Sunday, March 12, 2006

Delaware St. John 1 review

A new hero joins the pack of supernatural detectives, and together with his faithful female sidekick dares to go where nobody went before. Actually, the last part is not true; there were people who went there before, but somehow forgot to return. Thus begins the first episode of a projected ten-part adventure series, and so also starts this review.

You play Delaware St. John, a supernatural detective who must hate his parents for naming him after a state known mainly for being the top choice for new companies’ incorporation. But since Indiana and Dakota were already taken, there weren’t too many choices left. I mean, who in their right mind would name their son “New Jersey”… Anyway, back to our story. Just like so many others before you, you tend to have some strange dreams, and you decide to find out what they mean. So you begin a career as a investigator of all things mysterious, hire a female sidekick to help you from a safe distance and build up some sexual tension, and off you go to the cursed manor.

Delaware St. John is trying very hard to be clichéd. However, this is just a screen to confuse the player and keep him in the dark, until the surprise trap springs and you’ll find out that the game is quite original. True, we’ve had so many mystery hunters before, and we’ll have many more in the future, but this guy sounds and feels very authentic. I guess it’s partially because of the writing and voice talent, but I didn’t feel like I was playing another derivation of the same theme; instead, Delaware is a real person with his own joys and troubles. It also helps that his sidekick, Kelly, sounds as authentic as him, for the same reasons.

The game is portrayed in a first person view. It all takes place in a manor, where you move and turn around in steps, instead of a smooth movement. While this may be somewhat confining, it also allowed the author to incorporate some scripted events, such as ghosts appearing at exactly the right moments. In addition to a very meager inventory, you’ll have at your disposal a communication device, called VIC, which allows you to take pictures, record sounds, and to communicate with Kelly, who can download your recordings and analyze them. This allows for a few unique puzzles. Unfortunately, the VIC will be used much less often than you may wish for, and contacting Kelly when you have nothing new to report (this will happen quite often, since you’ll never know when is a good time to contact her, and because each picture snap and sound recording will get her on-line) will yield the same response.

The puzzles are relatively easy, thanks to a very linear script. There’s almost nothing you can do before solving a particular puzzle, and thanks to the fact that there will be very few items to pick up, you won’t have any issues with the inventory, either. A few times you’ll need to solve a riddle, but even those are on the simple side. The game also features a few timed sequences, which even I didn’t have a problem with (a rarity), but they do detract from the feeling of mystery.

I wasn’t too impressed with the puzzles or interface, but the atmosphere has left me grounded in front of the monitor until I finished both parts that are included in the Midnight Manor release. The author claimed that he wanted to create a movie-like atmosphere, and he greatly succeeded in this. While it’s not as perfect as that in Dark Fall, the scripted events enlivened the otherwise abandoned manor, and I grew to like the characters and become interested in their fates. The story is very tight, and the graphics and music were appropriate.

One big downside of the game, however, was its length. The box contains two parts of the series; the latter being unlocked once you finish the first episode. Unfortunately, both parts can be finished within a few hours, and at $20 this title is quite pricey. Where Dark Fall offered an atmosphere that invited me to replay the game several times, Delaware St. John is much more story-based, and once I finished it I didn’t feel like going back to it. Taking into account the short and easy gameplay, but also the great atmosphere and authentic characters, I feel that this is a great, albeit overpriced, game.

Pros: Authentic characters, atmosphere, writing, voice acting

Cons: Game length, difficulty

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Sunday, March 05, 2006

Independent Adventuring - February 2006

February was a month of few titles, but many of them turned out pretty well. Some were very professionally done; others were quite inventive in their interface or setting. And yet other titles showed off the AGS engine capabilities for non-adventures. Unfortunately, last month also saw the release of one of the most morally questionable adventures I’ve ever played.

Niche news
First of all, I would like to point out two things I overlooked in January. First, there is a new magazine replacing The Inventory, called Adventure Lantern. February marked its second issue, which spanned almost 120 pages, and contained a review of Apprentice 1 Deluxe. The game scored 75%. The second overlooked event was the release of the January issue of AGS Ezine, which reviewed Da New Guys (90%), previewed Natally Buchanon and the Amulet of Kings and featured an article on inspiration in adventure games. The only other independent adventure review was that of Just Another Point and Click Adventure at Adventure Gamers. The reviewer liked the humor and the engaging storyline, but wasn’t too impressed with spelling and grammar.

In the world of commercial independent adventures, the news were mixed. The good news is that Scratches went gold and was expected to be released on March 1. It would sell for $19.99. In addition, Delaware St. John Volume 3: The Seacliff Tragedy was announced. The third part of the Delaware St. John series will allow the players to explore the world both from Del’s and Kelly’s perspective for the first time. In not so good news, Project Joe, an adventure that has been in the making for quite some time, has severed its ties with Bad Brain Entertainment, which was supposed to publish the game. Last but not least, Visionaire, a game creation software, was updated to version 2.7.2. The new version is focused primarily on bug fixes.

