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Ecstatica
Ecstatica cover
Box art by Carl Critchlow

Developer

Andrew Spencer Studios

Publisher

Psygnosis

Release date (MS-DOS)

1994

Release date (Windows)

1997

Genre

Survival horror

Ecstatica (sometimes accompanied by the tagline A State of Mind) is a 3D action adventure and survival horror game developed by Andrew Spencer Studios and published by Psygnosis in 1994 for MS-DOS. A rare improved Windows port from 1997 also exists.

It is remembered by most people for its unique visual style based on ellipsoids rather than polygons, although it is also notable for many original touches in terms of game design and content. It was followed by an official direct sequel titled Ecstatica II.

ScenarioEdit

Whereas most fantasy video games are set in an alternate universe, Ecstatica is set in Northern Europe 928 A.D., specifically in the fictional town of Tirich and its direct surroundings. Most of the fantastic content is inspired by real-world folklore, myths and legends instead of high fantasy works. The game draws from a plethora of real-world beliefs, including Christianity.

Despite the game's colorful and bright visuals the actual scenario is a particularly mature one featuring huge amounts of violence, horror elements as well as some nudity. Most of Tirich's population has been slain in particularly cruel and realistic ways such as through impalement or crucifixion, some survivors just live long enough for the player to experience their painful death. It is implied that all these cruelties were performed by the fantastic creatures who inhabit the village now, most notably the werewolf. These visual details as well as the constantly eerie audio portion of the game turn the world into a particularly dark and disturbing one.

Despite all this seriousness and mature content the game does not take itself seriously and is riddled with humorous content. This includes a rather satirical take on the fantasy and folklore material, slapstick and crude humor. The game also occasionally breaks the fourth wall. The protagonist is a typical unlikely hero. He is rather clumsy, easily frightened and lacks typical heroic features which is underlined through many of his animations, possible actions and also occurrences he has no control over.

All in all Ecstatica's setting is a very bizarre mixture of realism and satire. It is very likely that most of the humorous content was supposed to serve as comic relief to the otherwise very serious and disturbing tone.

For a list of NPCs and enemies encountered in the game see Characters and Monsters in Ecstatica.

GameplayEdit

Being a 3D action adventure horror game Ecstatica's gameplay is somewhat similar to the Alone in the Dark series of games and other survival horror titles such as Resident Evil. The player controls a human character in a 3D environment shown from static camera angles with "tank" controls - the movement is always relative to the player character (rather than the camera) and he can only move forward or backwards and turns rather slowly. It is also possible to switch between three modes of movement, specifically walking, running and sneaking.

The game's world is rather small but comparably open. Most areas can be visited instantly while some need certain conditions to be met before becoming accessible. The player begins his adventure without any clear goals or background information (although the manual states that the player has to "free Tirich from this unholy spell" and suggests that "a diary might provide some clues"), so the basic gameplay involves exploration, information gathering and solving simple riddles. As the world is inhabited by hostile creatures combat is also featured.

Like in most adventure games it is possible to pick up, carry and use some items. However, in Ecstatica there is no inventory. The protagonist can carry only one item in each hand which can be either a weapon or some other kind of object, most of which are necessary at some point throughout the game. The only exception to this rule is armor. Interaction with usable environmental objects such as doors is executed automatically upon approaching them. Non-hostile NPCs are also present in the game world but usually no special interaction is possible with them. Almost all of them can be killed without getting punished by the game in any way.

Ecs wounded escape

The character's stance and animation are the only health indicators in the game.

Combat is rather simple but often challenging in Ecstatica. It is mostly based on three keys, two attack buttons performing a different kind of attack each and a "duck" button used to evade or block enemy attacks. Depending on the weapon wielded other kinds of attacks will be executed, covering different areas and delivering different amounts of damage. A notable fact is that there are no HUD elements visualizing the protagonist's health state nor healing items. Wounds heal automatically over time and the protagonist's health state is only visualized by his stance and a limping animation.

The most notable thing about Ecstatica's gameplay is probably the behaviour of some enemies, the werewolf and the minotaurs in particular. The werewolf will stalk the player and ambush him on a regular basis within the village, sometimes knocking him out instantly. Also in actual combat he is a formidable and very dangerous enemy who will usually force the player to flee although he himself will also take a defensive stance upon receiving large amounts of damage. Outside of the village on the other hand the player will encounter the less dangerous but perhaps even more intimidating minotaurs who are always encountered sitting calmly next to roads at random spots. Another special feature about these enemies is that they take a huge amount of punishment (particularly the werewolf, who is widely believed to be immortal), will visualize their wounds both through gestures as well as behaviour and will also heal over time if not killed permanently.

