There are far too few occasions in which my over-education proves directly relevant to playing video games, but I’m happy to say that my doctorate in Renaissance theatre and culture has finally found an outlet in Joe Richardson’s The Procession to Calvary. In keeping with his earlier niche titles, Calvary is a very silly adventure game that makes amazing use of Renaissance art and public domain classical music to construct a world that feels like it’s been ripped straight out of a Monty Python archive. The end result is crude, rude and full of authentic Renaissance attitude.
At first glance, the beautiful representational art that serves as Calvary’s backdrop may fool you into expecting a serious and educational trip through history and culture. This expectation is very quickly trashed as the psychotic tendencies of your player character are given free rein in the game’s introduction. This mixture of murder and the Old Masters of art could be bewildering, but instead works well to satirise the narrow historical lenses through which art is often viewed. Late medieval and Renaissance Europe was a time and place simultaneously capable of heavenly beauty and awful atrocities, both of which are possible in Calvary.
The traditional point and click gameplay here will be immediately familiar, and the ‘verb coin’ menu keeps things clear and simple, even if the actions being carried out stretch your credulity. Inventory is easily managed through a dropdown menu and combining items or using them just requires a drag and drop. These mechanics are tried and tested, and help providing a sense of normality to proceedings.
As you progress through the epic story of Calvary (in scope if not in length) you will be able to interact with peasants, demons, anthropomorphic animals, gondoliers, and a surprisingly useful skunk. A series of bizarre items are needed to make your way to the palace of the tyrannical Heavenly Peter and complete your quest for vengeance.
Many of the encounters and puzzles in Calvary feature an extreme level of puerile humour. While this may initially sound out of place with the classical art in which the game is based, I can use my years of study to confirm that much of the finest culture created in the Renaissance is surprisingly filthy. Dick and butt jokes are commonplace in the works of Shakespeare and Renaissance art generally has more flesh on display than the top shelf of a seedy newsagent. Famously, Rabelais’ superbly bawdy Gargantua and Pantagruel (a mainstay of university reading lists) contains a lengthy discussion of the best materials with which to wipe one’s arse, with the decision falling on the downy neck of a goose. It is this level of Renaissance humour that Richardson evokes and I fully enjoyed the mixture of beauty and profanity.
Aside from the setting and silliness, The Procession to Calvary must be judged on its puzzles. On the whole, it succeeds here as there is a nice mixture of inventory management and (il)logical decision making. Dialogue is suitably silly and it is often fun to deliberately try incorrect things to see the game’s reaction. There are some surprising cameos to be found too, with one aspiring magician from Nazareth making several appearances…
While the story of Calvary is relatively short, there are several endings to seek out and some fun achievements that reward replays. Without wishing to spoil anything, the quickest route through the game is to fully surrender to your character’s murderous impulses, as this violently cuts out whole sections of dialogue and puzzles. This approach does, however, produce an ending that is far from optimal. That the game allows you to revel in this psychotic behaviour is a sign of both its dark humour and the amoral stance it takes towards history and violence.