Friday, 26 September 2014

Discworld Noir

I had a burst of nostalgia for this old game, and nothing would do but to dust off the old discs and Google for a guide on running it on Windows 7 (will add a link if anyone's interested). Unsurprisingly nostalgia has a lot to answer for, but there's still plenty of merit in this old gem.

The first thing that struck me was the disparity between the background art and the character models. It always seems to be the case with older adventure games that a huge amount of care and attention goes into the largely static backgrounds, but the technology of the time isn't far enough ahead to have animations and character models to match. It seems apparent that it was the intent to have cartoony style character models, but they still look hideous. Mankin for example, looks like he has arms made of plasticine, which might fall off if you poke him. Another minor issue with the artwork is how dark it is. Yes I realise it is *noir*, but it's also an adventure game, and it's quite tiresome to reach a dead end purely because the backgrounds are too dark to make out exits or hotspots. You can control the gamma level from ingame, but this just results in pixelation.

The music is great, and really fits the noir theme, but the voice acting is a bit hit and miss. Nobby is a personal favourite, but several characters either had a voice that didn't fit the character (in my opinion), or were acted so poorly that I just had to click through all their dialogue. Lewton's voice is fairly inoffensive, though it always had me raising an eyebrow when he pronounced 'question' with a W. As it is a detective mystery, much of the game does involve talking to people, so I could never really get drawn in.

The story I think is where it shines. It's a prime example of the Discworld - it takes a common story, a common trope and runs off with it. It puts it's own Discworld twist on the story and constantly pokes fun at itself (and us). I didn't keep playing to find out what happens next (it's striking similarities to an iconic noir novel won't leave you in suspense), I kept playing for the subtle and not-so-subtle gags. It's for the same reason that I continue to read the books.

The gameplay is a bit of mixed bag. As one would expect, the gameplay mostly revolves around collecting clues and talking to people. Lewton writes down case notes in his notebook which he can use to quiz various characters and suspects. He can also combine these clues to learn something new, but this is only really used for one puzzle. It's a shame as it's been used to much greater effect in more recent games, like the Blackwell games. There is an interesting puzzle mechanic in the latter half of the game, but technically speaking it boils down to an inventory puzzle. It still requires a bit of thinking outside the box though. The pacing and linearity was something that aggravated me though. As you progress further into the game you pick up other cases to investigate, and it's never really clear which you're meant to focus on. I found myself following a lead for one case only to hit a dead end as the person I thought I needed to speak with was no longer there. I later realised that I was meant to investigate one of the other cases to move the overall plot along, so that the person would reappear.

In conclusion, I'd say this is a game more geared at Discworld fans. I can imagine the setting being somewhat confusing if you're not familiar with it, and the blatant parody of the Maltese falcon may seem like sloppy writing. While it tries to go beyond the standard adventure game, it doesn't quite go far enough with it. It's an acceptable adventure game, but it doesn't bring anything much new to the table, and relies too heavily on it's IP. It's an amusing little romp, but maybe not worth the time and effort it takes to get it running on modern OS...

Sunday, 13 January 2008

Sherlock Holmes: The Awakening

I must begin by saying that full 3D is a very bad idea for adventure games. Being a genre which relies on skills of observation and logical thinking, rather than twitch reflexes, 3D is too much. It quite literally makes me ill. Every few steps, you are constantly scrutinising your surroundings for clues, rotating and panning the camera to check every angle. Actions which we can do quite naturally in real life, are rather dizzying when reproduced on screen. It may sound like a minor grievance but it is not. I was unable to experience the game as fully as I would have liked, as I had to resort to a walkthrough early on to save myself from eye-strain induced migraines. It does not bode well for a game if it makes you ill to play. The node-based 3D utilised by Myst and its many clones would have been quite adequate, as it focuses your attention to specific areas. It is a shame, but they seem to have gone too far in trying to immerse the player, and forgetting that first and foremost, it is a game.

Still, moving on to the gameplay; it's a bit of a mixed bag to be honest. Some puzzles seem to be the 3D equivalent of pixel hunts requiring a keen eye and careful positioning to spot useful items and clues. Some puzzles were intuitive and rather clever, some were tough but made sense when you knew the answer, and a few were 'How on earth could I have known that!?'. The last applies particularly to a game feature that I also have mixed feelings on.

At various points in the game, Sherlock asks you (as Watson) a question regarding the case and which direction it should take, before you can proceed. You must enter the question into a parser so there's no clicking through multiple choice until you get the right one. Some were straightforward and just require you to review case information (like the first instance of this feature), but others require information not available in game, or huge leaps of deduction. It's alright for Holmes to figure out such things, but Watson is not quite so accomplished. One question required you to decipher a numerical code with no guidance whatsoever! It would have been a nice gimmick if it were used better, like in it's first instance, where it encourages you to think about and involve yourself in the case, rather than randomly clicking through it as so often happens with adventure games.