The AGS Awards were announced. Ben Jordan 4 has won the best game award, as well two other major awards. The remainder of the major awards was divided between Prodigal, Cedric and the Revolution, Emily Enough and Adventures in the Galaxy of Fantabulous Wonderment. Mind’s Eye and Stargate Adventure shared graphics awards, and the Best Music award went to Apprentice 1 Deluxe. No, I Am Spartacus! received the dubious Booby Prize.

Automation. You managed to break the containment unit that housed your robot prototype, a result of years of research and negotiations for project funding. Instead of giving up and exploding in rage, as any self-respecting scientist would do, you decided to salvage your project. This game takes place in a single long scrolling screen, where you operate on its top half, and your goal is to lead your robot through the bottom. The puzzles involve opening doors, transporting the robot through various obstacles, and finally lifting it up to the second floor. They are not too difficult, but sometimes require a little finesse (kicking objects), and at least in one instance some pixel hunting. The game features excellent graphics and animations, and a very appropriate soundtrack.

Clip Goes to Town. This is the first attempt of the author, and it turned out to be relatively good, especially in its production value. You play Clip, a boy who has nothing to do, and so he decides to wash his father’s car (I wish I knew someone who, when bored, would iron my shirts). He needs to go to the town, in order to get some car shampoo. The game is very linear, with a few easy puzzles, and shouldn’t take you more than ten minutes to finish. Sometimes, the feedback is not that good, with item names sounding unfamiliar (“bootleg”, for example, instead of “moonshine”). Still, this title is a nice first attempt.

Frasse and the Peas of Kejick. This is one of the cutest and best games I’ve played in a while. You are a blue ball of fur who decides to go for an adventure. For this, you need to enlist the help of your green, handless friend, as well as the occasional advice of other characters. It is difficult to describe the story, as it would spoil the gameplay, but suffice it to say that it is the standard fairy tale fare, albeit very well told. The challenges you’ll be facing are varied, and some of the puzzles will be very hard, thanks to certain lack of logic. This is somewhat offset by the two-character play, where each character is very unique. Your primary character has hands and thus can hold and manipulate inventory and climb ropes. Your secondary character, on the other hand, is smart and thus can communicate with others much better. He can also kick things around, which can become useful. The good news is that the game is extremely linear, and so figuring out what needs to be done won’t take you all that long, but thank to the lack of an obvious solution, you may not feel satisfaction from overcoming some of the obstacles. The bad news is that on some screens you can scroll left and right, but the player won’t get an indication of this, and some important clues may be overlooked. The production value of this game is very high, with simple yet very cute graphics and a very good soundtrack. Despite the sometimes illogical puzzles, I can recommend this adventure to everyone.

Heart of Abraxas. You find yourself in a dark room, unable to move. You don’t remember much, and you need to figure out how to get out of there. Even though this is the premise of lots of other adventure games, the rest of this title will not be as familiar. Heart of Abraxas is presented in a first person view, with panoramic surroundings. You’ll be able to turn all the way around, with the backgrounds shifting seamlessly, but you won’t be able to move from the spot. The story and puzzles are out of the ordinary, and the game’s atmosphere greatly benefits from the soundtrack. My only problems were the inability to save, and the fact that the first thing the player would have to do is to access the inventory; something that took me a few minutes to figure out.

JWB Games Demo Game. The author of this game describes it as “unfortunately, very bad”, and he’s not far from the truth. This title features so many typical mistakes that I’m almost convinced the author did it on purpose. Whether it is poorly drawn objects on photo backgrounds, which leave no doubt what to pick up, very bad sense of humor (or at least totally incompatible with mine) or scripting problems that include original German texts in certain places, this title reeks of a premature release. Still, one has to admire the author for unleashing this Demo Game on the world, with the promise of doing so again in the future. He promises that the next game would be much better, and I certainly hope so.

Mickey Mauser. It is not often that a game begins with a long disclaimer, apologizing to anyone who could possibly be offended while playing it. The reason for this is that you play a Nazi mouse skeleton, bent on conquering the world. The author may be happy to know that I wasn’t offended. In order to take over the world, you’ll need to get outside first, but the mouse hole is guarded by a cat (or its paw, to be more precise). The game is relatively short, and even though it features good graphics and sound, its lack of animation and game stopping bugs have left me disappointed.

