David Lynch in Sadistic Binary
Mondo Medicals is a rather unforgiving and devious first-person puzzle game by Cactus Software of Sweden. The walls of the rooms you see are all in shimmering gray-scale, as if you were picking up a 1950's broadcast of an alternate history, where computers and video games were developed long before they were in our time-line. The sound is scratchy and odd, and when you see the man in black in the strange cut-scenes in between levels, he speaks backwards, and the subtitles that translate are riddles of a sort, although thankfully your interpretation of them isn't necessary to see the end.
If this sounds intriguing, go ahead and download the game and play through it if you can manage to. When you're frustrated by the puzzles, or you beat it, or if you don't care and just want to read this review, continue to read and leave some comments here with your impressions if you want, so we can discuss it. Don't consider this a recommendation, necessarily, but I want to make sure that those who appreciate what it's trying to do will at least have a chance to play. I will warn you though, there is no save system. You either beat it or you quit.
What follows are mild spoilers, followed by major ones, so now's your last chance to shelve this review.
Now that I feel like I can talk about it freely, I'll say that this game is horribly cruel to the player. The puzzles often must be solved through blind experimentation. There were many times I considered killing the game and chucking it into the waste bin on my desktop. It was only my will to see the end that kept me going, and my love of the aesthetics.
Despite the low resolution and shaking, gray-scale graphics, this is a game that is mildly unsettling in a way few games can manage. This is largely due to what they author DOESN'T tell you. You're given instructions at the beginning, told that Z is the interact button, and that the arrow keys move you about. That's it. And other than the title of the given "disorientation," the game's code word for level, you are given little to go on. You wander through rooms, pushing on walls, following arrows, trying to find a way out. The few beings you see in this world have what seem to be television screens where their heads should be, which only sometimes project a human-like image. The most talking comes from the cut-scene, backwards talking man in black, but the term disorientation is very apt: you are left alone in a puzzle with nothing but your instincts to get you out (although if you have instincts like mine, it may be necessary to change your tactics if what you're doing doesn't seem to be working; otherwise you'll be playing this game for a long time).
Until the very end you can only hit the escape key or keep pushing on. I must have spent way much more time than I wanted on some of the levels, repeating routes over and over until I finally bump into something I hadn't noticed, or finally did everything in the right order. It's mad frustrating.
So why did I bother to keep pushing forward? Why in the world did I beat it? I loved the mood, and for some reason the broken-English spouting crazy guy, the demonic, shrieking figure in white toward the beginning, the desire to know just what the hell was going on drove me in some mad dash to finish it.
Despite my desire to quit, I did finish it. Unless I'm missing something, I'm not sure how the player character figures into the story. If I took the interpretation of the ending at face value, I wonder why the PC was so active given its apparent role. If you'll permit me to SPOIL everything, it was almost like the mirror image of what cancer treatment is like. Instead of the poison finding its way to the target, the game has you, the cancer, finding your way to the force that will undo you. Cancer, of course, doesn't need to be taken literally here, but given the "medicals" name, I wonder if I can at least take THIS for granted.
I sure as hell won't play it again, because a lot of it is tedious, and many of the mazes go on way longer than they should to get their point across. But the tidbits of actual context and mood were just enough to make me want to track down the Cancer Killer's monologues to see if I can come up with more alternate interpretations. I'll share more of them should anyone care to comment on this review.
I hate to rate things because no one knows what my standards are, but I'd say that the atmosphere of this game, the mystery of it, elevates it above what would otherwise be an irritating maze game. It feels more like a stunt than a game, but I feel an odd sense of satisfaction, the kind you get when you finally beat a hard puzzle, combined with the weirdness of the setting. Since I managed to beat it, I can't say it's unbeatable, but at the same time, I wouldn't wish the anger I was feeling as I stumbled around the gray walls on anyone. So, consider this review the review, and I'll put the stars up for design sensibility, with a few nicked off for cruelty.
I understand that the other Mondo game from Cactus, Mondo Agency, is a lot more prosaic, but also maintains some of this strange mood.
I'm happy to report that so far, it's not much more prosaic :)
It's somewhat more prosaic, but also easier on the player.