Condemned: Criminal Origins: The Seven Silence of the Cell
We are fascinated by serial killers, culturally that is, in real life, we are scared by them. Movies like Seven, The Silence of the Lambs (all-time favorite movie and book), and Psycho all have captured our morbid imagination. Condemned: Criminal Origins (at least by the trailers) tries to capture the atmosphere and themes of these great films and books. That being said, Condemned is a harrowing journey through a crumbling society and also supernatural ghost murders (?).
Metro City is….not doing well, to say the least. The city appears to be overrun with druggies, gangs, and more serial killers than current-day Caracas. Ethan Thomas is a member of The Bureau, the not CIA of not Caracas. He and his organization are investigating the latest in several prolific serial killers: The Match-Maker. However, another serial killer comes onto the scene and shoots Ethan's companions. Resulting in him being forced to go on the run (for a reason that doesn't make sense). He then has to figure out the serial killer's identity whilst being hunted by a seemingly endless supply of bums, druggies, and murderers.
Ethan is superhuman. One of the mysteries surrounding him is the claim that Ethan has super durability. The ability to foresee the future and acute investigation senses. He is also being followed by some sort of ghost murderer. The final boss fight takes place in another dimension. Where you tear off a coenobite reject’s jaw off to win. The supernatural stuff is distracting from what is otherwise a pretty grounded setting.
Condemned would have done just fine without the dumb ghosts and superhumans. It kind of works against the game, why should I care if Ethan is a powerful god among men? Exploring societal decay and fighting off the hollowed shells of once-promising lives is much more interesting; than ghost murderers and alternative dimensions. It only serves to make a possibly plausible situation (hence my Caracas comparison) into a significantly sillier one.
I would reckon that three inspirations went into Condemned: Criminal Origins. These would be Seven, The Silence of the Lambs, and The Cell. Seven's influence is pretty obvious. The sociality degradation and disturbing imagery found in Condemned is clearly influenced by David Flincher's 1995 masterpiece. The horror atmosphere and hunting for a serial killer as the main motivation is a very clear inspiration from Silence of the Lambs; complete with hunting a serial killer through their home as a climax. The fantasy elements and surreal imagery (along with the horror atmosphere with odd serial killers) is very reminiscent of The Cell (2000). The first two are awesome pieces of art that had style and substance. The Cell was all style and no substance. Content to show disturbing and dreamy imagery to get an emotional reaction.
Condemned avoids all style and no substance pothole. But runs into the problem that (unlike The Cell) there is no reason for the supernatural elements. The Cell was (supposed) to be about exploring the mind of a serial killer. The supernatural murderer and stuff just seem to be there. It is just distracting from a more interesting story.
I have no idea why the bureau turned against Ethan with such little evidence. All they have was the fact that his colleagues were killed by his gun. The record doesn't suggest Ethan was loose cannon with an itchy trigger finger. They just sort of turn against him for such a flimsy reason, why would they not believe a man with such a reputation as supposedly hallowed as Ethan Thomas. It's just a convoluted reason to isolate Ethan and force him to journey alone. Please keep in mind that despite everything I have complained about so far. Condemned is still bloody terrifying, despite the silliness and the convoluted storytelling. The game is deliciously horrific due to the atmosphere and gameplay.
Condemned has two gameplay loops, the combat and detective mode. The two intersect each other throughout the game as the player processes. They both offer compelling mechanics that serve to make the player as vulnerable as possible.
To process the game, Ethan has to investigate crime scenes and document the relevant evidence so Rosa can give us the facts. There isn’t that much skill involved. As the solution is pretty simple to grasp (follow the trail till the game tells you to stop etc). However the mechanic does help ground the player, you are a detective and hunting for a serial killer after all. It would sense that the player would have to document crime scenes. Another key element to detective mode is that you are vulnerable while performing the task.
Regardless of if you are in actual danger. The sense of vulnerability I experienced during these moments made the game persistently nerve-wracking. I was on the edge of my seat because I felt that I could be ambushed at any moment. There was also that moment in the school, where I had to document a corpse. But the game forces you to take another photo. But closer, then another even closer. Before the corpse grabs you and begs for help. Condemned's use of a mechanic creates a highly effective jump scare that legitimately made me shake.
Next time, try a crowbar!
Condemned’s combat is fantastic, blows land with a wince-inducing thud. As combat is melee-focused you are forced to close the distance between the foes. A simple but highly effective means of making the player feel vulnerable. Trading blows becomes an intense battle of dodging and blocking, the latter is surprisingly tricky. As you have to press the button (with none of the helpful slowdown or prompts) to block. Timing is key and more often than not you are panicking. Because a drug addict is about to smash your head in with a lead pipe. The fact that you have to salvage your weapons from your surroundings further emphasizes the isolation and mad scramble for survival. You are surviving in a nakedly hostile environment and you need every single advantage.
The weapons are visually unimpressive but are varied in usefulness. A lead pipe can be more effective at blocking than a sledgehammer. But the latter deals more damage in a wider ach. The electrical conduit might deal with low damage but you can hit remarkably fast. The weapons are all about tradeoffs, finding whatever is best suited for the current situation. There are guns but they are: 1 rare and 2, have limited ammo and 3, break after prolonged. In a lesser game, Condemned would have made the guns overpowered. But guns here are deliberately designed to be temporary. They still make you feel vulnerable weak as bullets run out deceptively fast. Condemned's melee combat is brilliant, deeply personal, and harrowing in excitation. The guns are just powerful enough to help the player but keep them vulnerable.
The AI is brilliant at capturing the drugged-out, hazy, and confused behavior patterns one would expect of druggies. They don’t just run up and attack you upon seeing you. Sometimes they will run around, trying to get a weapon. or find cover. Often they will attack each other. The only reason they seem to attack you is that you're the closest living thing that's not them. That doesn't mean that they are not clever. They will often retreat or hid in a (faintly childish) attempt to ambush you. Their AI offers a depth to their characterization that is borderline Fromsoft at points.
They, not just faceless goons who attack you because the game had to have standard combat. But rather victims of a crumbling economic system, minds fried by drugs, and the stresses of homelessness and instability. You are just the unfortunate victim of circumstance, much like them. They only attack because they are scared and trying to survive, much like you. I love how they try to take cover, they are living entirely on the animal instinct. From a gameplay perspective, they are just challenging enough to be difficult and exhilarating. But not overwhelming to where it becomes annoying.
Art style and graphics:
I would like to focus on the facial animations. I am impressed at the expressive animations, I love the moment of shock a bum gives before I smack him with a pipe. The expressions Ethan Thomas gives throughout the game, ranging from doubt to shock to even terror. Even if Condemned's facial animations are not groundbreaking, they are still a hallmark awesome animation. The environments are fitting for the 2000s games, that being mostly brown and black. But it fits the delicate Seven-Esque visuals that Condemned was going for.
Before starting Condemned I heard that the game was unstable and doesn’t run practically well on modern systems. Fortunately, this was not the case. The only flaw is that the game freezes sometimes briefly. But asides from that Condemned is rather stable.
Condemned is a terrifying descent into the darkest parts of humanity. The game highlights failure of societal reform and the nightmare in which anyone can become a murderer. I don’t like the supernatural elements, they were unnecessary and only distracted from what is an otherwise excellent product.
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