Ecs captured

The hero was captured by goblins and is now tied up. Note the special use of perspective.

Something very notable about the gameplay, which was widely praised upon release, is the seamless inclusion of scripted sequences and many custom animations. The hero will sometimes unexpectedly engage in more or less trivial activities like inspecting an object or relieving himself, stumble over rocks, fall victim to all sorts of ambushes and other experiences and even end up in unique states that temporarily change the game's mechanics like getting captured or taking on the form of an animal.

The player is given the option to save and load the game freely, which is not surprising, considering that there are many ways to die instantly, including unpredictable traps. There are also several occasions in the game to run into a dead end or place a critical item in a location where it is still reachable but almost impossible to spot. Everything in the game is persistent and while some enemies appear at random, their number is pre-defined and their death permanent. Their corpses will remain in the same spot for the remainder of the game. The player also has the option to choose between a male or female protagonist, however, this feature is purely cosmetical and the heroine is non-canonical (in the sequel only the male protagonist is available).

For a detailed description of the game controls see Ecstatica Controls.

TechnologyEdit

As mentioned above, Ecstatica uses a 3D engine which uses ellipsoids for visualizing all characters, most objects and most of the environment. A pseudo Gouraud Shading effect is used to provide plasticity to the ellipsoids themselves. The ellipsoids have actual volume rather than being simple oval planes and a Z buffer determines per pixel which ellipsoid should be drawn in front. This can be seen most clearly on characters who are constructed of several up to more than a dozen of overlapping ellipsoids.

Also all background elements utilise the Z-buffer. This means that like in a real-time 3D engine, characters can collide with the environment and be accurately covered up by it. Most notably, grass will properly cover up standing characters' feet, dead bodies or small objects. However, this also means that (unlike in Alone in the Dark, for example) characters may visually "glitch through" walls and such.

Despite primarily depending on ellipsoids the game engine is also capable of rendering polygons. Those are used exclusively for flat surfaces whose material cannot be visualised well via ellipsoids. Examples include wooden doors and shelves or cliffsides. The polygons are not textured but different tones and brightness levels are used for different angles to strengthen the illusion of perspective and introduce contrast. A notable case are also the noses of human characters.

Additionally everything in the game is persistent (with the exception of one bugged scripted sequence that plays an infinite number of times). The locations of equippable items as well as corpses, the state of interactive environmental objects and any other states altered by the player's actions will remain the same for the remainder of the game, even after loading and saving the game, unless altered again by the player.

For the audio portion Ecstatica uses the standard solutions of its time. It uses digitized samples for all sound effects and speech, while fixed MIDI compositions are used for the music. Many different kinds of soundcards are supported resulting in highly varying levels of quality for the music depending on the hardware or emulation used. The different pieces are usually triggered upon entering certain locations but occasionally special events or actions may also trigger specific musical queues.

The official minimum system requirements are a 386 CPU and 4 MB RAM.

Windows port Edit

A rare Windows version of the game exists which was released in 1997 and was included with some editions of Ecstatica II. This version includes some technical improvements from the sequel:

  • 640x400 SVGA resolution (whereas the original version ran at 320x200)
  • Higher framerate than achievable in the DOS version
  • Protagonist able to move and turn at once

However, this port seems to not have been thoroughly tested before release and suffers from several, mostly minor, issues not present in the original version. Examples include:

  • Framedrops in certain scenes with highly detailed backgrounds
  • Some ellipsoids' are displaced (e.g. the line of the swinging troll and the impaled woman's spear)
  • Subtitles disappear too quickly
  • Sometimes the hero appears to be wounded for no explicable reason and unable to heal
  • The werewolf is able to follow the hero out of the village
  • The impaled woman's head sometimes does not appear
  • The troll ambush where the hero is dragged into their cave does not always occur

SynopsisEdit

Warning: This chapter contains spoilers. Read at your own risk.

Note that due to the game's open structure and high amount of optional content the order of events may vary throughout several playthroughs. Also note that although this is technically a plot summary it will provide most hints necessary to beat the game. For an actual walkthrough please view Ecstatica Walkthrough.