Gameplay issues aside, the story is kind of worth the effort. Investigating the disappearance of a neighbour's servant leads Holmes and Watson on the trail of a murderous cult. It is dark and disturbing, and not for the faint of heart. I can't fault the atmosphere as it gave me the 'heebie jeebies' at various points in the game. Though the graphics may not be photo-realistic, scenes of a nude body hacked up and spread over a bloody altar are unnerving to say the least.

The characters are absolutely delightful. Holmes with his understated arrogance and superiority complex, and Watson fumbling along in the dark trying to keep up. Though there are many characters that are seen only briefly, they do not seem at all shallow.

So overall, it's a game with an intriguing story and well-done characters, but let down by inconsistent puzzles and gameplay issues. If you enjoy sleuthing games, it's worth your while checking it out, but you may want to keep a walkthrough close at hand.

Friday, 11 January 2008

Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney - Justice for All

If there is a platform so ideally suited to the point and click adventure game, it is most certainly the Nintendo DS. And the Phoenix Wright games are a fairly decent example of this. The graphics are quite pretty for all the size of it, looking somewhat similar in style to the Broken Sword games, using anime style character art which blends fairly well together.

Now I can't say I'm hugely impressed with the quality of the writing. There seems to be a lot of focus on writing the mystery itself, and not quite enough on the involved characters. The game descends into utter silliness at many points that it ruined the experience somewhat, especially when working on cases with a serious tone. For the third case it is forgiveable, given that the majority of suspects are circus performers. I'd expect a few quirks. But in the last case, which has a particularly serious tone, it is rather grating. I really wanted to poke the stylus through Mrs. Oldbag's head every time I had to speak with her.

On the other hand, despite the bouts of silliness, I can't fault the cases themselves. The mysteries have a lot of depth, and are very interesting to investigate and try to solve. Unfortunately, aside from a few central characters, most have little depth, and function as little more than clue dispensers. It's not to say they aren't interesting characters, and integral to the story, they just don't have a lot to them. They tend to have one strong defining characteristic and little else.

The gameplay is where the game really shines though. Excepting the first case which functions as something of a tutorial, the cases are very involved and require a lot of investigation and thought.

The investigation stage has you examining the crime scene and interrogating witnesses. They may be reluctant to share though, requiring you to break 'psyche-locks' by presenting pieces of evidence which contradict their claims. It's a nice gimmick, and makes some of the characters feel like they have a little depth, as you delve into their past and try to draw their secrets out.

The courtroom scenes are much more difficult, as wrong moves can lose you 'life', so guessing randomly at every stage isn't in your best interests. You have to cross-examine witnesses, pressing them for pertinent information, and eventually present a piece of evidence whenever you spot a contradiction in their testimony. In general the difficulty is fairly consistent, but there were a few occasions where the contradiction was so trivial I failed to spot it, or I understood the contradiction, but couldn't figure out what to present to prove it. And the last case just gets plain confusing towards the end (you'll see when you get there).

The game is pretty difficult, particularly in the courtroom stages. You can guess and bluff a little, but sooner or later you'll have to provide some proof. You do really need to examine your evidence and think about it to understand how to proceed. Some parts require you to click on a specific area of the evidence to indicate your point. e.g. clicking on a map to show where a suspect was located. It's another nice gimmick, and I think the extra difficulty is well suited to the extreme linearity of the game.

Overall, it's a solid and enjoyable game. The gameplay is challenging and fun; shame it is so linear, there's not much replayability. The cases are interesting and well written, though they'd do far better with a bit more depth for the secondary characters, and some toning down of the misplaced humour. I wouldn't buy a DS for the sake of this game, but if you already have one, it's worth checking out, because despite it's faults, it's good fun.

Friday, 28 December 2007

Aura: Fate of the Ages

I rather dislike the term 'Myst clone'. Though it is generally used as a a derogatory term for a poor imitation of a genre defining game, it bothers me to have so many pieces of trash mentioned in the same breath as Myst (yes I like Myst, shush!).

And Aura lives up to this definition pretty well. Beautiful scenery and a slew of mechanical puzzles, and little much else of note. There is little backstory or scene-setting, which makes for a very pretty but lifeless and unbelievable world which completely failed to immerse me.

The story is extremely simple: 'Find powerful magic artefacts before the bad guys do'. Been done a million times, so you think they could get it right. But no, it's just stuffed in as initial motivation, and there is little attempt to tell any sort of story as you progress. The characters have zero personality, helped little by extremely bland voice-acting, and seem to be there purely as hint machines to keep you headed in the right direction. What a waste. Not to mention the character models look horrible against the beautiful pre-rendered landscapes.

That said, the game does have a strong point in it's puzzles. Though they are not well integrated into the game's minimal plot, and are clearly there as obstacles, they are rather enjoyable puzzles. They are usually pretty clever, yet straightforward and clues are rarely far away. To be honest, I found myself playing on just to putter about with the puzzles than to follow the (lack of) plot.

In summary: if you enjoy exploring pretty landscapes and solving random mechanical puzzles, then you likely will enjoy Aura. But if you want immersion, story and vibrant characters... steer clear. Gah, those dialogues still make me cringe...