You wake up from a long disturbing slumber, haunted by nightmares of a distant past, only to find yourself alone in a deserted factory with barely enough air to breathe. The only clue to your existence in this world is one single word hastily scribbled on a piece of paper: Theresia. In order to survive, you will have to explore an abandoned haunted place, filled with rotting corpses and deadly traps, to discover your identity and who is planning to destroy you.
Released in the Fall 2008 on the Nintendo DS and developed by Japanese studio WorkJam, Theresia was a very unique cookie - one spiced with pieces of glass and nails. Even on the Nintendo DS, where strange and interesting games found a comfy little home, such as The World Ends With You and Rhythm Heaven, Theresia stood pretty much alone. A mixture of visual novel, point and click adventure and dungeon crawler, caked with a morbid and suffocating horror atmosphere.
Interestingly, it was not an original game, as it first stained Japanese mobile phones with blood in 2006. The Nintendo DS version combined two of the episodes in one package, Dear Emile and Dear Martel. The console version was enhanced by making the exploration full 3D, with a rough first person look which definitely brings to mind nightmares from From Software’s early soulslike King’s Field. Each story can be played separately, even though there are overall connections, with the gameplay staying pretty much the same.
Only released in the United States and Japan, Theresia was one of the few DS games to receive a Mature rating. One pretty well deserved, even for a platform where the once family-friendly Nintendo seemed to have no qualms in greenlighting horror games such as Dementium. Still, I would dare say Theresia is more disturbing than other titles in its genre, touching on topics of violence and psychological torture.
Making things worse is how the protagonist, Leanne, is a young and defenseless girl. As the game progresses she is hurt with arrows, tortured with nails, cut by knives, impaled by spikes, choked with poisonous gas. She feels every cut on her skin, while the sound design and the screen sullied with blood make sure the player shares her pain. Were these horrific devices concocted to keep someone from getting out? Or, perhaps, they are meant to prevent someone from getting in?
You will soon uncover the truth, since the person who set up all these traps is indeed someone close to Leanne. Their love is apparently expressed only through torture and pain. This overall theme of love through cuts and bruises also connects to the relationship between Leanne and her mother, along with the ideal image of motherhood. Being trapped in toxic relationships, where you get punished only to come back crawling for more, and end up creating deep traumas in people, especially as children.
Leanne was never loved in the way a child should be, but the events in the game do entail that her mother still cares about her. By playing through the story of Dear Emile, you discover the real truth about this disturbed parent and Leanne’s family. Dear Martel extends on this horrific story, working - since it was originally released as the first episode - as a sort of prequel.
You progress through Theresia by finding items, opening doors and solving puzzles, along with trying as much as possible to survive the devious and horrible traps. The map system, which is laid out in the style of a dungeon crawler, is especially important, as finding your way through corridors and rooms would be difficult otherwise. Ironically, Leanne survives by heeding the advice and notes left by her torturer. But there is little to no respite in the abandoned factory where Leanne is trapped, alongside us.
With its abundance of corpses, tragic backstories and a macabre and suffocating atmosphere, plus a punishing gameplay which always keeps the player on their toes, Theresia at times almost feels like a Soulslike; an experience where the player is made to suffer together with the protagonist of the game. And thanks to the unnerving sound design, the abundance of splotches of red when something hurts Leanne and the inner frailty of the main character. But even beyond a Soulslike, one feels that Leanne cannot withstand all this punishment and wishes to keep her safe from harm. But it is impossible, not if you want her to get out of the place alive.
Dear Martel, as mentioned, is similar to the first episode, even though there are more instant death traps and a less suffocating atmosphere. While it is nice to have some backstory to the “sequel”, it is a shorter and less engrossing experience. Still, we can consider ourselves lucky that WorkJam developed this Nintendo DS remake of the original mobile phone game. It is highly probable that the title would have become lost media as with many other Japanese mobile games of the time.
While the story of the game itself is quite tragic, what happened after the release of Theresia on DS is no joke either. With the game remaining quite obscure and selling poorly, the developers went bankrupt in 2011. The sequel to the original game, Theresia 2: Dear Liszt, originally released for mobile phones in Japan in 2009, is now considered lost media. While very little is known about this third episode, as there are no videos on the internet but just a bunch of screenshots, it should have had the same gameplay as the other games in the series.
Theresia was never re-released on any other platform and, to this day, the only way to play it is by either on an original DS or by emulating it. Players who are brave enough to venture will find a tough and unforgiving game, which tortures its protagonist as much as its players but rewards with a brave and unique story of love and death. It’s a story where the stains of blood are as red as the lips from where many kisses were once stolen, and where pain confused with love and orgasm becomes a cry of help.
The anguish and pain of Theresia will be sure to stay in your mind for years to come.