Today’s video games leave little to the imagination thanks to rich, realistic 3-D worlds, nuanced voice acting, and polished writing.
In a modern Japanese RPG practically everything about the universe is revealed, from where the villain went to daycare to the hygiene secrets of your love interest (but you don’t ever find out why the characters all dress like they’re in an ‘80s Flock of Seagulls video).
But SEGA was different. Games like NiGHTS into Dreams, the Phantasy Star series, and, Night Trap minimalistically allow you to draw conclusions about the nature of those universes without extended exposition and hand-holding. (OK, maybe not one of those. Phantasy Star IV was pretty talky.)
Which brings us to the Saturn’s Dark Savior by Climax Entertainment. Climax is more famous for creating the Shining series and Landstalker, but this 1996 narrative-within-a-narrative (should have) changed how gaming stories are told forever!
The Hunt for the Truth
Dark Savior sets you as bounty hunter Garian in a Salvador Dali-meets-Mobius world of mutant talking animals, isometric platforming through nonsensical architecture, and Street Fighter-inspired 1-on-1 battles (hey, it was the ‘90s).
Depending on how poor a job you do controlling Garian in the first, frantic five minutes of gameplay (and it will be not be easy until you master the in-game camera), you set in motion one of multiple story arcs of distinction and intrigue.
Dark Savior as a video game definitely does its own thing and that alone makes it worth a look. The stories taken individually are really cool, and it’s a creative idea to play through the same world multiple times with totally different stories.
Some characters have slightly different lines; some have completely different attitudes; some die in one parallel and survive in others. You get to explore different areas, too.
Each story path has a completely different theme. In one, you track your mutant enemy Bilan’s reign of destruction: You’re always a step behind, and death is everywhere.
But what if you slay him in the first four minutes? That story explores your character’s lineage and ancient link to the monster; the island’s political corruption; and of course a new love interest.
Shortly into the game, Garian is stopped before committing a crazy act by a shower of blue roses – which only grow on the island you’re visiting for the first time. Yet at the start of every new or completed adventure, you wake up with a blue rose on your besieged ship to begin the game anew (and the game saves which parallels you’ve completed, and you play the same save game forever).
Sounds like an interesting diversion, right? WELL. (Click the spoiler boxes for a more thorough explanation)[su_spoiler title=”Spoilers” icon=”plus-square-1″]Dark Savior never explicitly says this, but that the main character is frozen in carbonite and experiencing endless nightmares as a result of murdering a kid while drunk on “jalapeno juice” about 15 minutes into the game.
This isn’t a hero character dying gloriously and you miss their witty banter – this character is inventing a never-ending story is his head to as a mental escape attempt from a terrible atrocity he committed in a moment of weakness. That’s some Greek tragedy, baby[/su_spoiler]
Dark Savior is not “New Game+”. Each path you choose by your speed is a linear story with references to the other parallels but no experience/item carryovers (outside of the blue rose).
You play through multiple surreal, nightmarish fantasy settings and with lots of talk about “parallel worlds” colliding.[su_spoiler title=”Spoilers” icon=”plus-square-1″]In Parallel 3 you actually see yourself imprisoned in carbonite for killing that kid – and your clone breaks out and tries to shatter “reality”. You also hear a throwaway line that being frozen in carbonite gives you endless nightmares. Awesome.[/su_spoiler]
More clues to regarding the nature of the game universe reveal themselves if you die in the game’s initial encounter.[su_spoiler title=”Spoilers” icon=”plus-square-1″]You go through fight club in purgatory against most of the game’s good and bad characters and hear their innermost thoughts — and a bunch of them, even the game’s monster-villain who can’t normally talk, say something about how you are the real villain.[/su_spoiler]
I’ve read Silent Hill stories try things like this (and I just wiki their stories because they’re too scary), but rarely do you see Dark Savior’s approach structured into the fabric of a game’s narrative.
Each parallel is only three-five hours long, too. (SEGA always has known how to tell a story without 60 hours of cutscenes). So you can beat this whole game in less time than it takes your brother to final evolve his legendary Pokemon. Or something.
Metal Gear Solid 2 is an infamous troll on the player’s expectations and thoughts on the nature of reality. Dark Savior’s story is an even more subtle subversive, rarely achieved or even attempted in video gaming. You can take it as “oh, everything in this game literally happened!” if you like. But to me it’s one of the most interesting gaming stories ever told.
For me, Dark Savior’s story is dark, ballsy, and a somber lesson that mistakes in life can have ever-lasting consequences.
And the soundtrack is totally badass, Saturn-powered glory.
So I hope this helped shine a bit of light on a great, unheralded SEGA game. Like Garian, maybe we SEGA fans are also caught in an endless cycle, with Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo pumping out an army of AAA epics while meanwhile our beloved big blue corporation is sticking Sonic in exciting new mobile-phone diversions.
Well, as long as we have classics like Dark Savior to continually unearth, I’m content with the SEGA oldies.