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Fausts Alptraum Review - Her reflection makes her look like she has devil horns.

Fausts Alptraum Review

Rating: 2,3
A horror-exploration and challenging puzzle game about family tragedy and self-identity.
Developer/Publisher:LabORat Studio

Background

Ib and Witch's House got me into watching let's plays years ago. They are all 2D horror games with charming, anime character designs that contrasts with the horror while telling emotionally impactful stories. I never saw games like those, and combined with let's player commentary, they had me wanting to see more. It was those games that showed me that small developers can produce elegant stories rarely seen in big-budget, mass-media games. A let's play of Fausts Alptraum by ManlyBadassHero appeared on Youtube and it caught my attention with its distinct art. Being reminded of those RPG Maker games and seeing that it was free, I decided to give it a shot.

Gameplay

This is a top-down, 2D exploration and puzzle game in a horror setting. You go around a dark and mysterious mansion interacting with things and solving puzzles to get keys to unlock previously inaccessible areas so you can learn more about the story and solve more puzzles.

Exploring

You get a lantern giving you a limited view around your character in the dark mansion and you have to avoid rats that roam around. You can pick up matches that, when used, extends the radius of your viewing area up to a maximum. The radius increase lasts forever, but touching a rat lowers it, requiring you to spend more matches. If the light radius goes to zero, you wake up in the bed you first wake up in at the beginning. Matches are limited, so you should be careful, although avoiding rats is easy unless you have terrible eye-hand coordination, a poor sense of strategy, or are impatient. Rats slowly attempt to approach you, so you shouldn't stay in one place for too long.

You can also find chocolates, which increase your movement speed up to a maximum. It also lasts forever, but it doesn't drop from taking damage. If you "die" you will wake up slowed and have to eat a chocolate to get your speed back up. Speed is mainly a convenience for navigating the mansion, although there are a couple of chase sequences that require you to be fast.

You can save your game at journals found in specific rooms. There's no limit to saving, and loading the game is pretty quick, so the whole health mechanic seems pointless when you can just load the game if you "die" rather than spend your limited resources. Matches and chocolates are for those cases where you forget to save. As far as exploring goes, there isn't a whole lot of gameplay to be found here.

Puzzles

There are a variety of puzzles involving arithmetic, matching, patterns, and reasoning. The puzzles are challenging because you often have to consider multiple pieces of information or follow a series of steps to connect the logic. You will most likely require a pencil and paper to write down the clues and piece them together. Most puzzles don't rely on obscure patterns, but there is one I recall where there are letters associated with numbers and you had to count the number of writing strokes for each letter to understand how to decode another word to get a combination code. It was particularly baffling because the letter 'y' is counted as three strokes instead of two and the font the game uses makes a capital 'Y' look like a lower case 'y' but bigger. Some puzzles "kill" you if you pick wrong, and there is one case I know of that prevents you from getting the hidden ending, which is all the more reason to save often and load your game instead of spending matches and chocolates.

The open nature of the mansion means some puzzles are presented to you, but require things that can only be acquired by solving other puzzles first or doing something in another room. This adds some challenge by requiring you to remember details of areas you've been to, but it may also require you to do a lot of backtracking. This can make it easy to waste time wandering the mansion aimlessly if you're stuck.

I don't hate puzzles, but I consider them to be a limited type of gameplay because much of the solving process happens outside the game. While different players may have different problem-solving approaches, puzzles don't allow much player expression because the game does not reflect your approach, only your answer.

Beds.jpg
Puzzles often involve multiple steps. The numbers on the beds are for a passcode somewhere else. There are two more numbers off-screen.
Puzzle.jpg
Each person represents the number on their respective beds. The game also has character encoding problems, showing certain punctuation as rectangles instead of the proper character, but it's not game-breaking.
Code.jpg
The letters represent each person's name and the order to input the code.

Controls

The game instructs you to use the keyboard, which is awful for a game like this. However, it does support gamepad. You can't rebind buttons, but the controls are already pretty simple. There's one button to interact, and another to open your inventory or cancel. Direction input uses the analog stick, but the problem is that movement in this game is digital, allowing movement in only four directions at one speed and along a rigid grid. This makes the analog stick feel slow and awkward to control with due to the travel. I use the Logitech F510 gamepad and it allows swapping the analog stick input with the d-pad with the 'Mode' button, which makes movement control feel much more intuitive, but if you don't have such an option, you're out of luck.

