Published on October 25th, 2023 | by Gareth Newnham
Tenebris Pictura PS5 Review
Summary: Tenebris Pictura is a game brimming with fantastic ideas hamstrung by poor execution.
Waste of Paint
Tenebris Pictura is a game with some great ideas that don’t quite hit the mark due to slap-happy combat and awkward controls.
You take on the role of a Magus who has been asked by his old friend to find his missing daughter, who has been dabbling in the occult.
As you hunt for the missing heiress, you’ll face off against daemonic forces using a combination of astral projections and magic and solve puzzles where it helps to be incorporeal or in two places at once.
The puzzles are quite clever but not too challenging. There’s usually mist, goo, smoke, or some other noxious gas that damages your physical body but doesn’t harm your spirit form. Puzzles range from pushing blocks to shield your physical form from things that harm it, using lights and lasers to reveal new paths, and even the occasional set piece that plays about with time. Some were more taxing than others, but overall, they were the clear highlight of this otherworldly adventure.
However, some of them are very poorly telegraphed; for example, one of the very clever puzzles early on sees you possessing a pair of generators with a laser between them to smash bookcases and even the separating walls of a basement to reveal switches to temporarily remove barriers in order to progress. The game gives absolutely no indication this is what you are supposed to do. And until I accidentally disintegrated a bookcase after realising I could move them, I probably would have just left the place and thought it was a section I just needed to come back to later once I had gained a new power or some kind of key. There’s a fine line between not holding a player’s hand and just dropping them into a situation and saying figure it out, and you shouldn’t be left to accidentally solve a puzzle.
The combat is probably the worst offender, though, sluggish, awkward, and difficult for the sake of it.
It’s a shame because, on paper, at least, the concept is fairly sound: You fight mobs of evil spirits and daemons that only your spirit form can attack. Your physical form is completely defenseless and is dead on a couple of hits so you need to stash it away and protect it by zoning breaking up groups of ghouls with light barriers and other crafty spells before slapping them about and trapping them in a nearby painting like a Victorian Ghostbuster.
The problem is that the controls are cumbersome and sluggish. Your attacks have no heft and don’t even slightly stagger enemies, there’s no way to quickly return to your body, and the painting mechanic swiftly becomes irritating because only your physical self can move it, and they’re often Hidden in a corner to stop the Gribbles for quickly finishing you off.
This wouldn’t be so bad if there was some trade-off, like your astral form being invulnerable, but the demons can also damage it, and both forms share a health bar.
Top that off with a barrier mechanic that doesn’t always work properly, enemy AI that makes a b-line for your body, and the game tossing larger mobs at you as a stand-in for increasing the challenge in a meaningful way, and combat quickly becomes an exercise in tedium, to the point where any notion of engaging in any kind of sunk cost fallacy goes straight out the window.
On the plus side, the presentation is ok, I guess. it attempts to make the world look like a Monet painting with a weird filter that sometimes works, but it’s by no means 11/11 Memories, with a mostly isometric view used to make combat slightly more bearable and disguise the fact that graphically it’s on a par with an up rezzed PS2 game. If you told me this was a quick remaster of an obscure game from the early aughts, I would probably believe you.
The ambient sound is fine, and the music fitting, but nothing to write home about. It could have used some voice acting, but I get that it’s a small team, and that’s not always easy, and it’s expensive to do well.
Tenebris Pictura is a game with some decent ideas that never quite match up to the design document; sloppy execution, a lackluster script, and poor controls hamstring what could have been an intriguing trip into the unknown.