Review: The Midnight Sanctuary

Open the Floodgates

How often do you look at games that release in Japan, hoping and praying that they’ll eventually make their way west? Games that look intriguing or exciting, but, for one reason or another, nobody decides to localize it, so you’ll never get to play it?

We’re lucky enough to live in a time where it seems like nearly everything created overseas, from the biggest names to the most obscure titles, will eventually find their way westward. Outside of obscure visual novels and Japanese indie titles, it feels like nearly everything gets an English release eventually. Even then, fan translators and small localization studios will often help get those obscure and indie games into the hands of their niche western audiences.

Just a few gaming generations ago, though, it wasn’t so easy. Fan translations were hardly a thing, and larger publishers were picky on which “weird Japanese titles” they thought would appeal to a western audience enough to bring over.

In a way, this led to us in the English-speaking world receiving a carefully curated selection of Japanese titles. Games that publishers presumably saw as the best of the best. I think this may be part of what colors the nostalgia of those who look back longingly at the JRPG “glory days” on the Super Nintendo, with so many localized games becoming instant classics. The thing is, we didn’t actually receive games that may have had less-than-stellar reception, and in the days before the world was connected by the internet, we didn’t even realize it.

Jumping back to today, with the seemingly endless flood of titles getting localized, those carefully curated days seem to be over. Everyone’s bringing everything west, which means in some cases, we have to take the bad with the good.

Developed by Cavyhouse, localized by Carpe Fulgur, and published by Unties, The Midnight Sancutary was released in the west on October 4th, 2018, for Switch, PS4 (with PSVR support), and PC. The Switch version was played for this review.

Unenraptured

The Midnight Sanctuary is set in the village of Daiusu, a Christian village in Japan. The village was built during the Tokugawa era, when practicing the religion was banned, leading the village to be mostly closed off to the rest of the country. The people of Daiusu have since formed their own belief system, mostly revolving around a person known as the “Saint,” who is foretold to come to the village and spirit the villagers away to Heaven.

In modern day, the village chief and the leader of the church of Daiusu have invited our main character, Hamomoru Tachibana, to the village in order to research and chronicle its history. Both the chief, Jyuan, and the church head, Kurosu, are hoping to learn more of the past of their village in order to modernize it. This, however, puts them at odds with the villagers, most of whom are still enraptured with the idea of the Saint…bringing things to a head when two mysterious young women appear in the village.

The Midnight Sanctuary is an incredibly short story, only taking around three or four hours to play from front to back, which I believe leads to the game’s most glaring issue – the lack of character development. Hell, characterization in general is incredibly poor here. We hardly have any time to get to know the cast before the plot kicks into gear. The only thing we really learn about Hamomoru, the main character of the game, is that she really likes food. Jyuan and Kurosu, probably the most important secondary characters in the story, get maybe ten minutes worth of shallow backstory late in the game.

I can truly say: I didn’t care about any of these characters. There was nothing to attach me to them, to make me interested in the events they go through in the plot. The game doesn’t even seem to actively try to get the player to empathize with the main cast. Really, it seems like the opposite, as the writer’s attempts at more poignant moments revolve around the faceless villagers rather than Hamomoru or the others. The same villagers who don’t even get names; the game just refers to them as “Village Chef” or “Librarian.”

For a game with such a short runtime, The Midnight Sanctuary sure seems to do its damndest to make those hours feel drawn out. Rather than presenting the game as a continuous story, the plot is told in various two-to-three minute long vignettes selected from a map screen. The basic gameplay loop is this: you select an area on the village map the game has made available to you, you watch Hamomaru interact with the villagers for a few minutes, then you get kicked back to the map. Repeat ad nauseam. Being kicked back to the map screen so often was just plain frustrating, really making the game’s pace drag.

The vast majority of those story bits hardly matter in the grand scheme of things, either. Most of these vignettes are simply Hanomaru discussing whatever is currently happening with one of the many faceless villagers, often adding nothing to the overall story. This combination of a snail’s pace and pointless conversations caused the first two hours of this game to take me nearly two weeks to complete; I had no desire to load up this game half the time.

To be fair, The Midnight Sanctuary does manage to pick up a bit in the final third of the game. The lead-up to the story’s climax is kind of interesting, more so for the events happening than the characters involved. Once the climax hit, the game actually had me intrigued. Is everything finally going to come together? How is this situation going to be resolved?

Turns out the game wouldn’t let me have any of that, as the finale is just a slap in the face. The plot is wrapped up in the span of about ten minutes, with none of the various conflicts really being resolved. I crashed back to reality and reverted to the mindset I had throughout the first two-thirds of the game: this game is wasting my time.

Really, I feel like The Midnight Sanctuary could’ve done more with its themes had it been handled by writers who gave a damn. The theme of modernization vs adherence to tradition is at the core of some of my favorite stories, which is what originally attracted me to playing this title. This theme is handled at a surface level at most here, which is massively disappointing. The setting here is an intriguing one, but it was hardly used to its full potential.

Cut Out My Eyes

I can always appreciate when developers experiment with the visual presentation of their games, but in The Midnight Sanctuary, something in the experiment when horribly awry. To be blunt: this game is ugly. The basic character designs are relatively flat and undetailed, with some seriously off-kilter animation and numerous clipping issues. The environments don’t fare much better, often just being a mess of abstract shapes. Honestly, I could somewhat forgive just this alone, knowing that Cavy House is a two-man indy team – perhaps they just haven’t developed their graphical skills yet.

The issue comes with this weird pseudo-psychedelic cut-out style that the game uses to texture most of the Daiusu villagers. The game’s environments are overlayed on top of a still piece of artwork, with the villagers and some environmental assets represented as animated cutouts to this artwork. While an interesting idea in theory, it quickly becomes an utter mess if more than one villager is on screen at a time, and God help you if there’s a lot of action or animation happening.

The soundtrack…or, often, the lack thereof…doesn’t fare much better. Right away, the game boots up with was I presume was supposed to be the sound of winding up a music box. My first impression, however, was that it sounded like my speakers were crackling out and dying. The rest of the game surprisingly doesn’t have music playing often, but when it does, it’s often in wild contrast to what’s actually happening in the game. Multiple times I would reading through a passage that was supposed to be dramatic, only to have it accompanied by bubbly bouncing synths.

Excommunication

Overall, The Midnight Sanctuary is a game with an interesting premise that never gets realized, ending up as a dud. The characters offer nothing to care for or get attached to and the plot’s pacing is an absolute mess, wrapping up without answering the majority of its own questions. The visual presentation is much the same, an interesting experiment that ends up being an eyesore.

Visual novels can tell a short story and still offer up great characterization and a fulfilling plot. A number of games I count amongst my favorites, including Planetarian, Song of Saya, and Lucid9 are all sub-five hours yet expertly crafted. The Midnight Sanctuary just spends too much of its brief runtime focusing on unimportant interactions without actually developing the story.

There’s nobody I can recommend this game to. While it may only be four hours long, it’s four hours of your life that you’ll never get back if you decide to play this.


~ Final Score: 3/10 ~


Review copy provided by Unties for Switch. Screenshots taken by reviewer.