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My Favorite Gaming Hidden Gems, Part Four: Theresia (2008, DS)

I’ve been playing and collecting video games since the early 1980’s, and while there’s something to be said for enjoying the greats of the gaming world, there’s no better feeling for me than picking out something I’d never heard of, throwing it into my system, and being unable to tear myself away from it because it was just too damn fun. With that in mind, I thought I’d start up a series about my own personal favorite hidden gems of the gaming world to let people know about the unsung, the overlooked, the ignored, and the downright weird niche titles that had no chance of achieving the heights of a Mario, Sonic, or Zelda.

Today’s selection is Theresia, released on the Nintendo DS in 2008.

I discovered Theresia by accident, browsing the shelves of a local used game store. I had never heard of it (not surprising, considering it’s part of a series of Japanese mobile phone games which are no longer available and were never localized for a US audience), and neither had anyone else I knew. Even my friends who were hardcore DS junkies and adventure game enthusiasts weren’t familiar with this one. The guy at the store couldn’t tell me one thing about it either: he’d never played it, seen no reviews, and heard no other customers talk about it. All he knew was the guy who sold it to the store said it wasn’t very good, and it had been on their shelves for a month. As far as he knew, I was the first person outside of the staff to pick it up.

One thing I’ve learned in my years of gaming is to listen to the little voice in my head that says, ‘Buy it!’ when presented with something bizarre and unknown, even if for no other reason than that those are the games which often hold their value once they’re off the market. I don’t collect games as an investment, but Theresia had ‘obscurity-destined’ written all over it, and at ten bucks, I could afford to take a chance on it. Plus it looked like a horror-themed adventure, and my life’s goal is to collect every horror-themed game ever made, even the ones, no, especially the ones that suck. It’s driving me up the wall that I can’t find a copy of The Grudge for the Wii anywhere, but that’s a complaint for another post and I digress.

Theresia is actually two games in one (or, more precisely, two halves of two different stories in one), and it’s kind enough to tell you this right on the back of the box. It’s a horror-themed point-and-click adventure where the story is told directly through cut-scenes, and indirectly by having your character look at and interact with everything he or she sees. Upon first inserting the cart, you’ll see only the ‘Dear Emile’ scenario is accessible. The second (and much shorter) story, ‘Dear Martel’, is unlocked after finishing ‘Dear Emile’ for the first time.

When the game begins, you awaken in what appears to be the basement of a ruined building, suffering from amnesia, that most insufferable of all video game tropes. Around your neck is a pendant shaped like a heart with strands of barbed wire twisted around it, and those barbs aren’t just decoration: it doesn’t take long before you realize the pain of squeezing the pendant helps you focus and concentrate on your tasks. It’s the game’s version of a built-in hint system, actually–if you’re not sure what to do or where to go next, cut yourself on the Pendant to sacrifice a few HP, and it’ll help point you in the right direction. You don’t mind the hurt at all. In fact, it makes you feel kind of good. So you’re a female masochistic amnesiac…that’s actually a pretty cool concept. Tell me the last time we played one of those in an adventure game (and no, bisexual Curtis Craig from Phatasmagoria 2: A Puzzle of Flesh doesn’t count).

The only other thing of note in the room is a piece of paper with the word ‘Theresia’ written on it in what appears to be blood. But who, or what, is ‘Theresia’? Why are you confined to some dingy cellar? Why is the place loaded with traps? And where the hell is everybody else?

One thing’s for sure: whoever put you down here didn’t leave anything to eat or drink, so if you want to survive, you’re going to have to find a way out of the room and explore the rest of the building. Spoiler alert: it’s a hell of a lot bigger than it initially seems. Also, you’re going to find out waaaaaaay more about yourself and your relationship with your mother than you ever wanted to know. This game goes dark faster than a David Fincher film, and continues to loosens its moral scruples as you get closer to solving the mystery (which will take you probably somewhere around 15-20 hours assuming you aren’t cheating through it with a FAQ). Murder, torture, medical experimentation, war, and child abuse are just some of the themes Theresia addresses in its narrative. Many times while playing I had to stop and ask myself how many goats Aksys Games sacrificed to their dark gods to find this a home on a Nintendo console. Of course, in hindsight it now looks positively tame considering Nintendo gave their seal of approval to a Corpse Party remake for the 3DS last year, but pretend it’s still 2009 with me.

Theresia is absolutely a hidden gem, but it’s a gem that only a very, very small segment of the gaming community will value. If you fall anywhere on the Venn diagram crossover of “Gamers who like point-and-click adventures”, “Gamers who like horror”, and “Gamers who will never get enough Visual Novels in their lives”, then you are absolutely the intended audience for this game. Welcome to the small cadre of the elite, the special, and Modern Zorker, fellow fanatic! Liking only one of the three is not enough to get you through a game like this, so if your only reason to buy this game is because it has a horror theme, or because you think visual novels are interesting, do yourself a favor and at least watch a bit of a Let’s Play on YouTube before you let this write-up entice you to drop upwards of $25 for a complete boxed copy (you will want the instruction manual).

Here’s part one of a video series by Max, aka M. KIRIN, which should help you fence sitters decide if this is worth seeking out or not:

So, if you’re not disturbed by awful things happening to people, if you enjoyed games like Shadowgate on the NES, and you don’t mind an awful lot of reading broken up by frequent jaunts through dark corridors and infrequent (and occasionally illogical) puzzles, Theresia is one to put on your watch list. If your likes run more towards the Survival Horror of Silent Hill or Action Horror of Dead Space, this one probably isn’t going to scratch the itch. For me, this game is absolutely intriguing because there’s nothing like it available anywhere on the DS. Hotel Dusk: Room 215 has the adventure and puzzles, but lacks the darker atmosphere and horror story. 999: 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors comes quite close with its visual novel presentation and light adventure/horror visuals, but even its darkest ending can’t go toe-to-toe with Theresia‘s sheer depravity. This game is the mold from which all other DS hidden gems were cast, and I guarantee you’ll never play anything like it.

Michael Crisman

In 1979, Michael Crisman was mauled by a radioactive Gorgar pinball machine. After the wounds healed, doctors discovered his DNA had been re-coded. No longer fully human, Michael requires regular infusions of video games in order to continue living among you. If you see him, he can see you. Make no sudden moves, but instead bribe him with old issues of computer and video game magazines or a mint-in-box copy of Dragon Warrior IV. If he made you laugh, drop a tip in his jar at http://paypal.me/modernzorker (If he didn't make you laugh, donate to cure his compulsion to bang keyboards by sending an absurdly huge amount of money to his tip jar instead. That'll show him!)

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