While initially developed for creating games in the role-playing genre, the ever-popular RPG Maker software is also well suited to the development of horror titles. The system’s limitations, with 16 bit-era tilesets and pixellated characters, forces the player to use their imagination, conjuring a creepier atmosphere than many a modern title. The Devil’s Womb, created by Italian developer Insane Kat Studio, mixes gorgeous hand-drawn art with numerous puzzles and a brooding atmosphere to keep the player constantly on edge.
Protagonist Franciszka Jung has had a rough start to life. Found at the age of nine allegedly making blood sacrifices to the devil, she is hospitalised in a psychiatric institution for three years. On the final day of her confinement, she is administered a Rorschach test, but before she can examine the inkblots, her world goes dark.
Meanwhile, in another time and place, a demon named Luna awakens, unable to remember anything about who or where she is. As she explores a world of warped corridors, monstrous creatures, and frightened children, only her optimism will help her find her way through the dark.
The Devil’s Womb is primarily a game of exploration, with the player guiding Luna through twisted locales to find items and clues to solving puzzles. This is the sort of game where having a notepad at hand is vital: Luna will often need to input codes to progress, but the information for each one is strewn far and wide across the game world. Along with simple number codes, cyphers, observation of the environment, and even some Bible knowledge comes in to play when solving each riddle.
Aside from codes, The Devil’s Womb also features quite a few object puzzles, where using the right item in the right place may open up a new room, or create shortcuts to reduce backtracking. One I particularly liked was using a ‘sponge key’ on a pool of blood to create a red key, utilising an area I initially thought was just a gory background. Using objects can be a touch fiddly: Luna needs to be standing right in front of the object she wants to interact with, then the player must hunt through the menu to find the correct item and choose the ‘use’ command. This approach is pretty old fashioned, with most games these days automatically using a key or the like if the player already has the right item in their inventory. This modern technique would not work with several of the puzzles, where the player needs to choose the correct item to use, but basic keys could have been automated to make the game a bit more user friendly.
The dark, twisted pathways of The Devil’s Womb‘s labyrinthine world are littered with danger. With no combat system, Luna’s survival relies on making smart decisions to avoid some enemies and running and hiding from others. Not swimming with a group of severed heads is an easy choice, but getting squished by an evil door is a less expected form of death. Shortly into the adventure, the Black-Noise is introduced, a tumbling horror that will follow Luna from room to room, only disappearing when she hides. These encounters are highly stressful, and their rarity makes them all the more effective. Entering each new area is a tense experience, with the possibility of danger around every corner. Save points are thankfully liberally spread across the world, but the game hints at a special ending if one manages to save five or less times over the course of the adventure, giving the title great replay value.
The Devil’s Womb has strong artistic direction, with full custom tilesets and beautiful portraits for every character. The style is quite reminiscent of Tim Burton, with the combination of gothic and fantasy elements creating a strong sense of place. Background music ebbs and flows as needed, unafraid to use long stretches of silence to build tension.
The story, on the other hand, gets a bit lost. In my playthrough, the connection between Luna and Franciszka was never explained, although it may have turned up in one of the other endings. The game has three big themes: psychological horror, creepy Bible stories, and the creator as a malicious presence. These concepts tend to clash against each other, rather than form a cohesive story. Focusing on one of these themes, rather than trying to juggle all three, might have worked better. The text itself is also a bit rough, containing a great deal of run-on sentences and missing punctuation. Despite claiming to only talk in the third person, Luna speaks in first person frequently. The tutorial for saving the game assumes the player is male, which is surprising given the game’s strong female cast. Some of these issues might be down to translation problems, but the weakness of the writing is disappointing when everything else in the game works so well.
The Devil’s Womb took me about three hours to finish, and on the whole is a well crafted adventure. The world is atmospheric, the puzzles are clever, and I absolutely adore the artwork. The story may have gotten a bit lost along the way but, overall, The Devil’s Womb is a game worthy of your time. Described as the first chapter of a longer saga, I look forward to seeing Luna’s future adventures.