Spooks is a very fine first attempt at creating an adventure game. You play a little ghoul girl who gets a goldfish and needs to find out how to keep it alive. That is, after she learns what “alive” means. Most of the game takes place in the Land of the Dead, in an amusement park. The graphics are presented in grayscale, which is quite atmospheric despite the fact that the colorful text gets somewhat in the way. A few times, the graphics backfire, when some items or hotspots are not readily recognizable. The game features a whole host of unique characters, and even though most of them play a very limited role, all are connected to puzzles in one way or the other. Speaking of puzzles, I found some of them to be quite inventive, while others were bland. There are plenty of cases where you need to deliver an item to a certain character, and so you’ll end up running in a big circle (the way the screens are designed it is indeed a circular path), doing FedEx quests. At the end, however, the game gets into a more adventurous mode, and despite the sad ending (I grew to like that little cynical ghoul) you’ll feel pretty satisfied once you finish.

Stan Ames, Private Eye - Episode 1 - Murder Incorporated. Let me start by saying that this was one of the most stomach-turning games I’ve ever played. There are no limits to art, but in some cases I’m not prepared to see and enjoy as despicable scenes as I’ve experienced here. You can pick your poison: tortured and murdered child, raped and murdered teenager, or (for me the worst part) having to kill an innocent bystander in order to solve a trivial puzzle and continue in the game. The readme file warns that the game contains gore, and that it should not be played by anyone below 17, and I would advise you to take the warning seriously. You play a private detective who investigates the disappearances of a group of scientists who worked in a large multinational company. In addition to the puzzles, which involve a great deal of pixel hunting, the game also features a few timed sequences, including a shootout action game towards the end, which I’ve been unable to complete. The production value is quite high, with very good isometric graphics and character animations that go beyond the usual standing and walking, and the music is very atmospheric. I can recommend this game for those with a good stomach; everybody else should stay away.

Interactive fiction
Building. Looking for improving your English? Look no further: with sentences like this, Building is the perfect game for you: “A garrulous display of floodlights spray up from the ground floor like failed fireworks, casting writhing shadows from the dense bushes that ring the building except where the sidewalk splits them asunder.” I personally don’t know how talkative floodlights may be, but that’s beyond the point. This is one of those text adventures that try to overwhelm you with complicated environmental description, which can be doubly confusing in this game, where you seem to suffer from a memory loss. It doesn’t help that you tend to pass out and reappear in strange places, with all your inventory missing. In this game, you are trying to rediscover yourself, as you explore a seemingly abandoned building process, but soon you give up on playing, as even with the new information you learn you’ll stay as confused as before.

The Makeshift Magician. You have learned a few magical tricks, and soon you got your first performance in front of about twenty children and their mothers. And while you need to entertain the children, it is their mothers who interest you more. This ADRIFT game takes place in a single room, with a slightly unfamiliar interface. As is the cause with so many other adventure games, you seem to suffer from amnesia, and can’t even remember what tricks you were supposed to perform. Once you remember you’ll need to figure out what items are needed for each trick and how to perform the trick, without any prior information. Fortunately, even the most general commands seem to suffice, and the game will soon be over once you learn its mechanics.

Other games
AGS-Invaders. This is a well done Space Invaders clone using the AGS engine. The game is very simple, both in terms of gameplay and interface. The graphics are very clean, and the sounds are appropriate. The only downside of this title is the somewhat awkward collision detection, which will cause you to get hit when the enemy ship or missile is still about half a ship length in front of you. Still, for those looking for some quick and short entertainment, this game will do its job well.

Dangerous Lands is an ambitious attempt at creating a large RPG/strategy game using the AGS engine. The game feels and plays similarly to King’s Bounty, a precursor to Heroes of Might and Magic, with you traveling the land, fulfilling various quests and facing bands of enemies. Unlike these games, however, in this title you are limited to a maximum of eight soldiers of four types. The author claims that there are over 50 quests and 30 different monsters, and I’m inclined to believe him, even though I failed to finish the game. Unfortunately, one of its biggest drawbacks is the lack of balance, with the first two hours or so the hero facing relatively easy battles, only to come across enemies that would decimate his army, and which must be defeated in order to access the remainder of the game. In addition, I found other problems as well, especially the sometimes busy battle screen, where units can move on top of each other, which makes it impossible to target the right unit, and an absolutely atrocious English. Still, this project has an enormous potential, and I’m hopeful that the author will continue polishing it for a better release.

All in all, I was quite happy with the February crop of games. One in particular, Frasse and the Peas of Kejick stands out as a very good and quite long adventure game, and has all the elements for being highly visible in next year’s adventure awards. Others, in particular Spooks, Automation and Heart of Abraxas were very entertaining, and the latter two also featured quite innovative game mechanics. Yet another well done game, Stan Ames 1, suffered from very questionable writing; a rarity on the independent adventuring scene. With only a few disappointing games and several good ones, February turned out to be great for adventure enthusiasts.

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