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An effectively grotesque dungeon adventure set on a strange world., October 28, 2015
Baluthar is a fantasy-horror adventure set on a world which has been invaded by the Ivarns, a destructive and technologically advanced race. While this setting informs the events of the game, it does so from quite a distance. The game itself is really about a father following his missing son down the horrible dungeon in the well outside their hut. You play the father, and must first drag yourself out of bed after reading a heavy, non-diegetic quote from the book of Ecclesiastes.
The construction of the sense of the greater world in Baluthar is impressive. The game physically presents just a very specific part of it, but through the ruminations of the character of the father, and through scenic features like paintings and through the anthropology of the game's rather horrible monsters – which are lovingly described – a strange portrait of the whole begins to emerge. I see that the game was criticised upon its release for not letting the player venture out into that whole, but this element didn't bother me. The game's achievement is the grotesque inventory of creatures and weird artefacts it delivers in the space of a single dungeon: a child-ghoul, rooms awash with rivers of fist-sized corpse beetles and a half-alive skull embedded in a laboratory wall amongst them.
Getting around these creatures and overcoming hostile magic are the subjects of the game's puzzles. They aren't too complicated, and there's a completist hint system built in if you get stuck. The writing is vivid, certainly purple at times, overloaded with too-long sentences and prepositions, but given the intensity of the content and the shortish duration of the game, the style does not outstay its welcome for what it's doing. It is also clever in building up the world mythology out of little strokes and asides distributed throughout the prose.
The parser itself is the weak point. It just isn't honed enough to deal with some of the more obvious ambiguities of player intent in relation to the game's content. Baluthar was the author's first game, and programming up the interactions is his obvious site for improvement. But as a fantasy puzzle game with a horror-leaning aesthetic, it is self-contained, imaginative and satisfying.
The game potentially doesn't follow up on the existential weariness expressed in its opening, but I'm not sure. After it was over, I found myself thinking about the way the character of the father had been expressed. Weary at first, single-minded in his quest to find his son, wordless by the end. Perhaps it was the ASK/TELL system, implemented rather feebly in Baluthar for communication between the father and son, that left a querulous feeling on this front.