Enola Review – A Light in Choking Darkness
PLEASE NOTE: Trigger Warning for Sexual Violence.
The Domaginarium’s Enola is a harsh game. It is unflinching in its themes, inspiring genuine feelings of horror about its content. It’s difficult, with some devious, twisted puzzle designs and instant death traps that come on with almost no warning. Its story absolutely refuses to hold your hand as it is doled out in fragmented chunks for the player to decipher. It’s dark, oppressive, depressing, and unrelentingly bleak. There is hope, though – a single glimmer of something good shining in all of the terrible, vile acts that informed this work. That hope hooked me throughout every problem I had with this game, keeping me at the keyboard for its entirety. Enola has problems, don’t get me wrong, but like Deadly Premonition, its quirks and storyline create an appeal that make the game difficult to put down.
Unlike Deadly Premonition, there is little humor here. The game makes no attempt to hide its themes of sexual violence. As main character Enola, you find out that your girlfriend Angelica was sexually assaulted when she was younger, but this is only a hint of the horrible events that will play out around you. Further information is doled out through collectibles, discoverable voice-overs, and hints in the environment and setups of each stage. You will see some uncomfortable stuff in this game, so it’s best to go in knowing that.
The developers walked a very fine line with the game’s content. It’s easy to sensationalize sexual violence, being graphic to shock people or to sicken them. It’s just as easy to be too vague about the content and risk your audience not getting what you’re trying to talk about. Enola skews very close to the former, as close as was likely possible, with some frightening set designs and implications. For the most part, the violence is shown through symbols, like posed mannequins, shadows, images, and paintings on the wall. Saying the world of Enola is an uncomfortable place doesn’t even begin to describe it.
Then you hit the third area, Midnight Heaven. Here, you enter the game’s most emotionally exhausting and harrowing area. The ruins of an old strip club, the place oozes menace. The walls are coated with blood, the building empty save for the evil men who prowl its halls, waiting to kill you on contact with them. You can hear screams from side rooms. You can see people staring at you. It was all so unsettling that I had to walk away from the game for a bit. Of any section, this is the one that takes the most brutal, direct look at sexual violence, and it is hard to watch. It’s still almost entirely symbolic, save for one or two sickening instances, but it is physically grueling to endure. Still, should you ignore that this kind of violence is real? The game demands you think about that.
As a horror game, it uses the men and women within it to harass and attack the player. Taking a page from Clock Tower: the First Fear, there aren’t many instances where you will run into your attackers. They’re around, sometimes just staring at you through a gate or muttering in the dark, and you never know when one will get the drop on you. Attacks often come out of nowhere, your character getting grabbed the moment you turn around or open a door. The game excels at waiting until the players are caught up in something or feeling safe, and then you’re mashing buttons, trying desperately to save your life.
Enola‘s enemies are humans, focusing on the particular cruelties that people inflict on one another. It looks at real world horror – the sexual violence that has occurred to so many, and the simple brutality of it. It comes out of nowhere, switching from complete safety to fighting for your life in a single moment. It’s jarring when the people grab you as your screen fills with a dark face and the shape of his body as he does something to you. You hear screams, the sounds of impacts. It’s an intimate form of violence, so close it’s jarring, and it’s not one quick moment and then it’s over. You have to struggle, mashing keys as you try to escape, and all while this leering face stares you down.
It’s very unsettling, and the simple humanity of the figures hurting you makes it even worse. The humans are colored with shadow to mask their features and to give them a more mysterious look, creating this anonymity about them. They don’t look like anyone in particular – they are featureless male and female shapes, but this adds to the symbolism. You don’t know who these people are. You often wouldn’t in real life, either. But they’re there, lurking and waiting.
When they’re not around, you can still feel their menace in the air. The frequency of their appearances is just right, making it feel like they could be around any corner, so no place in the game feels safe. They could be in any dark room. Outside any door. You never know when you’re in danger, and you never feel out of danger. There are very few points where you get much of a chance to dodge the enemies or see them coming, so it tends to be an unpleasant surprise when you get attacked.
