Game Reviews
Sanity: Aiken's Artifact
by Monolith Productions/Fox Interactive

Written 11/1/2000

Monolith blasted into the 3D gaming market showcasing the first version of their Lithtech engine with a little game called Shogo. At the time, the Lithtech engine proved to be quite formidable and was licensed for use in numerous products by other companies as well as Monolith products themselves. The engine has been upgraded and improved over the last couple of years, and Sanity is the latest result. The engine has changed dramatically and is used to detail a third-person game played from an isometric perspective.

The power of the mind has been unleashed by the workings of Dr. Joan Aiken. Her work has uncovered a relic that she has used to create a serum that unlocks humanity's mental potential. Psionic powers are available to people, potentially at the cost of their sanity. The DNPC, or Department of National Psionic Control, is a police force that maintains peace against any psionic threat. The DNPC has those with the power on staff, and faces off against those who use their power for less than peaceful purposes. You play as Agent Cain, one of the first to have possessed the psionic power. At one time, Cain lost control and massacred a number of innocent bystanders with his power, and you take on the role of Cain as he is called back into duty. To make sure an incident like that never happens again, Cain has had a chip installed that will shut down his mind if he goes out of control again.

The Lithtech engine has proven itself to be extremely flexible, especially in this case where the game takes on a totally new perspective and gameplay style. All of the graphical tricks of the trade are there and improved over previous versions of the engine, including detailed environments, high-color textures, and spectacular lighting effects. When psionics are used, they are accompanied by wonderful particle effects that are distinctive to the style of power used. The engine does pause noticeably during particularly intense action sequences and can be somewhat annoying, especially when it affects timing of attacks. Level load times are particularly annoying, as they take longer than anyone would really prefer to wait, especially when you need to do it often, in the case of a death loop during a tough fight sequence.

Sound effects are very good, environmental effects and psionic powers are loud and clear. The voice acting, while crisp, ranges from good to mediocre. Nothing particularly stands out, although nothing is truly bad. The voice of Cain himself is portrayed by the rapper Ice-T, no master thespian by any means, but he does an adequate job.

Gameplay is very similar to that seen in Diablo or Nox to a basic extent. You move using the mouse, and use talents as you would use magic in those games. Psionic powers cost "sanity" to perform and acts exactly like mana in a spell-based game. In fact, health and sanity are represented by red and blue globes on your screen so that you feel right at home. Psionic talents are very much like spells, and there are 80 of them to be found within the game. They are grouped into types, such as fire-based, mind-based, etc. You'll find a nice balance of offensive, defensive, and utilitarian powers. Brute force is one thing, but early in the game you'll be using a mind-reading power to get useful information from your enemies. While you also have access to an unlimited-ammo gun, it is so underpowered compared to psi abilities that it is essentially useless as a weapon.

Other than the sci-fi setting, there are some major game designs that set Sanity apart from games like Diablo or Nox. While those games had an objective, most of the game was dedicated to movement through levels and decimating everything that moved for advancement. Sanity features a strict, solid storyline that is almost adventure-like in its complexity. In this game, every step you take is proceeding towards a specific short-term goal that moves the plot along. Puzzles adorn the levels so you'll have to use your wits almost as much as your twitch reflexes. While the puzzles are nowhere as complicated as those seen in a traditional adventure game, they are very welcome as they keep the game from getting even the slightest bit boring. They are well incorporated, clever, and logical for the most part. Talking with characters will get you pretty far, and when that fails you can flash your badge for a show of authority or even draw your gun in a threatening manner (this is the most use the gun gets). Some conversations will provide you with a choice of responses, although there is usually only one "correct" response and you may have to attempt it over and over before you find the right one.

The interface is well designed and takes its pattern from the Diablo-esque games from which it is patterned. The right mouse button moves you; the left attacks or uses the talk or use function as necessary. A control panel at the bottom of the screen allows you to easily choose your action. Talents may be arranged into quick access groups that resemble Magic the Gathering style decks. In fact, when you pick up a new talent, it is represented as a card. The whole interface is configurable and easy to learn and start playing.

Multiplayer mode exists in the form of deathmatch, but the gameplay and levels there are fairly uninspired. The arenas are too small and don't allow for enough strategy. Deathmatch, while fun, is kind of a tired cliche. In a game like this, I'd have preferred a cooperative mode through the main story levels. Monolith has provided the ability to purchase or download new talents that may be incorporated into the game at a later date. With the state of the multiplayer component, I doubt they'll find any real kind of market for them. I'm sure people will download the freebies, but I can't see the sales of new talents soaring.

Sanity may be loosely based upon the gaming style of Diablo, but it takes the action/adventure element much farther in scope of story and provides much more depth, especially in single player mode. Multiplayer may be lacking but the single player game is extensive and a lot of fun.

Overall Impression

Bottom Line: The Lithtech engine shows its flexibility and provides an excellent environment for this third-person action/adventure. The game relies heavily on story elements rather than mindless slaughter. Pauses and long load times plague the game due to the intense graphics. Overall, the game looks great, sounds good, and is a lot of fun to play.


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