At first glance, Sentinel Returns makes no sense at all. We looked at what appeared to be an early beta several months ago and couldn't make heads or tails of it. It seemed like the engine didn't even allow for movement. You could push buttons to make giant silver triangles appear or disappear, and likewise with grotesque fleshy dirt clods and featureless statues with disembodied heads. Oh well, we figured it was just an early build, with nothing solid realized yet. When we received the finished version, it was almost identical. What the...? Now there were spectacular shifting clouds of foreign gasses and a terrifically eerie score, but you still couldn't move? What gives?
While confusing at first, it's actually a fairly straightforward game. In Sentinel Returns, topography is everything, and elevation equals power. You begin the game at a low altitude in a world of perpetual night, checkerboard plateaus, and inhospitable mountainsides. You don't move. Instead you instantaneously create and destroy various objects on the plateau. You can only absorb or create an object if you are above the square on which it resides. That's the key thing and the most difficult to pick up initially. You have a limited amount of energy, so anything you don't need, you must reabsorb. You get around by creating "robot hosts" and teleporting into them. You can also create boulders and place the hosts on them, so that they're higher. Thus, the basics of gameplay are to create a stack of one-to-three boulders, with a robot host on top. Teleport into the robot host. Then absorb the old one (you'll need the energy). From your new vantage point, you should be high enough to create a robot host on the next plateau - without any boulders underneath, using less energy. Do so and absorb the old host and the stack of boulders. You now have as much energy as when you started but are higher and therefore more powerful.
Powerful? In what sense? Well, the higher you are, the more metallic trees you can absorb from the landscape for energy (go figure). Beyond that, your goal in all this is to destroy the Sentinel, a strange hybrid of fleshy colossus, abstract sculpture, and gun tower. Destroy him, and advance to the next level. To do so, you must (you guessed it) attain a higher elevation than his. This is a dangerous proposition, though, since the higher you are the less protected you are from his gaze, which is slowly rotating in place, scanning the level with a 28-degree field of vision. Inside this invisible field, your energy is rapidly drained. Once your energy is gone, you're dead. Sounds easy, right? Twenty-eight degrees. No big deal. Wrong. At later levels there are multiple clones of the Sentinel to deal with, and the odds of survival decrease exponentially. Add that to later levels' increasingly barren environments, and there's really nowhere to hide.
All this is accomplished with simple controls, which are relatively intuitive considering the strangeness of the game. The mouse can be set to move the cursor across the current view, which slowly pans when you reach the edge of the screen; or you can freeze the cursor in place and employ a faster Quake-like mouselook. Separate keys are used to create trees or boulders or robot hosts, as well as to absorb objects and teleport from one robot host to another. In case of emergency, there is a hyperspace key that teleports your current robot host to a random location. It's only a last resort, since it requires a fair amount of energy and always places you lower than your original location.
Once you get the hang of it, the game reveals itself to be a unique hybrid of styles and moods. For all its first-person urgency, it is ultimately a puzzle game. Realizing your objective on each of the games 650+ levels has as much in common with the fast and addictive logic of Tetris as it does with anything from the first-person 3D realm. Early levels are a sort of balancing act between energy and visibility. The higher you are, the greater each becomes. Later levels are more tactically interesting. You have to climb fast to knock out the clones first, but no sooner do you rear your head over the first peak than you're caught in something's deadly gaze. These levels require a sort of guerrilla approach in which you make multiple sudden rapid climbs from corners of the map (where you're less visible - it's simple trigonometry) to take out clones in short bursts before being seen.
Throughout the game, the sensation of being pursued is undeniably frightening. While you must think fast to survive, movement is always painfully slow and deliberate. This is to the game's credit. As in horror movies and nightmares, it is the inability of the pursued to move fast enough that makes the pursuer so terrifying. And the game's amazing soundtrack emphasizes this eerie, adrenal mood. It should come as no surprise, since much of it was provided by John Carpenter, who directed and scored Halloween, Escape from New York, and dozens of other classic science fiction and horror movies.
There is a visual simplicity to Sentinel Returns that is both a strong point and a weakness. The world itself is breathtaking and eerie. The continually shifting otherworldly skies, the darkly ominous peaks, metallic trees, and the ever-looming Sentinel itself are awe-inspiring and terrifying. Yet, at a design level, the game chalks a lot up to surrealism as an excuse for not creating any kind of palpable reality to play in. What exactly are those featureless pylons? Why are they called "trees" at all? Why do you create them at will? It's all swirly backgrounds, checkerboard surfaces, and geometric shapes. It's not that I'm unwilling to stretch my imagination. It's just that the relationship between the game's visuals and play mechanics and any kind of objective concept is so abstract that sometimes it feels like you're playing a beta. This doesn't rob the game of its catchiness or its sense of urgency. It's just that every once in a while, in between levels while you're catching your breath, you'll ask yourself again, "What the heck is this game?"
The unfinished quality of the visuals and genuinely alien play environment may throw some folks off. In fact, the initial confusion and steep learning curve may narrow its audience considerably. Which is a shame, because Sentinel Returns' unique combination of fast-paced puzzle logic and the slow, creepy paranoia of being watched is thoroughly refreshing.