Until now, Monolith has used its LithTech 3D engine to create nothing but first-person shooters. Its newest game, Sanity: Aiken's Artifact, appears to be an effort to prove that the engine is flexible enough for use with games that are played from an alternate perspective. Monolith succeeded on that point, as Sanity looks quite good. The game also features a generally successful mix of action and puzzle solving - but some of its poor design elements, the long loading times, and the quickly tiresome multiplayer mode bring it down.
Sanity is an action game with adventure elements that uses an overhead, isometric perspective similar to that of Blizzard's Diablo II and Westwood's Nox. However, rather than having a typical fantasy setting, Sanity takes place in a near-future world. Thanks to the discovery of an ancient artifact that lets scientists unlock the unused portion of the human brain, a serum has emerged that imbues recipients with psionic powers. People with these mental abilities, called psionics, often become mentally unstable. This prompts the government to create the Department of National Psionic Control to help police rogue psionics. You play as Cain, a DNPC agent with a tortured past, a dark secret, and a sassy attitude.
The bottom line of all of this is that Sanity is essentially still a fantasy game, just with cars and helicopters. The psionic abilities, called talents, are effectively magic spells. They have casting times, ranges of effect, and all the requisite sparkly lights and multicolored smoke that spells have. There's even a spell-cost system: Upon use, every talent drains a varying number of points from the character's pool of mana, called "sanity." Although you are given a pistol with an unlimited supply of ammo, it's so underpowered that you'll rarely need to use it. And other than the pistol, weapons play virtually no part in the game.
The talents are the focus of Sanity, and they're its best feature. The offensive talents range from a typical fireball to an over-the-top attack that summons a giant mummy who then proceeds to pound your enemies with its fists. Some talents are strictly defensive, and some are merely used to solve specific puzzles. There are 80 of them to collect over the course of the single-player game. When used, all of the talents are accompanied by their own distinct pyrotechnics, and even when Sanity is at its most frustrating, the desire to find the next talent provides a strong incentive to keep playing.
While most games that are viewed from an isometric perspective use 2D bitmaps to portray their environments, Sanity uses a fully 3D engine. There's nothing wrong with the graphics - Sanity looks great. The lighting effects are well done, and the level of detail is excellent. However, the 3D perspective itself adds nothing to the gameplay. The ability to rotate and zoom the camera isn't used in any meaningful way, and in fact, occasionally having to manipulate the camera merely gives you one more thing to worry about while playing.
Sanity includes 20 long single-player levels. The tasks you're presented with are split between combat and puzzle solving. Some of the puzzles, such as the level in which you participate in a game show, are enjoyable. But the game also includes a few too many puzzles that merely require you to find an object and return it to the proper location. Thankfully, Sanity also contains lots of fighting, which is generally kept fresh by the constant introduction of new talents.
As in most isometric action-oriented games, you move around by pointing and clicking the mouse in the direction you'd like to travel. It works well for the majority of the game, but some of the puzzles involve navigating environmental hazards such as laser gates - and the control scheme isn't responsive enough to make these challenges anything more than burdensome.
Sanity's worst flaw is its unusually long loading times. Even on a powerful PC, restoring your progress using the rather deceptively named "quick load" feature generally takes 25 to 30 seconds. During the many portions of the game where you can expect to die repeatedly, these waiting periods can become unbearable. Often, you'll play for five seconds, get killed, and then wait half a minute to start playing again - over and over.
It appears that Sanity was meant to have more than just a perfunctory multiplayer option. Monolith announced plans to sell talent "booster packs" in an attempt to give the game some of the appeal of a collectible-card trading game. It's not a bad idea, but the multiplayer game in Sanity isn't interesting enough to warrant playing it for very long, much less purchasing ancillary products for it. The only mode of play available is plain-vanilla deathmatch, and the included maps are all simple and rather small. While Sanity's overhead perspective and talent system are somewhat unique, they don't create a multiplayer experience that can match the tactical nuances and varied modes of play of its many competitors.
Even though Sanity's multiplayer game is forgettable, the single-player experience is polished and contains enough unique ideas, surprises, and solid gameplay to warrant a recommendation - assuming you can stand dealing with long loading times.