Ecs firstencounter

One of the first encounters with the werewolf. Just in time to witness the brutal murder of one of Tirich's last surviving inhabitants.

The game opens with an anonymous traveller, the protagonist, riding through a landscape somewhere in Northern Europe in the year 928 A.D.. The manual tells us that he is on a long journey but neither its purpose nor the protagonist's background are ever established. He reaches a crossroads and notices that he is out of water. Thus he decides to enter the town of Tirich which lies just across a bridge.

Soon he discovers that almost all of the town's population was slaughtered by demonic creatures, most notably a particularly cruel and powerful werewolf. Trying to escape the town causes the only bridge to collapse so the protagonist has no choice but to face the evil that haunts Tirich.

From a diary found in a small chamber in one of the houses he learns a lot about the cause of these horrible events. It turns out that all of this is the result of a witch's dark experiments. She stole a magical book from some wizard and used it to summon a demon. It was too late when she discovered that the demon is too strong for her and she cannot control him, resulting in evil creatures being unleashed upon the town. The protagonist drops the book, terrified by its content. In another room in the same building he finds alchemistic equipment as well as some list of ingredients.

The protagonist also comes across several survivors in the town. Most of them live just long enough so he can experience their painful deaths but there are also a few others including a priest who believes him to be one of the demons, a little girl crying for her teddy and a drunkard who gets attacked by a dragon.

After bringing the girl her teddy it turns out that she is much tougher than it seemed. She actually punishes the teddy for "abandoning her" and invites the hero to play in the catacombs beneath the church. When she notices that he cannot follow her into a narrow passage she opens a secret entrance for him. After entering it he gets attacked by skeletons. He defeats them and discovers a gigantic hall with extremely long stairs, weird white plants covering the ground and a sarcophagus in the middle. After descending all the way to the ground the sarcophagus opens and a seemingly dead or sleeping woman begins levitating above it, holding a brown sphere. Horrified by this view the protagonist runs all the way back to the church.

In the tavern the protagonist meets a drunk man (who may be the bartender) and gets attacked by a small dragon. After approaching them the man gets knocked out and the dragon escapes. As it turns out the man is not dead and asks the protagonist to bring him to "the shop" by which he specifically means its wine cellar. After being brought there the man starts drinking and tells his version of the events that took place in the village, confirming the events described in the diary. Additionally the man tells him about the town's history which involves a pagan religion, the worshipping of dark gods at a nearby stone circle and a "Lady of the Lake".

The protagonist continues exploring the area beyond the village which includes a monastery, said stone circle, a lake and a castle inhabited by a wizard who will only grant entrance to a knight, threatening the protagonist with turning him into a frog. The monks of the monastery on the other hand mistake the protagonist for one of the demons, just like the priest in the church. They will only allow entrance to someone speaking the word of God. The protagonist returns with a bible and reads from it upon which the monks recognize him as a human being and open the gates. They welcome him and provide hospitality. Inside the protagonist finds more monks, praying in front of an altar and a human bone, a relic. The monastery also includes a library. The librarian tells the protagonist about some of the books, including stories about noblemen offering the Lady of the Lake their best sword.

The protagonist leaves the monastery. He collects the ingredients for the formula which he found in the witch's quarters. He brews a potion out of them and drinking it turns him into a squirrel. In this new form he has access to the narrow passage that the little girl had disappeared into. He enters this passage and returns to human form soon after. He uses a nearby trapdoor which leads him into one of the houses inhabited by a terrified knight. The man is terrified and jumps onto table, mistaking the hero for one of the demons, just like some of the other locals did. He throws his sword at the ground in desperation. The protagonist picks it up and having the legend of the Lady of the Lake in mind goes to said lake. He throws the sword into the water which makes her appear. She conducts a ceremony declaring him the new Knight of Tirich and demanding him to protect the townsfolk from the evil. Being officially a knight now he returns to the wizard's castle who welcomes the traveller now.

