Doorways: Holy Mountains of Flesh 2017-05-24 09:42:29
While it doesn’t have a number in the title, you should probably know that Doorways: Holy Mountains of Flesh is really the fourth (or third, depending on your math) and final episode of the horror-adventure series. If you go into this game without prior knowledge, expect to be completely, utterly lost. If you go into it with the requisite prior knowledge, you’ll only be utterly lost in a story that steadfastly refuses to make even a lick of sense even now. So, okay, maybe it’s NOT that important to know it’s #4… or 3. As a sequel, practically no context is provided to bring players up to speed (or, in fact, to explain anything at all), and as a finale, it does little to illuminate its paranormal premise and offers no closure whatsoever. I give credit to indie developer Saibot Studios for seeing Doorways through to its end – it’s a difficult proposition for any small team, but particularly so in a series that just isn’t all that good.
You might think that by the last title in a series, it would have found its stride and settled into a comfort zone, but Doorways has always been a game in search of an identity. In the two-part Prelude, we were presented with an intriguing supernatural setup and a genuinely unnerving atmosphere, let down by a barely-coherent story and uninspired gameplay. For the next release, The Underworld, the developers decided to ease back on puzzles and ramp up the stealth and survival horror mechanics. Holy Mountains of Flesh, in turn, feels more like three distinct games in one, each with a radically different tone and gameplay focus – no doubt a by-product of its lengthy gestation period in Early Access. A certain degree of variety is always welcome, and this episode is probably an incremental step up from its predecessors, but it still very much feels like a game that just doesn’t know what it wants to be.
Whether you’ve played the earlier Doorways adventures or not, your first reaction (and probably many subsequent reactions) is going to be “What the hell?!” In this initial instance, however, it’s entirely justified in a literal sense. With absolutely zero introduction, or even a recap to set the stage, you’ll find yourself descending down a sickeningly deep shaft that opens into a nightmarish world of floating rock structures, rumbling red storm clouds, a derelict village, and an archway lined with skulls. It’s a great way to start, really, as you’ll be instantly immersed in the horrifying environment and eager (if nervous) to discover more.
But you’ll never really discover that much more, and this has been a critical failing of the entire series so far. To say there are “plot holes” in Doorways would be a gross understatement. It’s more like one massive hole into which tiny plot points are dropped randomly and inexplicably, few and far between. As best I can understand it, players control Thomas Foster, some kind of psychic investigator probing the crimes of demented killers who have escaped regular justice. Where, physically, is this taking place? Dunno. In the mind of the killer, maybe? Perhaps in Foster’s own head? How, then, to explain the odd journal entries scattered around, some written by the culprit(s) and some by Foster himself? Possibly you’re on an astral plane of some kind, but if this isn’t big-H “Hell” itself, it’s certainly a little-h variation of it. Letting someone rot there alone for eternity would be punishment enough for any crime.
Entirely by coincidence, I just rewatched the movie The Cell, in which Jennifer Lopez enters the subconscious reality of a comatose and wickedly psycho Vincent D’Onofrio to discover a secret. Not a very good flick, but I could roll with the concept because it was properly established. Here? Nothing. You’re just dropped into a surreal representation of the killer’s town. Or rather, in this case, plural killers, as it’s not one but an entire family of three (so much for being in one person’s mind). And instead of merely seeking information, the end goal is to KILL the killers, in the most sadistic manner possible. How is this supposed to impart justice – or rather, exact retribution – in the real world? Beats me. Not only are these questions not answered in any of the four games, they’re never even asked. In fact, this episode prefers to spend its rare moments of exposition toying with the notion that the agency Foster works for is trying to screw him over by trapping him there (wherever “there” is) too. Given the sociopathic viciousness of his execution methods, I don’t blame them. Regardless, other than setting up an entirely anticlimactic epilogue, this meta diversion serves no narrative purpose whatsoever, and is certainly no substitute for telling the main story adequately.
However you got wherever you truly are, you’ll find yourself in a kind of nightmare version of El Chacal, an Argentinian mountain village where Juan Torres (aka “The Roaster”) and his wife led a cannibalistic cult devoted to the “Saint of the Flesh”, while their mentally handicapped son terrorized those who picked on him at school. The labyrinthine underworld hub consists mainly of empty shacks, crumbling ruins, and twisting stone passageways. You can poke about in the abandoned homes, but other than hearing trace sounds of their former inhabitants that are neither scary nor interesting (an old man coughing, children playing, a sick person throwing up), there’s little to do except make your way to three particular structures in order, each representing one of the Torres family members. Sometimes the only way to reach your next destination is by jumping from platform to moving platform, some of them crumbling beneath your feet. (This won’t be the last time you’re required to perform feats of dexterity, but more on that later.) Each time you return from a mission at one of the main buildings, the town becomes further overrun by slimy, blood-red tentacles. Why, you may be thinking? Stop it; you’re asking too many questions.
You’ll start out in the school, where “retarded” (as the game describes him) young Jeronimo was bullied by fellow students and had good reason to hate the other children – though surely not reason enough to apparently slaughter them all. I say “apparently”, because other than the odd despairing note and a few visions of horrific aftermath, there’s really no evidence of any wrongdoing. This is a common theme running throughout the game. We’re to believe that we’re hunting down Very Evil People™, without much actual proof of their nasty misdeeds. I should have wanted those monsters punished as much as Foster by the time he tracked them down, but I almost felt sorry for them, so little was I convinced of their heinous crimes.
Hole plots (not a typo) aside, once you suspend enormous amounts of disbelief over what’s missing, what’s actually here is more satisfying, if not without problems of its own. What’s most surprising about Holy Mountains of Flesh is how different the gameplay is throughout its three acts. The school is the most Doorways-ish of the lot, blending a little light puzzling into a lot of shadows with lurking horrors. Other than one pedal-to-the-metal chase sequence, the few Silent Hill-esque abominations behave themselves if you stick to the light. (If you’re even thinking about asking who or what these are, and why they’re haunting the building, then give yourself a slap.) One puzzling sequence tasks you with penetrating the treacherous darkness, but unfairly so, as a certain hotspot won’t highlight unless every element is in its predetermined position, even if there’s no reason for that to be necessary. A chemistry puzzle, too, requires a solution to be performed just so, with misleading feedback to other partial attempts.