I should start this review off with a few caveats, since it's a little out of my usual line. First off, this is a commercial game which I received a free copy of, since this is a review on behalf of Brass Lantern. Second, this is a graphical game. I don't, as a general rule, play graphical games; I've played the first Monkey Island, Loom, two of the King's Quest games, and that's about it. I certainly haven't played anything graphical written in the last ten years (although I've played plenty of text games).
Anyway, what I am leading up to is that when I say "whoah, you can pan 360 degrees and up and down and it all looks ok" you should take this with a grain of salt, since I don't know what state of the art is these days. But it's true, and I was impressed, anyway. Plus it ran smoothly on my computer, which just barely made the minimum requirements (with one notable exception -- any view that contained a reflection in a mirror or a window had substantial slowdown). The introductory movie was also impressively polished; it's not Hollywood-level but I can see it getting closer, complete with the fancy camera shots and the Victorian tone.
The sound in the game also helped set the mood: the background music pieces were short but appropriate and kicked in at the right times, and the voice acting was well-done and in-character (the writing, on the other hand, was not always entirely idiomatic, and I saw/heard a few instances where the voice actor corrected for errors in the dialogue). The extra sound details like having different voices for the telephone operator were nice also.
The interface was pretty good. Here again I'm somewhat handicapped by not knowing what's standard, but I can say that I could access my inventory whenever I wanted to; the separate document cache was also nice to have, even though I did get confused the first time something went to the cache and I couldn't figure out why it had disappeared. I don't know if the text-entry format of having a popup keyboard is standard, but it's pretty cool. I was somewhat annoyed when I couldn't enter text with the actual keyboard, only by selecting with the on-screen one. For object interaction, the mouse pointer changed to reflect the allowed action, like I'd expect, although it was often a little tricky in some orientations to select an object -- in fact, in one place there was only one view where it was possible to select a particular object, making me think that it wasn't manipulable at all.
This last reminds me of some of the other interface gripes I had, or, rather, times when a graphical adventure fell flat compared to a text one. In a text adventure, you can say "The bookshelf is covered in books; most prominently you notice a red book sticking out." and cue the player that only the one book is important. In a graphical adventure, or at least in this graphical adventure, if you want to show that the bookshelf is covered in books, you actually have to draw lots and lots of books. And then the player clicks on them and only a small fraction can be interacted with, and the player is Discouraged and Has Trouble Finding Stuff. Speaking of books, I wasn't totally pleased with the book interface: sometimes you could flip to a next page and sometimes you couldn't, and since there were lots of useless (but in-period) books to look through, this got annoying fast.
Another failing of graphical adventures is movement: in a text adventure when I say "N. N. N." it takes half a second, while in a graphical adventure (or, again, at least in this graphical adventure) I have to click advance, click on the door to use it, turn to reorient myself, click on advance a few more times, click on the next door, etc. And each advance has a short sound-clip of me walking and takes a second or so. When I'm trying to run back and forth across a building to compare notes on something this can really add up -- and don't even get me started on the staircase that requires you to switch directions at each of the landings.
On the plus side for graphical adventures, though, some aspects of the books are better: I was annoyed by the quantity, but it's true there's nothing like flipping page by page through a volume, and actually having to scan each page to see if it has the information I want. Similarly, even though the movement is slow and requires laborious turning around, that helps out in the (argh) maze, which doesn't have to be complicated or large to give the impression of being complicated and large.
I note that I've gotten this far into the review and haven't actually talked about the storyline at all. This is because there isn't much of one, since this isn't really a game, it's the introduction for a game. Much like Stargazer, gameplay consists of finding out who you are, finding out what your quest is, futzing around with the interface a bit and solving a few puzzles, and then it's over. The puzzles themselves are decent: a few fetch-and-carry puzzles, but the majority require the right combination of intuition and inspection. It's annoyingly possible to hit points in the game where it's not clear at all what to do next -- I stalled out on the plot twice, once at the beginning when I was able to leave my office without seeing the first plot item, and again later when I was waiting for an event to trigger and not being sure what I needed to do to make it happen (it eventually turned out I'd missed an item, due to the aforementioned problem figuring out which bits of the scenery can be manipulated).
Anyway, overall this is pretty good. Because the producing company is so small I find myself reviewing it more like an amateur game than like a professional one, and on that scale it's very good (if still short). But since it's a commercial game it really should be reviewed as a professional work: from that perspective it still has some rough spots, and in particular I'd feel cheated if this were the only episode I got, even at a low price, just because there's so little plot (and none of the promised board games). On the other hand, I'd be much happier to get two episodes at twice the price, so if I were thinking of purchasing, I'd hold off until the second episode was done and get them both at once.
This article copyright © 2003, Dan Shiovitz