First-person shooters aren’t typically know for their philosophical messages, but one-man developer Doomster Entertainment has demonstrated once again that the indie game scene can be relied upon to deliver the unexpected. As a video game This Strange Realm Of Mine is a mixed bag, but as an artistic expression it has a lot to say, and that in itself makes it worth exploring.
What begins as a typical FPS experience soon defies conventions, dropping you into multiple genres, art styles, and themes. The heart of the game – the one constant that ties it together – is a virtual safe-space called Tavern Limbo, home to bartender Ulrich, who informs you that you’ve died and exist now within a construction of your own mind somewhere between the physical point of death and the metaphysical existence beyond. He goes on to explain that all of the things that you haven’t accepted yet – the regrets and fears in your life – have become manifestations in this world that need to be addressed. Ulrich opens up a portal for you which transports you to one of the many horrors that lie ahead, driving the experience forwards.
The aesthetic will strike a familiar tone with FPS veterans, blending two-dimensional sprites with low-res pixel environments. Whether fighting abominations in darkened dungeons, anthropomorphic rats in graffiti-plastered streets or acid-spitting plant life on floating islands, there’s always a sense that you’ve been here before, complimenting the central theme of exploring memory and experience.
Action plays a big part in this game, but isn’t particularly challenging and only ever feels to exist as the catalyst to explore the bigger philosophical ideas at work, and this is done most successfully with the NPCs you meet along the way. Every conversation you have focuses on a key personal issue – loneliness, failure, social anxiety, overindulgence, addiction etc. If you choose to help your NPCs as much as possible and go down these conversational paths, be warned they can be quite the mental rabbit hole, but the game has some surprisingly poignant thoughts on its subject matter. Where I would typically be rolling my eyes at this sort of pseudo-psychological analysis, I found its ideas reasonable and could see how open minds could take some positive messages away from the experience, and that’s an important success to recognise.
Functionally however, the experience feels a bit messy. With so many transitions in style – even switching to a lacklustre 2D side-scroller at times – it loses its footing fairly often with almost as many drab levels as fun ones, and the big twist and final act feels a convoluted rush to the finish line. Fortunately, This Strange Realm Of Mine finishes on a high, providing a psychoanalytical summary of the decisions made along the way. Many of the actions I’d seemingly chosen to take on my journey I wasn’t aware were a choice at all, and this secret profile build based on my natural instinct of play was the perfect way to finish. Where most games make it very clear when important decisions are being taken, this subtlety made my results feel more meaningful.
Ultimately it was this final reflective cherry on a very peculiar cake that confirmed that despite its flaws, I’d ultimately enjoyed my time in This Strange Realm Of Mine, and this exploration of one man’s artistic vision is time well spent for anyone that enjoys their games just a little bit strange.
This Strange Realm Of Mine £11.99
This Strange Realm Of Mine bridges the gap between art and video game with mixed success. It suffers from having a bit too much going on, but for those with an open mind, you’ll find an experience here worth having.