to open doors or remove obstacles, solving simplistic puzzles barring progression to the next section. Objects required are found both lying in the open and hidden inside of buildings, and usually easily discovered. Players stalled in their progress can press a key to receive a hint, though use of this feature defeats the purpose of exploration-based games. Hints are to-the-point for the most part, barring one or two outliers vague enough to elicit vexation. Intrepid explorers should keep an eye out for shiny items labeled “secret” tucked away in obscure locations.
While finding objects needed for progression is not particularly difficult, traveling through the game world can feel time-consuming. The protagonist’s default movement speed seems somewhere between a walk and a light jog, however large distances between objectives may give players the urge to sprint. No visible stamina bar exists to mar the screen and detract from immersion. The character begins to pant instead, slowing down after running for extended periods. Failing careful management of stamina can leave the player vulnerable at critical moments, making it an important mechanic for players to remember when fleeing danger.
A prevalence of gore decorates The Land of Pain’s gameworld—bloody skeletons lie in attics and behind doors, torture tables and iron maidens stand covered in gobbets of flesh, and the life-fluids of slain inhabitants of the dark wood drench the earth with crimson fluid. While darkness and gore are not Lovecraftian elements, they serve to help set the stage along with the gauzy curtains of mist and rain engulfing the forest.
The Land of Pain‘s ambiance is further augmented by haunting music and realistic sound effects that recreate the sound of the protagonist’s footsteps passing over dirt trails, splashing through puddles, and trampling over tall grasses. Of particular note are the sounds that accompany the game’s jump scares—typically bloody discoveries or fleeting glimpses of something lurking in the woods. Frequent, though uncommon enough to remain effective, these jump scares occur alongside an amusing gasp more akin to a hiccup than a shocked inhalation, but are otherwise well-executed. This minor auditory irritation is easily overlooked, as player immersion is bolstered in the moment by the sound of heavy, frightened breathing and a rapid, pounding heartbeat.
Those same noises underscore each encounter with the nightmarish, supernatural monster that embodies The Land of Pain’s adversarial element. A shadowy glimpse of the creature through the trees serves as the game’s first jump scare; later confrontations occur as a means to move the player through the story or prevent them from straying too far from the intended path. Many aspects of the monster draw heavily from the work of H.P Lovecraft, including its appearance as a fanged, fish-like humanoid and the temporary madness induced by its presence.
The creature’s arrival is heralded by a horrific, inhuman roar, followed immediately by a blurring and narrowing of the field of vision. Lights shimmer and flicker with strange colors; the music takes on a frantic, urgent tone; strange sounds whisper through the air; and the protagonist’s pulse races in the player’s ears. Representative of the transient insanity caused by the nearness of the monster, these effects combine to great immersive effect. Playing in darkness and wearing headphones can cause the player’s own breathing and pulse patterns to match those of the protagonist, adding a realistic feeling of dread and enhancing the experience.
The monster cannot be fought or confronted in any way—gamers can only flee in adrenaline-inducing chase sequences where one touch from the thing behind them means instantaneous death and a game-over screen. While this gameplay element lends itself to inspiring a sense of helplessness and genuine fear, it also runs the risk of frustrating a player who does not enjoy feeling powerless. Futility, however, is a recurring theme throughout Lovecraft’s work, and is reflected well in The Land of Pain‘s narrative.
Gloom, jump scares, and monster chases aside, most praise should remain reserved for The Land of Pain‘s story. Deliciously dark and twisted, the narrative is presented to the player through journal entries written from the protagonist’s perspective, as well as through pages and notes scribed by others and discovered through exploration. Even this delivery method is a subtle nod to Lovecraft, who was known to take an epistolary approach in some of his writing.
The Land of Pain‘s story weaves together many threads to create a tapestry of Lovecraftian design, including the concepts of parallel universes, the existence of alien god-beings, forbidden knowledge, inescapable fate, and the ineffectiveness of human action. A large amount of the story revolves around the Great Ancient Cthulhu, represented throughout the game via golden statuettes or idols presiding over places of worship. As the protagonist attempts to find a way to escape the strange world he finds himself in, he discovers more and more horrific truths, and eventually begins to hear strange, whispering voices and feel an overwhelming sense of anxiety. In a final twist of fate, he manages to return to his own world—only to have the game culminate in an ending truly worthy of the descriptor “Lovecraftian.”
Many players might take The Land of Pain at face value and remember only the window dressing of beautiful graphics and brooding atmosphere. Those who take the time to appreciate the narrative will find that beneath the tropes of darkness, jump scares, and blood lies a tribute to one of horror’s most influential writers. Careful adherence to the essence of the Cthulhu Mythos shows the depth of Alessandro Guzzo’s admiration for H.P. Lovecraft, making The Land of Pain a title worthy playing for any fan of the horror genre.
Reviewed on PC.