The wizard tells the protagonist the last part of the story. He says that it was his maid who stole the book and summoned the demon. She is very talented but overestimated her own skills. He also tells the protagonist to visit the tower beyond the castle, that he will find help there. On top of the tower he finds another small laboratory including a formula for a magical weapon. It says that he will need a relic and a book of magic - then the stone circle will grant him an item of enourmous power. The protagonist then descends into the depths beneath the tower. There he finds a dungeon inhabited by many evil creatures and protected by numerous traps. Ultimately he discovers a room with a bookstand which holds the book that caused all of this and a portal that has the form of a devilish face. A small squirrellish demon tells the protagonist that the evil is waiting beyond this portal but the portal will only open after an audience with the king. The protagonist travels further into the depths of the dungeon, past a harem and finds the throne room. An evil copy of himself appears in the room and assaults him. Upon defeating it he approaches the throne. A skeleton sitting on it awakens. It is the king who welcomes his knight and gives him his blessing. The protagonist returns to the portal which is open now but the squirrell demon tells him not to enter without a holy relic. Having the formula from the tower in mind he grabs the book of magic from the bookstand and leaves the dungeon.

He returns to the monastery to steal the relic from the monks. They attack him upon this act of heresy but he escapes. With both a book of magic and a relic in his possession he visits the stone circle. The dark gods inhabiting the huge stone faces initiate a dangerous ceremony which turns the bone into a powerful weapon capable of defeating the evil. The hero returns to the portal, ready to face it. It turns out that the portal is another entrance to the huge hall with the sarcophagus in the middle. The sleeping woman, obviously the witch Ecstatica who caused all these disasters, appears again and the brown sphere from before turns into a gigantic wolf. The wolf introduces himself as the dark and omnipotent master and invites the protagonist to sit at a table with him. He talks about how the protagonist has been causing problems lately but admits that he recognizes his potential. He makes the protagonist an offer: to surrender the relic and spend an eternal hedonistic life in return. The protagonist refuses, however, angering the demon. The demon takes the form of a huge dragon now and the final battle ensues. Ultimately the demon is slain by the hero and the witch awakens. Grateful for this heroic act she kisses the protagonist and soon after they ride off together.

Cultural and Historical ReferencesEdit

Warning: This chapter contains spoilers. Read at your own risk.

As mentioned above Ecstatica is mostly referencing European folklore and fairy tales as well as mythology. These are some of the cultural references found in the game:

The part involving the "Lady of the Lake" is a reference to the myth of King Arthur who received his legendary sword Excalibur from Ninianne, also usually called Lady of the Lake. The gesture of throwing the sword into the lake which is then caught by a hand in the water is inspired by another part of the myth where Sir Bedivere returned Excalibur in the exact same way.

The fact that the witch Ecstatica lies in a sarcophagus in a state of constant sleep and is then awakened by the hero and ultimately falls in love with him is based on a common theme found in multiple fairy tales involving enchantments of sleep, most notably Sleeping Beauty and Snow White.

In a witch's house outside of the village a flying broomstick or besom can be found. This is a reference to a common myth involving witches. This particular broomstick, however, seems to be a dated or broken model capable only of floating slightly above the ground and moving with pathetic speed, rather hindering the protagonist than giving him the ability to fly.

The wizard does not only threaten the hero with turning him into a frog but will actually do so if he does not obey and leave. There is only one way to become human again: the protagonist has to visit the obnoxious woman in the witch's house and let her kiss him, which is a reference to modern adaptations of the fairytale The Frog Prince.

The stone circle used for pagan rituals is based on historical facts. Especially on the British Isles several thousand constellations of this kind were constructed and used long before the Common Era. However, the idea that they are shaped like heads is probably rather inspired by the Moai, also known as the Easter Island Heads, which were constructed several centuries after the the first millennium A.D. and off the American coast.

The most iconic enemy of the game is the werewolf who stalks the protagonist throughout Tirich. While often considered an invention of modern literature werewolves were in fact a common theme in European folklore and do not always have to be shapeshifting humans, also anthropomorphic wolf-like creatures qualify for the term.

It goes without saying that dragons or wyverns have a long history in European folklore and were also widely believed to exist in the middle-ages.

ReceptionEdit

Ecstatica was released to almost universal critical acclaim and holds a Mobyrank of 87. Reviewers were amazed by the visual quality and atmosphere. They also praised the game's cinematic storytelling and seamless use of scripted sequences which never interrupt the game for too long. Some of them noted that the game's content with its graphic violence and nudity may be offensive to some people but didn't perceive this as a negative factor. A common point of criticism was the game's relatively short length, however.

