Family reunions are tough, but they're even tougher when you're a traumatized German soldier, your family is dead, and the reunion takes place in your busted mind. That's the premise behind Ad Infinitum from Hekate and Nacon, a narrative-driven horror game that follows a little too closely in Layers of Fear's footsteps. Ad Infinitum nails its eerie setting and has some ambitious ideas, but a shallow story disconnected from the emotions it wants you to feel holds the whole thing back.
The folks at Hekate evidently played Layers of Fear and liked it a lot, as roughly half of Ad Infinitum is basically Layers, but in post-war Germany. You play as Paul von Schmidt, a tormented son of a fractured family who had problems enough before Germany spent half a decade mired in a debilitating war. He spends his time rattling about the family home, or a distorted version of it that exists only in his mind, and the burning, crater-riddled trenches where he confronts the literal specters of his past.
Most of your time in the houses involves navigating corridors, solving simple puzzles, and learning about Paul’s past through dozens of objects and letters scattered around the twisted mansion. It’s a mixed setup. The physical setting works much more effectively than Layers of Fear’s Disney-style haunted house or even the sequel’s disturbing ship. Ad Infinitum is still a walking simulator. The house changes unpredictably, though, and you lose all sense of place after just a short while inside.
It helps that Ad Infinitum ratchets up the scare factor as well, though “creep factor” might be more appropriate. Layers of Fear shows you a red-eyed portrait and hopes you’ll feel a shiver crawl down your spine. Ad Infinitum puts you in a dark, richly realized wreck of a room with eerie sounds, shifting shadows, and the knowledge that something’s probably lurking around the corner waiting for you.
That something won’t be pretty, either. Ad Infinitum’s physical manifestations of Paul’s shattered mind are delightfully grotesque and unsettling. Hekate nailed every part of their designs, from the surprisingly varied appearances to the dreadful sounds some of them make and even the music that plays when a creature starts chasing you.
There’s little chance that you’ll actually mess up around them. Getting a fail state is harder than you might think in a game where death waits around every turn. Each encounter is just disturbing enough to keep the tension high anyway, though, and I wish Hekate leaned into the stealth-horror element more, as it’s Ad Infinitum’s strongest point.
Layers of history
It emphasizes the story instead, Ad Infinitum’s weakest and most frustrating component. For a post-World War I story about a German family with close ties to the government, there’s not a lot of post-World War I, German society and politics, or story in Ad Infinitum. Paul’s problems stem from the same kind of issues you could likely find in any family at the end of the 1910s and plenty of modern families as well. Intolerance, selfishness, misguided loyalties, and patriotic devotion that borders on obsession turned what should have been a close-knit family into a miserable hive of pain and trauma.
It has the makings of a strong setup, but Ad Infinitum just doesn’t do much with the material. In sticking so close to the Layers of Fear format, where nearly every important revelation or piece of character development unfolds across half a dozen notes and a few memories, Ad Infinitum separates you too far from the actual emotion.
The thing is, I don’t know what Ad Infinitum wants me to feel about any of this anyway. Sure, it’s sad to learn about the family matriarch slowly losing her sense of self and cutting ties with her kin, but I don’t know her, barely know Paul, and have little reason to feel invested in any of it. Paul finds himself in the trenches after spending time in the house in a series of scenes meant to provide some kind of closure for a given problem, including the one with his mother and brother.
These can turn out in a few different – often unpleasant – ways, but pointing to a tragic scenario and going “isn’t that sad?” isn’t enough to create an emotionally challenging or even cathartic situation. More coherent storytelling and a stronger connection between Paul and the people who haunt him would have gone a long way toward creating a deeper story.
I can’t help but think Hekate missed the opportunity to use the setting in more inventive ways as well. World War I is an underused time period in most media, especially video games. The German experience of it is even less common, and rarer still is any kind of exploration of what came after – the political turmoil that led to the Weimar Republic and would certainly have contributed to Jacob’s identity crisis, as a former member of the landowning Junker class. None of that factors into the story Ad Infinitum tries to tell, though. It’s essentially just window dressing.
A more coherent story and confident use of setting could've helped Ad Infinitum live up to its full potential. The dilapidated mansion, nightmare trenches, and horrible creatures still give it a unique identity that goes some way toward making up for the narrative shortcomings. However, I hope there's a "next time" for Hekate and Ad Infinitum and a chance for both to play into their strengths.
This review is based on a Steam copy of Ad Infinitum that the publisher provided.
- Strong use of physical setting
- Excellent creature design
- Disjointed story
- Shallow character development
- Relies too much on stale mechanics from other games