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Dom Rusalok

The beautiful thing about video games and well, all art forms, is being able to experience other, wildly different experiences from our own boring and familiar lives – be it fictional, fantastical, or autobiographical. As a good friend of mine’s Steam bio states, ‘Every game played is another life lived. One life might be short but a multitude isn’t.’.

Whether it be playing as Miles Morales and getting to experience a bit of Brooklyn-Puerto Rican culture, or experiencing all those different Danish biographical stories in Welcome to Elk, or what it might be like to be an LGTBQ outcast alienated from your own family in Ireland in If Found, this is why I play games.

In a medium that’s widely dominated by American culture, getting to play titles that explore different cultures is only a good thing. It’s not only a more-than-welcome breath of fresh air for us as players to experience diverse, compelling stories, but it also builds empathy and provides cultural representation for players of that specific ethnic or geographic community, which can be really amazing in a way that some may take for granted. I know I had a huge smile on my face when I first saw the Venba trailer and proceeded to show it to every family member who even remotely cared about video games. 

So when I first came across the mysterious-sounding DOM RUSALOK which takes place in ‘90s Russia, I immediately wanted to check it out.

DOM RUSALOK (you have to yell it out every time you say the name or the militsiya will come and get you) is the debut game by Yakov Butuzoff about “a group of kids having to face a disturbing horror they are unable to comprehend”.

The Wild ‘90s

As is reflected in that intro, the most interesting thing to me about the title and the aspect I was most looking forward to is the setting itself. Having never really played a game that takes place in Russia (other than CoD and Metro I suppose), I was intrigued by the promise of exploring and living in a small Russian town.

Thankfully, I was not disappointed. In fact, the best thing about DOM RUSALOK is definitely the setting and atmosphere, it is unabashedly Russian and almost certainly a sort of homage or celebration of the developer’s childhood memories. 

The game takes place as I said in ‘90s Russia, but more specifically, in ‘a provincial town at the edge of the crumbling Soviet Empire’, the keyword here being ‘crumbling’. I don’t purport to be super knowledgeable about Russian history but even I was vaguely aware of the Soviet Union dissolving in the early 1990s, and things not being too great for the Russians for a while after that. 

Apparently, the decade was called the wild ‘90s, and confirming the vague notion in my head, was an exciting but chaotic time. There was a new Constitution in 1993 and democratic freedoms like free elections and the privatization of state assets along with it, but there were also two wars in Chechnya, the Russian ruble had lost its value, the stores stood empty and crime was on the rise.

The game reflects this context well – the drab, washed-out visuals and faded-out faces of the characters may not be the most attractive to look at, but it’s a fitting art style indicative of the times. Pretty much all the buildings are dilapidated if not completely abandoned and empty, there’s graffiti everywhere and a creepy ‘train cemetery’ filled with disused old trains, bike thieves are rampant and dangerous-looking goons loiter in the streets.

But it’s not all depressing, there are nuggets of nostalgia to be found recognizable to Russians who grew up in the ‘90s (there’s a bit of crossover for us Indians too): Old tech like Sony’s cassette player, ‘The Wolf and Eggs’ and other game cartridges, VCR tapes, VHS players, playing cards of naked women, references to old cars, old-timey stamps, CRT TVs, certain footwear, triangular milk packets, Royal alcohol with 96% vol, etc.

I can only imagine how delightful it’d be for a Russian 90’s kid to play this game, it’s basically a love letter to their collective childhood. Just this alone makes this title interesting and worth checking out for the curious. I highly recommend playing the title with this Steam guide by Sage open, as it does a good job filling you in on specific Russian references that will otherwise definitely go over your head. 

But this is a game after all, not just historical documentation. So how does it play?

Uninspired Point & Click Gameplay

Sadly, the gameplay is the weakest link in the Dom Rusalok chain. Not that it’s necessarily bad, but it’s pretty much standard fare: you walk around, talk to people and explore the environment to find objects that can be used to solve a specific problem to progress the story. After playing modern point-and-clicks like Roki and Willy Morgan though, the shortcomings in this formula are all too noticeable. 

There aren’t really any ‘puzzles’ to figure out in Dom Rusalok, if you find the item necessary to progress, you progress – that’s pretty much it. There are a couple of times where you have to combine two items but these were few and far between. For the most part, it’s the same principle of finding a key to open a door, over and over again, just that the key happens to be a ball that a kid was looking for or a cigarette that a girl blocking the door to a building wanted, etc.

What’s more, these are extremely linear. You find item A and give it to NPC B so that they give you item C to give to NPC D and so on. There’s no imagination as far the puzzles go except for just a couple of exceptions and they’re just used as a buffer between the story beats as an excuse to have you explore the environment. The game seems to be content with having the gameplay just be a vehicle to get from story beat A to story beat B. 

This alone wouldn’t be too bad – I mean, it’s not great, but the environments and story make up for it. However, some less-patient gamers may find the lack of Quality of Life features a tad annoying. There’s no key that highlights all the interact-able objects on the screen and no real discernible way to know which can be examined and which are static other than mousing over them. The hitboxes of some of the items tend to be tiny too, which can make them annoying to collect. Plus, the walking speed is extremely slow and becomes a chore, especially if you have missed an item and have to backtrack and go pixel-hunting for it.