Publication Issue / Date Rating Quotation
EDGE 12/94 8/10 "It engages you on an emotional level, invoking fear, wonder, revulsion and delight in equal measure."
PC Joker 12/94 87% "Never before have monsters this realistic haunted your screen!"
PC Games 01/95 92% "The story never gets boring, the difficulty is well-balanced and the riddles are sophisticated."
Computer Gaming World 02/95 4/5 "While its story may be simple, and its play-time brief, Ecstatica is nonetheless a difficult adventure to resist."
Adventure Classic Gaming 12/97 4/5 "An unique 3D graphic engine brings life into the lifeless eerie world of Ecstatica in this unusual action adventure."
HonestGamers 02/07 6/10 "It's the dread that makes it memorable."

LegacyEdit

Not much is known about Ecstatica's commercial success but the game must have been successful enough to allow the team to grow and officially turn into Andrew Spencer Studios as well as to begin working on two further projects powered by the same technology, the cancelled action game Urban Decay and the official sequel to Ecstatica, Ecstatica II.

However, despite its unique and powerful technology as well some original solutions in the game design, Ecstatica did not have a serious impact on the industry. The Alone in the Dark series remained the main source of inspiration for other action adventure and horror game franchises and the Ecstatica series would remain the only commercially released games to make massive use of ellipsoid graphics.

Age Ratings Edit

Due to the game's high level of violence and otherwise mature and potentially disturbing content, the UK-based ELSPA gave Ecstatica an age rating of 18+. The North American rating board ESRB, established in the year of the game's release, gave the game an "M" ("Mature") rating, deeming the game unsuitable for teenagers and children beneath the age of 17 due to "animated blood and gore", "animated violence" and "mature sexual themes". Curiously the infamous German rating agency USK, notorious for strict ratings and enforcing censorship, considered Ecstatica to be suitable for minors and gave it a 12+ rating.

Reverse Engineering Attempts Edit

Like in case of many other video games Ecstatica has become an object of interest for reverse engineering, especially due to its unique approach to 3D visuals and the ability to render rich 3D environments on home computers from the early 90's. The author behind the German blog Dinge von Interesse first announced that he would attempt to recreate Ecstatica in August 2011. Since then he has occasionally been able to present notable progress and to extract some of the game's data and render some of the game's characters and environments through Blender. The current status of the project is not known.

In 2016, YouTube user Akos Szendi uploaded two videos of an Ecstatica remake of his own. A video uploaded in July demonstrated a promising first version. This version ran at 320x200, characters and interactive objects were only flat-shaded, background Z-buffer was not implemented (making characters and objects visible through walls) and there was no music playback but the game already seemed playable, including scripted sequences. Another video followed in December. This version ran in 640x200, added OPL music and background Z-buffer, hiding characters properly. However, the original game's full Z-buffer was apparently not yet implemented, with a single depth per ellipsoid. There have not been any further updates since then.

Several further insights into the game's technology, also gained from reverse engineering, can be found on the Ecstatica Wiki on Wiki Dot.

Trivia Edit

Warning: This chapter contains spoilers. Read at your own risk.

The werewolf is widely believed to be invincible. Actually he can be slain even with the most basic weapons, however, he has a huge amount of hitpoints and regenerates which means that he has to be fought continously for a long time before he dies. He also tends to back off when he's hurt, combined with a hitbox harder to hit when he's retracting, so you need to stay persistent.

While the death of all enemies in the game is permanent, the game over screens sequences will always show the same monsters, including the werewolf, no matter if they were actually already killed.

The ending is identical for both the male and the female protagonist. Ecstatica kisses either hero after being saved from the demon and will ride off with him or her (implying a romantic relationship between the two after the game ends, which is confirmed in the sequel), making the female protagonist one of very few examples of a lesbian main character in a video game. Canonically the hero is male, however, as is established in the sequel where the gender is pre-defined.

The game actually has two endings, a good and a bad one, the good one being canonical according to the sequel.

CompatibilityEdit

Ecstatica's original version is a native MS-DOS application. Because of this Windows 98 was the last OS to be able to natively run this game. However, the game can be run flawlessly on a variety of modern operating systems and hardware configurations via DOSBox. The 1997 Windows version has compatibility problems of its own but fan-made patch exists that makes it run even on Windows 10.

For a detailed guide explaining how to play either version of Ecstatica on modern versions of Windows see Playing Ecstatica on Modern Systems.