There are a few instances where you do get some advance warning. At those times, you’re expected to stay away from the enemy and run. You can hide from them, which is not especially hard since they move slower than you do when you run (you can sprint for a limited time). The trouble is that most of the game’s spaces are tight. The confined rooms you have to work with require players to trick them into going one way and then cut across to another. There’s not a lot of room to outmaneuver these guys, and their reach is quite far from their character model. Being caught can mean anything from another struggle to instant death, so you just want to stay away. Instances like this are even fewer than the random attacks, but they are so much worse.
It’s still frightening when they’re not around. The setting is dark, for starters, often only lit by a small cone of light from your flashlight. Even as far as games go, this light is pretty tiny, only showing the smallest little circle while you comb through dark, narrow halls. You keep thinking you’re going to turn it and see one of those faces staring at you. The developers took full advantage of this, sticking mannequins and frightening paintings in places they knew players would look. I jumped at quite a few inanimate objects, which kept my tension level high even when no one else was nearby. As I said earlier, some of the poses of those mannequins, as well as the content of those paintings, implied some disturbing things. I might have been getting scared of harmless objects, but what those objects were meant to suggest was frightening enough in those instances.
The stage design is solid too, although surreal. The game takes place over several different locations, moving from houses, factories, and the aforementioned strip club. Many of them are filled with tight hallways that bend and twist around each other, doors that go nowhere, and weird imagery on the walls. Traps spring up out of nowhere in many of them as you explore each location, looking for keys and hints as to where to go next. Puzzles will keep you occupied in these weird locations, exploring through dark corridors for a while as you search for each piece to solve your way through.
Here is where the current build of the game has some problems, though. While these puzzles are quite good, often requiring a lot of exploration through tense environments, sometimes the puzzles just don’t work. You can put in the correct answer for a puzzle, but the game doesn’t accept it. A lot of my play time with the game was a result of me figuring out how to solve the puzzle, but the game didn’t accept my answer. Closing and reopening the game fixed this issue every time, and at this point, I highly recommend saving and quitting before you settle in to solve any given puzzle. Otherwise, you may frustrate yourself far more than you need to. Some of the puzzle answers are a challenge to figure out, but they get much harder when the right answer isn’t working.
When they work, the puzzles are pretty solid. They tend to require exploring an area for pieces of the solution, then putting them together in some complex way. This was much better than the exploration/puzzle solving of games like Montague’s Mount, as the pace is quicker and the surroundings carry a lot more menace. Death traps and the lurking humans make every trip down a hallway exciting, so having to comb through these places looking for small objects is an intense experience. Important objects light up when you look right at them, so pay attention. There is nothing worse than finding you missed a small item somewhere because you were rushing.
The sound design might put a little spring in your step when you don’t want it to, though. The game has very little music, but what is there often plays at odd times. Music in horror games always feels like a cue that something is coming, so when you hear a tune start up, you start running. It’s often used to trick the player in Enola, just like the mannequins and paintings, setting the player on edge when nothing is there. It does a good job of setting the mood.
The voice work is what gives this game some real power to sicken and upset. The spoken dialogue isn’t bad, but whoever they hired to scream and gasp was worth the money. Enola’s cries and grunts of pain sound so real that it’s hard to hear them. She cries and gasps so believably you’d swear something terrible was happening right behind you, and it makes encounters with the enemy much harder to take. You don’t want to hear those sounds while you play, so you don’t want to put your character in danger. You want to keep her safe, but to play the game, you have to do the exact opposite. It made me feel even more horrified at what was happening, and all just with audio.
All of this makes the game sound a bit gross and terrible, though, as you wade through a symbolic version of the most horrifying event in a woman’s life. But as I said, there is some hope through all of this. Enola was designed from an outsider’s perspective of sexual violence. It’s about having a loved one who’s endured it, and how hard that can be at times. It’s about working with them to get through their painful, horrifying memories, and help them through with love and understanding. The chapters symbolize various feelings and emotions because of that, and while the journey is bleak and dark, the end comes with a hint of happiness. It is an intense game, but for anyone who has ever had a loved one go through something like this, it will touch you.
Enola is not an easy game. It’s challenging, and the content is extremely dark, with only a hint of light within it. That light was well worth my time with it, and the personal, raw story of the two women woven into the narrative was something I couldn’t turn away from. The content may be far too much for many, even in this symbolic state, but I think it’s an important game for those of us who struggle to understand the pain some of our loved ones go through due to sexual violence. A few design quirks don’t do anything to weaken that.