When it comes down to it, the real shame of Dom Rusalok is that there’s no sense of challenge to the game – if you found the required item, you’re good. There are a couple of times where you have to find a certain passcode to progress but again, that just boils down to finding a note or poster. The only challenge is in finding the items. 

Also, it’s hard to discern whether or not certain paths were dead-ends or lead to the next area – some areas look like dead ends until you slowly walk to the edge of the screen and discover that it leads somewhere. 

The slow walking animation also impacts the narrative at certain points when it’s implied that you’re being chased but since there’s no way to sprint, there’s no sense of urgency at all, you just slowly walk away from the threat. 

To put it simply, you’ll spend the majority of the game holding down either the A or D keys and wiggling your mouse around like your name is Parkinson. 

Wayyy too dark at times

There are also a couple of minor technical issues – when it rains or snows, it does so on the entire screen, including the black bars on the top and bottom, which is either a bug or a weird narrative choice. Also, the game is extremely dark at points – even with the brightness turned to max, I could barely see the environment. 

A Russki Stranger Things

Now getting to the story of Dom Rusalok, it’s pretty simple for the most part – you follow the story of a group of kids who find some weird things happening – involving an underground tunnel network and an abandoned research institute – and want to get to the bottom of it (without militsiya intervention obviously). 

One thing worth noting is that the game’s ‘About’ section on Steam is slightly misleading, as most of what it describes – A homicidal maniac, a cult with a TV psychic medium leader – are all in the background if they’re even there at all (it’s left up to your interpretation in the end). These ideas sounding as intriguing as they do, suffice it to say I was pretty disappointed that they were never really expanded upon at all.

More than anything else, it’s the lack of interesting characters that I found the most disappointing. After setting up some intriguing albeit King-esque derivative characters at the start of the game, I was looking forward to some cool character interactions and was hoping that by the end, everything they go through bonds them into a strong group of friends. Sadly, the characters are pretty much set in stone and never progress or form any meaningful relationships with each other.

As a result, though you get to play as different characters, this ends up feeling very inconsequential as, apart from the appearance, there’s barely any difference between the characters. 

At one point there is also a character in a library who asks you questions to fill out a quiz and this being one of the rare occasions you have any input, it got me excited to find out what outcome my responses (especially to the question ‘What are you most scared of?”) would have on the narrative. Sadly, the quiz didn’t end up amounting to anything.

We don’t really get to know the characters much at all except that they were all raised in troubled homes, so I didn’t really form a connection with any of them. Plus, the story is too short to build a good rapport between the characters. This would’ve been fine if the main story was impactful enough to outshine the lack of interesting characters, but, though the journey is consistently intriguing and suspenseful, the story ends up being pretty lackluster and the ending, disappointing, abrupt, and lazily left up to the player’s interpretation.

Even after analyzing the events of the story for some deeper meaning and even resorting to Google Translate to understand Russian gamers on forums discussing the ending, it felt unsatisfactory, to say the least. There are a few different conclusions you can come to after poring over intentional and intentional hints peppered throughout the narrative and connecting the dots, but I for one didn’t really find any of them satisfying. 

The music is what you’d expect, for the most part. It’s mostly atmospheric and ominous sounds more than actual music, but they do a decent job of building the atmosphere. There’s quite a bit of diegetic music – from radios, TVs, etc. which contribute to the Russian context. 

However, there are also many periods of time where there was zero music at all – which I’m not sure if that was a narrative choice or a bug. These sequences, unfortunately, vacuumed out whatever suspense was built until then as it just turned into kids walking with birds chirping in the background – nothing scary about that. The credits track was exceptionally good though, which almost made up for the ending.

Lack of Localization

The localization is a bit of a problem – while most environmental items – posters, documents, etc. – do have English translations (albeit through a wonky, clumsy overlay that’s imposed on the object itself), some book titles and signboards for example are in Russian with no English translations, which can be slightly annoying as it always felt like I might be missing something. 

The primary market of Dom Rusalok is definitely the 90s Russian kid and it shows. This is great for them but I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel slightly alienated at points. I highly recommend having this guide open (credit to ) while playing the game to catch some historical references as well as childhood experiences only Russian kids would get.

Real Talk

Dom rusalok real talk backlog
Basically 1% of my Steam backlog

Dom Rusalok definitely succeeds at what I was interested in playing it for – the setting of a dilapidated, creepy town in 90’s Russia – and those that grew up in Russia in the 90s will definitely find a lot to love. The presentation is great and the environments feel lived in and authentic. 

However, the characters are one-dimensional and the story is derivative with a lackluster ending that asks the player to do the work of coming up with a satisfying interpretation. Add that to a few immersion-breaking flaws in gameplay, uninspired puzzles, and half-assed localization, and what you’re left with doesn’t come close to the exceptional, unique promise of the premise.

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