Ever sat around a pub table having a conversation about nightmares? It's incredibly frustrating: everyone's straining to describe their own favourite, without wanting to listen to anyone else's offering. You know that your dream - about being forced at gunpoint to lick Mazola oil off Alan Titchmarsh's inner thigh - was the most ghoulish experience of your life, but you're the only person in the room who gives a toss. That's the trouble with nightmares: while you're experiencing one it's absolutely gripping; but try explaining it to someone afterwards and within just a few seconds their eyes glaze over. The content of bad dreams simply can't be adequately described. In order to fully appreciate a nightmare's power to disturb, you have to endure it yourself.
The Sentinel Returns is just like a nightmare, and a particularly surreal one at that. So forgive us if our description zips right over the top of your head.
Students should love this game, since it's all about getting as high as possible then looking down on everyone else. Actually, that's a rubbish description. It's like a cross between a game of hide and seek, an abstract painting and an extremely bad trip. Want a more detailed explanation? Okay - but before we go in, take a few deep breaths. This is pretty, er, iconoclastic. You, mister player sir, take control of a disembodied presence. Not a Duke Nukem-style maniac, or Lara Croft, or even a tank or a spaceship. No. You control a disembodied presence, okay? And you'd better bloody well get used to the idea.
So, there you are, right, inhabiting the body of a host robot... oh, we didn't explain about them, did we? Sigh. Perhaps we'd better start from scratch.
Okay, the action takes place in an illusory, mountainous alien landscape. Forget Yellowstone Park, this place is bleak. More desolate even than the Amdale Centre in Wandsworth, a place so intensely dispiriting that shoppers have been known to drop to their knees and bash their heads repeatedly against the concrete floor in a desperate makeshift suicide attempt. There's no lush greenery, just a smattering of gnarled, leafless trees. And watching over it all is the eponymous Sentinel, an ominous, joyless cycloptic entity which stands upon the highest point in the valley, coldly surveying everything in his line of vision. He's rooted to the spot, but rotates slowly through 360 degrees in 12 degree stages. And this is where the game comes in: if the Sentinel turns round and spots you, you're in trouble.
Okay. With us so far? Good. So, those host robots we mentioned. Like the Sentinel, you can't physically move. You can, however, look around (in 3D) and teleport from one host 'body' (or robot) to another. To move from one point to another, point your cursor at a point on the landscape, press a button to create an empty 'robot', then hit another key to be instantly transported into it. Of course, you can't just zip around doing this willy-nilly; creating a robot costs energy. And to get energy you have to absorb trees. But you can only absorb trees if you're higher than they are, by looking down and clicking on them. The only way to get higher is to create a tower of boulders and create a robot host on top of those. Boulders cost energy too. And if the Sentinel catches you in his sight, it's your energy that gets drained - until you either move out of his way or die.
Bit hard to follow, isn't it? Not to mention boring. Sorry, we can't explain it any more clearly or arrestingly than that. Play it for just ten minutes, however, and it all starts to make sense in a peculiar kind of way. And that's when things start to get both exciting and addictive.
Ma, He's Making Eyes At Me
While the game mechanics are hard to describe, the atmosphere, thankfully, isn't. It's menacing. Paranoid. Eerie. Unsettling. Like a game of Grandmother's Footsteps played against a malevolent, ethereal demon. Like we said, a nightmare - but a bizarrely compulsive one.
It's your inability to move that clinches it. Caught in the Sentinel's piercing glare (which is accompanied by an intimidating sound effect), you start panicking - looking for somewhere, anywhere, to place a new host body... or maybe just some trees to absorb... or just something. Anything. The sense of urgency and impotence is genuinely stirring, and quite unlike anything you'll have encountered in a game before.
The spooky, hallucinogenic visuals are superb and, if you're the owner of a 3D card, incredibly smooth to boot. It's worth noting also that the game looks and plays as competently on a P133 with 16Mb RAM and an accelerator card as it does on a P266 with 64Mb. So you low-spec owners can relax your sphincters (not too much, mind). The soundtrack (written and performed by John 'Halloween' Carpenter-yes, really) is utterly excellent too.
In fact, the only thing that's bad about the game is that it's made our job so bleeding hard. Own up - you still haven't got a clue what it's all about, have you? Well you're just going to have to take our word for it: The Sentinel Returns may laugh in the face of lucid description, but it's very different, very addictive, and very, very good. If you're after a refreshing change, this is the place to start.
Download Sentinel Returns
Systems: Windows 9x, Windows 2000 Windows XP, Vista, Win 7, Win 8, Win 10.
Game features: Single game mode
2019-01-08 Sentinel Returns game added.