Story

You play as a young girl named Elisabeth Faust. Her father died and after the funeral, she goes back to her father's mansion where strange things start happening as if the house is haunted. She meets Mephistopheles, a tall woman who wants her to stay. Elisabeth tries to leave, but the front door where she came from vanished, leaving only a wall. Mephistopheles makes a bet that Elisabeth may leave only if she can show her resolve to do so after exploring the mansion. However, if Elisabeth hesitates about leaving because of something she enjoys, she will be stuck there forever. So exploring the mansion, Elisabeth uncovers journals detailing her family's history leading up to the present.

Elisabeth's mother, Marguerite, suffered from a mental illness she had since her youth. She lived in the mansion/hospital run by Dr. Wagner, who Marguerite believed is her mother due to how long she was under the doctor's care. Her childhood friend, Siebel, came by to visit her. He became suspicious of Wagner after seeing no improvement in Marguerite and hearing strange noises coming from the cellar. He finds out the doctor was engaging in some nasty human experimentation in her underground lab, so he kills Wagner and takes over as Marguerite's caretaker. Marguerite was very withdrawn, but her condition improved greatly when she met and fell in love with Heinrich Faust, who was an assistant doctor. Marguerite's brother, Valentin, came to visit her, but she didn't want to see him, they fought, and he was killed from falling off a balcony. Marguerite was pregnant at the time and the stress of the incident led her to miscarry.

Heinrich adopted twin girls from an orphanage, who were once under the care of Dr. Wagner, implying one or both are the product of Wagner's research. Elisabeth was a good girl, but the other girl (unnamed) was withdrawn, had no friends, and had strange behaviour like staring blankly, stealing things, and drawing on the walls with crayon. While Siebel wanted to get rid of the troublemaker, Elisabeth insisted on letting her stay. Because of this, only Elisabeth was allowed to see Marguerite, while the other girl was hidden from her and watched over by Siebel. Marguerite was happy with Elisabeth, but her condition was deteriorating. One day, Elisabeth and her sister fought over a doll and Elisabeth got seriously injured. Siebel became guilt stricken that he had lied to Marguerite about the twins, tried to confess, and make amends, but Marguerite killed him in a fit of rage believing he was responsible for all the bad things that has happened.

In the present, Elisabeth encounters her twin in a room of mirrors. But, she acts coldly to her and refuses acts of kindness. Throughout the game, Elisabeth carries a doll around, which mysteriously vanishes at some point. When she finds the doll, her twin appears with a pair of scissors and attacks her for the doll. After fleeing to the top of the mansion's main staircase, she manages to push her twin down the stairs. This happened in the past, except it was Elisabeth who got hurt. After looking at herself closely in a mirror, Elisabeth realized she isn't really Elisabeth: She is her sister (referred to only as "Faust") and she is reliving parts of her past in a nightmare world. The twin she pushed down the stairs was a reflection of herself, a realization that she was anti-social to the people around her. Faust understands the illusion and comes to terms with who she is, which enables her to leave the mansion. However, Mephistopheles makes one last push to trap her, but she manages to cut Mephistopheles with the scissors and escape. All this time, she was sleeping outside the mansion, so she wakes up and leaves with her aunt.

Imagination versus reality

Mephistopheles called Faust, "Elisabeth", because Faust was jealous of Elisabeth and wanted to be like her. Only in her imagination was she Elisabeth, the good girl who everybody loved, but in reality, she had nothing to show for it, tried to get attention, but ended up being a problem child. Mephistopheles represents the part of her that wants to stay in a convenient illusion, rather than deal with the tough reality. Fausts Alptraum models the awakening from a withdrawn and fragile personality to understand the world and become confident with oneself. However, the ending does not show whether Faust has changed in reality. Does Faust make up with Elisabeth and become a better girl? There isn't any closure. And what of Marguerite? It is never explained what happened to her.

