The almost countless wars that have taken place throughout history have left deep scars and fissures that take generations for people, countries and cultures to heal from. Of them all, it’s the two world wars that still have such a firm grasp in our memories, the horrors of war laid bare, the brutality, death and destruction revealed through the growth of technology and media in the 20th Century.
Drawing upon the trauma of World War I, Ad Infinitum weaves a psychological horror around dark and twisted memories of the front lines and the ripples that were felt through a military family.
One of the key elements that horror games can lean upon is a sense of disorientation, and that’s absolutely felt as you’re whipped between different times and places. Are the moments where you’re on the front line the past and the abandoned mansion that you explore the present? What of the manifestations of terror that will haunt and chase you? Are they real? Can they actually harm you?
The opening moments bring one of the greatest fears of trench warfare to the forefront: going over the top, and trying to survive in the hellscape of mud, barbed wire and death that was No Man’s Land.
One of the most interesting decisions for Ad infinitum is to base this around a German family with some French heritage. Within the UK, we’re inundated with films and TV shows that depict the two World Wars from the British and American perspective, and it’s easy to conflate the actions of Germany between the two wars, but the reasons for WWI’s outbreak are far more complex, and the distinction between “good” and “bad” more difficult to pin down.
Given the family’s background and that you play as a German soldier, it feels strange to me that the game’s default language is English. I totally understand that this is gearing it towards the broadest possible audience, but when the game also has spoken German and French dialogue, I found it far more effective and evocative to switch to the German language option with subtitles. I hope that Hekate will either add a language choice before playing, and even make and offer a “natural language” option to uses the appropriate language for different characters.
The opening moments see you wake up as a dawdling Morse code operator, only to be shaken into action by receiving the order to go over the top. What follows is a tense trudge through the tight and twisting trenches, surrounding you with the sounds of battle, the haunting cries of soldiers.
Jumping ahead to after the war, you wake up again in a room at the top of an opulent mansion. It’s immediately clear that the house of the von Schmitt family is deeply haunted by the war. Following in their grandfather’s footsteps, the two sons go off to the front lines, while Karl, the father, produces lethal gas for the war. Madeleine, the mother, meanwhile descends into despair and mental breakdown as tragedy strikes the family through the war.
Wandering down from an upstair bedroom and poking around through letters and notes, you gradually learn more about the troubles that have befallen them and the mental anguish that it’s left behind. It’s not entirely clear, for example, whether you are Paul or, as the some letters describe you, “a cuckoo” that has invaded the familial nest. It’s all designed to be about as eerie as possible with distant sounds, the odd little jump scare and a journey into the mother’s breakdown.
Initially you aren’t able to get into the mother’s music room, the door one of many that are locked to you, and it’s cruel having to figure out how to disturb her from what you suspect to be a haven of solace. This is one of the early puzzles in the game, trying to hunt down the various objects you need to repair a militaristic music box that absolutely triggers her. What you find within that music room? Well, it’s a thoroughly bizarre and haunting scenario in its own right.
The tension, danger and fear will ramp up a notch when encountering the outright monsters that haunt you upon a return to No Man’s Land and the trenches. While this is a place of war, combat and gunplay are basically off the table, this being a horror game where you need to evade and hide from the things hunting you. There will surely be times where you confront them, but alas, in our hands on session we ran out of time just before one of the early encounters in a war-torn church.
Ad Infinitum promises to be a fascinating and thoroughly creepy psychological horror game, thanks in equal parts to the innate horrors of the WWI trenches, seeing how it’s completely torn this family apart, and coming from a German perspective. We look forward to seeing more as we approach the full release this September.