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.