Cults, real or fictionalized, can make for a fascinating storytelling device. There’s the usually enigmatic leader, so assured of their special set of beliefs. Are they steely-focused on achieving a spiritual goal? Or is there a more sinister end product to their new religion? Then there are the personal tales of those who choose to follow. Are they just poor souls who lacked guidance and now have something meaningful? Or are they foolishly walking themselves straight into a slaughterhouse? Redact Games’ Sagebrush poses such questions and brings some intriguing answers.
While most video games involving cults tend to put you right in the mix and usually has you fight them (Far Cry 5, Resident Evil 4 etc) at the height of their powers, Sagebrush takes place in a cult compound after the demise of its flock. It’s a ghost story of sorts, if not in the traditional sense, and offers an interesting take on the cult of…well, cults.
You’re investigating the Black Sage Ranch, former home of the Perfect Heaven Millenial cult. Your job is to search this New Mexico desert ranch for clues about the lives of those in the cult before they took their lives in a mass-suicide years before.
This is a short narrative-driven adventure. There are some spoken parts where a follower recollects their memories of the people at the compound via tape recordings, but generally, Sagebrush is about reading the rooms and the notes, timetables, and reminders dotted about the compound. It’s not building to some great reveal or crazy twist, it’s just telling the diverse stories of why people chose to join a cult and ultimately sacrifice their lives for the cause.
You get to roam the entire compound as you investigate. You need to find keys and relevant information to access certain parts of it though, and that flows naturally through your discoveries for the most part. There is a map if you get lost, but on occasion, you’re likely to get lost trying to figure something out. The pace is fairly serene despite being a sub-2 hour game, but an obstacle to progress can make Sagebrush feel like a slog. Thankfully it’s a rare occurrence.
Sagebrush is presented in a low-fi, low-resolution, low-poly manner that is married to some modern conveniences. The low-fi visuals certainly don’t prevent Sagebrush from creating an effective atmosphere. It’s used in such a way that it perfectly replicates the hazy open quiet of an abandoned desert ranch. There’s just the right amount of detail to convey what the game wants you to see and it’s truly a credit to the developer’s vision that they got this balance right. The package is wrapped up nicely by the inclusion of a haunting ambient soundtrack that lilts away in the background, and good use of sound effects, be it creaking floorboards, squeaky doors, or the ambiance of the New Mexico wilds.
So Sagebrush certainly looks and sounds the part, but that’s only a relatively small part. Sagebrush is about storytelling first and foremost and it needs to succeed at that more than anything. Largely, Sagebrush does indeed spin a fascinating yarn. It’s mostly via the audio recordings that you get the meat of it, as the ranch itself is a tad sparse in terms of opportunities to help tell the story via the scenery, at least for the first half of the game anyway. Locations, while well realized, hold a loose connection with the letters and audio you pore over. They rarely feel like they give you enough visual insight beyond their emptiness.
Luckily the story told via words and sound is interesting and informative enough to make up for it. These tales of cult members and the reasons behind their choice to join Perfect Heaven are not all infatuation and brainwashing. People have a variety of reasons for joining, often they’re searching for meaning in their lives after a major setback, some are just disillusioned with religion and Perfect Heaven’s whole schtick of unpacking the lies of regular religion makes it an appealing alternative.
Not everyone is entirely happy or committed to the cause though. Throughout the game, you come across instances of rebellion and doubt, which is made all the more tragic when you consider these people still ultimately died for the cult despite this.
Sagebrush aims to look at the humanity behind the subject matter, and while it doesn’t always work as well as it could, it does reach dark and revelatory heights from an unexpected angle. Its slow pace should be its greatest strength, but there needed to be a touch more environmental storytelling to make the most of the wandering you do.
Review code provided by the publisher
Sagebrush is available on Steam now