We like people who are expressive because their expression communicates who they are and allows us to relate to them. However, people who are quiet have a hard time expressing themselves and often end up alone because they don't reciprocate others. They want to be liked by everyone, but since they can't speak up, they do so in their own mind and can get lost in the illusion of being someone better than they actually are. The story conveys the idea that it is bad to live in an illusion. In extreme cases, it is, but I see illusions as a source of inspiration. Your imagination allows you to consider many possibilities and develop new perspectives through mixing and matching various glimpses of correct impressions. Losing yourself in your own mind helps you envision the ideal, guiding you to work towards creating it rather than merely accepting a flawed reality. The more time you spend in thought, the more likely you will come up with innovative ideas.

A weak adaptation of Faust

While character names and events allude to Goethe's Faust, Fausts Alptraum is not thematically the same as Faust. I'm not an expert on Faust, but from what I can gather from Wikipedia, it is about Heinrich Faust making a deal with the devil to get anything he wanted, but if he became truly happy with anything he got, he would die and serve in Hell. While there is a similar bet in Fausts Alptraum, there is nothing in the game that would tempt Faust into staying in her dream. The mansion is a house of horrors, not some paradise where Faust got anything she wanted. Considering that the story is about creating illusions to hide from reality, the setting undermines this theme. It doesn't communicate what makes illusions attractive, making the whole bet one-sided in favour of Faust, and thus, pointless. I guess the most good from the illusion is being able to play victim, but it still isn't a very attractive illusion.

I don't get the point of Valentin. In Goethe's Faust, Faust is responsible for getting Valentin's mother killed and his sister, Gretchen (a.k.a. Margaret), impregnated, so Valentin challenges Faust to a duel, in which Valentin dies because of Mephistopheles helping Faust. Gretchen goes insane from this, murders her newborn child, and then gets executed, making her and her family tragic victims of Faust's deal with the devil. But in Fausts Alptraum, it's not really explained why Marguerite doesn't like Valentin and what they fought about that led her to shove him off a balcony. The most you learn about him is that he thinks Marguerite is just faking her illness for attention. He appears, then dies, and life goes on. In the game, his ghost wanders the outdoor area hopelessly looking for someone (presumably Marguerite) and he doesn't do anything else.

Dr. Wagner's purpose to the story is also unclear. Like Valentin, Wagner is mentioned and then killed off. Wagner is involved with homunculus research and it is implied that the twin girls were products of Wagner's research. However, it's a sub-plot that is not expanded on and has nothing to do with the overall story since Faust could easily come off as any problem child.

Rough narrative

While there are static picture cutscenes, understanding the story requires piecing together the various journals you find throughout the game. Reading journals creates a sense of mystery in how you have to figure out the context and it is not unlike solving a puzzle. But because there tends to be a lot of time and unrelated stuff between journals, this format of narrative can stress memory and attention span. When I first played, I didn't understand how Faust realized everything was an illusion and it just seemed to come out of nowhere. Fortunately, the game maintains a log of read books, allowing me to load my latest save and read through everything and understand it in hindsight, but it still doesn't change my opinion that the narrative could be made easier to understand with more cutscenes that illustrate past events instead of leaving it as just a broken-up series of journals to read.

I find that the narrative suffers from the inclusion of a few form over function elements. Cutscenes at the start of each chapter throws out quotes with obscure meaning, which led me to be perplexed about their inclusion. Each chapter also has depressing children's stories to read. They draw parallels to what happens in the game, but I feel that they distract more than they provide insight.

Sense of dread

The horror aspect evoked a moderate sense of dread in me because I was never sure what I was about to see in the next area or what's going to happen if I did something. There are a few scares here and there to catch you off guard. However, there are only a few things that can actually "kill" you and a lot of the game involves backtracking through safe areas and figuring out puzzles. I didn't find this game to be particularly scary, but there were a few things that unnerved me.

The music in this game is one thing that stood out to me. However, it's not uniquely composed music, it's mostly Erik Satie's Gnossiennes 1 to 5, which are avant-garde piano pieces. To me, they prime feelings of mystery, melancholy, and nostalgia. It's quite fitting for this game, since it is about finding out what happened in a classical mansion where bad things happened. Tracks loop in the background depending on which part of the game you're on, but they manage to not sound repetitive even after spending time staring at puzzles.

Final words

Fausts Alptraum didn't have as much of an impact as the other games I mentioned, but it still has that contrast between cute character designs and a dark atmosphere. It's like following a small source of light in an expanse of darkness, a beacon of hope in a terrible world. It is part of the reason why I found these games appealing during my time of self-doubt.

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