Renegade Kid is an indie developer based in Austin, Texas. The Company's first game, Dementium: The Ward, is a first-person horror effort that gathered a wide selection of decent reviews upon its US release in October 2007. It's taken a long time for the game to drag its demonic derrière over to Europe, but in this case late is certainly better than never: it's a thoroughly decent effort that provides the DS with a neat survival-shooter hybrid – hardly an area in which the handheld console is overflowing with quality titles.
Dementium sees the player waking up on the top floor of a creepy old hospital. Needless to say, you have amnesia – and the only way to get your memory back is to make your way through several floors of demonic nasties and hallucinatory visions. Initially you'll be armed with just a torch and a nightstick, but a few minutes into your travels you'll manage to salvage a pistol. From here on, the game plays like a an old-school FPS with the occasional puzzle thrown in for good measure. The basic inventory system means that you're limited to using health and ammo as you find them, with the result that you sometimes find yourself rushing back to a pile of pills you spotted a few rooms ago. It's not an ideal system, but at least this simplicity keeps things moving at a rather fluid pace.
Control-wise the game uses a similar setup to that used in Metroid Prime: Hunters. The D-pad is used to move around, you look around and aim with the stylus and fire by hitting the left shoulder button. It's probably the best arrangement that a DS-based FPS can opt for, but this isn't to say it's a perfect system. Whether you're using a joypad with twin sticks or the classic mouse-and-keyboard combo, all FPS games must find a way to map three sets of controls – movement, aiming and shooting – across the inputs from two hands. On the DS, the major problem is that there's no obvious way to let people aim and fire using the stylus. As a result your trigger is governed by your left index finger, and for right-handed gamers this feels a bit weird. It's not a game-wrecking problem, but you may feel a bit less comfortable than normal while playing.
Then again, this is a survival horror title – so perhaps a bit of discomfort is strangely appropriate. When it comes to things that go bump in the night (or more accurately, things that go bite on your head) Dementium strikes a surprisingly effective chord. While technical limitations prevent the game from competing with the likes of Condemned and F.E.A.R., it still manages to squeeze an awful lot out of the DS' graphical capabilities. There's a spooky flicker to the torch you use to light your way through the hospital, and the overall use of atmospheric lighting is far more impressive than what we've come to expect from Nintendo's handheld. There are plenty of other nice touches, from the rain outside the windows to the bugs that scatter when you cast a torch on them, and they all go some way to making up for the environment's distinct lack of interaction.
It's quite clear that the Renegade Kid team are big fans of the Silent Hill series. Aside from the hospital setting, there are visions of strange children and a boss who drags about an enormous blade. There's even a puzzle that requires you to play a tune on a blood-stained piano – something almost directly “borrowed” from the first Hill game. Of course, it's not nearly as scary as these inspirational sources, but you still might find yourself jumping when something sneaks up on you. For much of the early game your main enemy will be strange demon-zombie things with mouths in their chests; they're not particularly intimidating, and you can knock their heads off with your nightstick – another unexpected detail.
Later on in the game you'll do battle with nastier foes. The flying screaming heads deserve a mention here, but the prize for most messed-up bad-guy goes to the worm foetus creatures that squeal like a hundred bawling babies. Renegade Kid clearly knows the power of a decent sound effect, and the high-pitched wail of these monstrosities makes them genuinely unpleasant to face. There's also a neat audio touch in the omnipresent thump of your character's heartbeat – represented via cardiograph on the lower screen. This speeds up as you take damage, so when you're close to death it'll sound like the bass on a chav's car stereo.
Later on in the adventure, you'll find yourself in this state fairly often. Ammo and health pills are plentiful in the early chapters, but eventually the supplies dry up – and it's at this point that you'll start to miss the ability to stockpile drugs and bullets. You're restricted to carrying two clips (or the rough equivalent) for each of the four firearms you pick up, but you do eventually get a buzz-saw to replace your wimpy baton. You'll need everything you can get to help you past the game's bosses too: they seem needlessly tough at first, but it's possible to scrape by with perseverance and a bit of luck.
When Dementium came out in the US, it took a lot of criticism for the fact that the game would send you back to the start of a chapter every time you died; since chapters vary in length quite considerably, this was quite an annoying flaw. Renegade Kid has taken pity on us lowly Europeans by introducing a more regular checkpoint system. This was certainly a good move, but it does have the added effect of making the game a bit easier. Proficient players should be able to breeze through the whole story in about four or five hours, and once you're done there's no added incentive to repeat your escapades. All the same, there's no denying that Dementium: The Ward is a lot of fun and a highly accomplished debut. Renegade Kid has since produced another DS shooter (Moon) and found similar levels of critical success, so we'll certainly be keeping an eye on the developer in the near future.