It’s hard to review a game like PostMod Softworks’ The Old City: Leviathan.
Not because it’s difficult or it’s hard to describe, but because I’m scared of ruining the experience for the player. The whole point of The Old City is to discover what is going on in a surreal dreamscape without any hand holding. It’s up to you to discover what’s going on, and it’s easy to miss small details if you aren’t careful – in fact, it’s possible to rush through the game and miss everything and end up finishing the game without the slightest idea of what you just did.
I know this because I tried it on my first playthrough, and I was stuck at the end thinking, “What the f*ck just happened?”. I enjoyed it but I would be lying if I said knew what I just did. On my second playthrough and subsequent playthroughs of individual levels (there is an option to start at any chapter once you complete the game), I managed to skip one whole level by a mistake because I opened a door I shouldn’t have. I gradually understood more of what was going on. It’s for this reason that I’m going to tip-toe around certain story elements and keep it fairly spoiler free.
When you first start The Old City you’ll be met with a beautifully slow song and what seems to be an old abandoned shelter. If you wait long enough you’ll get to hear a spectacular voice of a lady singing a pretty entrancing song accompanied by the melancholy clank of a piano and various other string instruments. Once you break away from the captivating and mysterious title screen you’ll notice the menu and it’s only available option: New Game.
And so it begins…
You’ll be met with blank title screen and the sound of wind, rain, and thunder and some words creep ominously onto the screen: “You are about to inhabit a broken mind. Not everything is trustworthy.”
The screen remains blank, but the sound of the terrible storm can still be heard raging in the background. The first chapter, simply entitled “Me”, begins. The darkness eventually fades and you’ll hear a voice that claims that he’s “growing rather fond of you”. At this point I think it’s fair to say that you’re meant to be confused and the game has no plans clearing things up for you – in fact, they won’t even tell you the controls.
You’ll begin in a broken down room. A quick preliminary check of the controls will yield that the WASD keys move the player around, space is jump, the left and right click zoom your view, E is interact, shift is sprint (or rather, walk slightly faster) and, strangely, T lets you type in words that get played back to you in Microsoft Sam’s voice… Why? Who knows, perhaps that’s another one of the games’ many mysteries (it’s not).
I mention confusion, mystery and discovery a lot because that truly is what The Old City is all about – you have to seek out answers that, without a keen eye, can be easily missed. For instance, in the first room directly behind where you spawn are various notes pasted on the wall. If I hadn’t swung my mouse around like a madman during the aforementioned preliminary control check, I would have missed some pretty useful information (like the fact that minotaurs apparently exist in The Old City‘s world). On another occasion I noticed a small box with writing on it. When I zoomed in and had a better look, I noticed that the box read: “May contain fraud, fear, greed, imagination and poetry.” – Strange, right? But it’s probably one of the least strange things you’ll spot in this game. In fact, it’s just the beginning.
Venture further through a maze of bricks and you’ll notice beams of light and nature growing in various places, conveying the feeling that the place has been abandoned for some time. The strange voice will speak occasionally – usually not helping your quest to understand the whats, wheres and whys of it all, with odd remarks such as “Your innards frighten me”. It’s weird statements like these that spur you on to find answers, and explore every nook and cranny (of which there are many). Is this voice really inside of you? What are you? Where are you? And why are you here?
Something which sums up the whole idea perfectly can be found written on another box in the game. The box says “Knowledge is the key to wherewith we fly to heaven”. Those words ring true for The Old City: Leviathan. You’re going to have to seek out answers, otherwise you won’t get anything out of the experience. Early on, you’ll see black bags littered here and there and you won’t really pay much attention to them; but if you’re observant, you’ll find out via book that a certain cultist group was dismembering people and putting them in black bags for easy storage. Suddenly those black bags don’t seem so innocent…
During your exploration you may experience a weird phenomenon where words suddenly appear on walls when you move near them – these messages seem cryptic but may shed some light on certain situations for those who are more clued in. Another way to grab onto some enlightening information is through Solomon’s Notes. Soloman’s notes can be found in small stone boxes that give off a glow of light. Opening these will unlock a very very long and detailed note (or rather a short story) that clears things up a small bit and details certain events that have happened.
Near the end of chapter 2 you come across a realization (I’m trying so hard not to spoil things): the screen fades to black and you reawaken in a child’s room which serves as one of the only constants in The Old City. The game transports you from strange place to stranger place, and you’ll find yourself exploring places such as a concrete factory, a jungle, mythical castles and an underwater civilization, but you’ll always end up back in the child’s room and it’s up to you to figure out what significance it holds (if any).
Exploring these places will be a treat as the graphics are crisp and wonderful and these strange places are presented beautifully. I feel like the developers new this was a must as The Old City has no real gameplay besides looking around these environments for answers, if these environments didn’t look top notch then they would lose a massive draw to the game. Something that kept popping into my mind while I was playing is how amazing it would be to be able to play this with the Oculus Rift and really immerse yourself in the world while you search for answers – this is something I really feel like PostMod Softworks should think about.
The other defining aspect is the sound – or rather, the lack thereof. There isn’t much music to speak of, consisting mainly of deep bass groans and the occasional eerie sound or piano melody. This isn’t a negative – the sparse audio is effective in setting both tone and atmosphere.
The only real negative I can think of is that the controls get buggy – mainly in terms of the jump key, which often doesn’t seem to work as it should – you can’t jump on certain things, for some reason. The graphics also glitched two or three times, flashing random colors every now and then – though admittedly this could just be down to my graphics card. But these are minor quibbles.
The Old City: Leviathan is a dark and twisted slice of narrative-driven goodness. For the right person (I can’t stress this enough), it’s definitely something to try – if only to put your thinking cap on and play Sherlock to find out what’s going on in this strange place. I’ve played through a few times and I’m still not 100% sure what’s going on, but I think that’s okay: I have questions burning to be answered, and I can have them answered if I like. All I have to do is hop back in and try to make more sense of things.
And I honestly plan on doing that.