The Executioner, like many role-playing games, asks me to check and manage my protagonist’s resources regularly. I don’t have a problem doing that, but I often found myself taking breaks for my own resources.
This text-based morality adventure is not a game that I could consume all in one go. The story opens with me killing my own father, and marches downhill from there. Before long, I’m blinding enemies of the crown, cutting off their hands, and asking my assistant to help me engage in some light waterboarding. It’s a living, I guess.
This is the kind of gaming experience that I wouldn’t call fun; it’s far too grim and grisly for that. But The Executioner offers something compelling, and there are some players who are going to find a hidden gem that may match their tastes in this choice-based text adventure.
Judge, jury, and executioner
The story opens with the protagonist learning that his father, the kingdom’s executioner, has admitted to treason and will be put to death. I fight through some guards and rush to his side, but I’m unable to save my father. I barely manage to retrieve his diary before I am forced to take his role as the kingdom’s executioner.
My first choice is an unhappy one: Do I swing the sword and kill my own father, or do I let his weak assistant do it? My hands will be clean, but the execution will be slow, painful, and poorly done.
So, I start my new job by taking off my dear old dad’s head, and hold it up for the crowd.
The game falls into a “comfortable” rhythm from there. I show up to work as an executioner, and am tasked with torturing a prisoner until they tell me what I want to know and sign their confessions. My character has the somewhat supernatural ability to tell lies from truth and, more importantly, an array of weapons and tactics that allow me to inflict enough pain to get them talking so I can use that ability.
While most of the game is presented via text, there is some visual art involved while playing. Torture sessions tend to be illustrated, and the game makes grisly use of an interface that shows me what kind of damage I’m doing and how long it may take to get the desired response. Combat also has a slightly more elaborate look, and I have to engage in fisticuffs sometimes when I’m working on extracurricular investigations. Outside of the dungeon, I’m much more vulnerable.
When I’m not on the job, I’m allowed to explore the city. I meet with members of both the crown and the brewing rebellion. I also make choices about what I do from inside the system. Should I sell the bodies for the largest possible profit, or do I funnel them towards a source who can perhaps use them for practical good? The sciences could take those bodies for medical testing, or the occult could use it for… less ethical reasons. I am the sole legal source of selling bodies, so I get to be picky about my buyers.
Maiming and morality
While The Executioner is chock full of violence and torture, the game doesn’t revel in depicting these acts. This isn’t a Hatred-style game wherein I can feel someone looking over my shoulder and gleefully rubbing their hands together over my twisted deeds. There’s no mayhem to behold or sly winks to the camera. The game knows I have a shitty job, and I do the shitty job, and no one is having a good time here.
No, this all pretty much sucks, and that’s immediately obvious to my protagonist — let alone me, a player who’s been raised in a modern society that doesn’t celebrate killing. (Okay, well, we don’t do public executions anymore.) The question becomes more about what I should do about my tasks, and since I can make a moral stand where I refuse to torture that child until she admits to witchcraft ... should I? Then what happens to me? What happens to the society in which this role is seen to be necessary?
To Lesser Evil Games’ credit, the developers have managed to depict this society in a clear, coherent manner. I feel the weight of expectations on my shoulders as I play, and I settle into character soon enough. The only thing that really hinders my immersion is the text, which seems to have picked up more than a few typos on its way through the translation from Russian to English. I also encountered a few instances where text prompts were replaced by developer notes or bits of code, giving the experience a slightly rushed, unfinished feel. The rest of the game’s writing and design deserves better.
Rolling as an RPG
As a RPG itself, The Executioner offers a healthy amount of depth. On top of the aforementioned resource management (time, sanity, stamina, money, and so on), there are also ways to advance. The protagonist can pick up new talents that improve his chances to pass combat checks, boost his stats, or pick up new and exciting skills like cannibalism.
I also have my thoughts and decisions recorded. Other NPCs will remember things I’ve done, and my character has an internal world view. Sometimes, the game just gives me a chance to set my internal compass by offering a variety of choices. What do I think about my role in society? What would I change? How much can one person impact the world when that person’s primary role is enacting state-mandated violence on a personal level?
The biggest issue I have from a mechanical perspective is that torturing felt less like a deliberate course of action and more like desperately hitting toggles on a switchboard trying to figure out how to get the target to confess. Wearing down the physical or mental resolve of my victims is easy. Keeping it there, and doing so within the time limit, is much harder. But over time, I’m happy to report, I’m given the options and abilities to handle interrogations in an increasingly moral way, like deliberately allowing my target to rest up and taking control over the proceedings instead of leaving things to my terrible, cruel assistant.
Of course, failure is part of the ride, and I may need to put on a particularly entertaining hanging if I mess something up such as failing to get a confession. It’s all about risks and rewards, and there’s no clear or easy path forward ... but at the same time, it’s frustrating to feel like I’ve done everything I can, only to have made no headway in an interrogation, and oops! Now I’m out of time, and I’m not sure what I was meant to learn from that mistake, or what the mistake even was. Such is the struggle of a lowly executioner. The human body is a mysterious thing, and I only know so much about which parts hurt the most.
It’s hard to recommend a game in which you can listen to the wet squelching noises as you choose to take out a child’s eyes. But at the same time, The Executioner isn’t grimdark for the sake of cheap thrills. The game is trying to say something, and features a solid RPG system that helps me make decisions and learn about the world in a way that helps deliver that message.
It’s just a matter of whether players have the guts needed to dig deep into the questions The Executioner is asking — and what they might find out about themselves, and their place in society, once they do.
The Executioner will be released Sept. 25 on Windows PC via Steam. The game was reviewed using a final “retail” Steam download code provided by Lesser Evil Games. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.