(Since I wrote this review, Karma Labs has responded to it.)
When commercial game companies stopped making text adventures in the late 1980's, a handful of small companies and interested amateurs picked up where the old companies had left off.
We're in an analagous situation with graphic adventures today. More and more we're seeing small companies, ones with three or four employees, creating adventure games. The technology to create graphic adventures is getting both easier to come by and cheaper. Thanks to the publishing efforts of Dreamcatcher and Cryo, a lot of those adventures are getting wide exposure.
This is a very good thing. Text adventures mutated into a variety of interesting forms once more people started making them. The same thing has been happening with graphic adventures. They no longer have to be like the LucasArts adventures, or like Myst.
Unfortunately, it also means that there will be games where the designers' ambition exceeds their design skills. It took time for the text adventure community to codify some basic design guidelines -- Graham Nelson's vaunted Player's Bill of Rights sparked a lot of heated discussion when it came out. The graphic adventure community has yet to do anything similar; until that happens, designers must figure out many things on their own.
Today's exhibit: Adventure at the Chateau d'Or. It's something of a budget title, retailing at $29.99. The game is the first one from Karma Labs.
It's also broken.
Oh, it runs. You can win the game. And it shows promise, enough that I'm interested in seeing what Karma Labs does next. But its gameplay is horribly, terribly flawed. The designers have gone on an archaeology trip and have unearthed all of the mistakes prior graphic adventure games have made, chipped them carefully out of their amber prisons, and placed them lovingly in this game.
In Adventure at the Chateau d'Or, a "modern day princess" receives a strange letter telling her that she has inherited the chateau of her late uncle, the Duke. The letter hints at mysteries to be uncovered. Off she goes to the chateau, taking you with her.
Once at the chateau she strolls off, leaving you to your own devices. So far, so good. But what you're left to do is gather random items, learn French history so you can answer some quiz questions, and wander about with no real direction or pacing.
I mislead, though with the best intentions. There is one moment in the game in which time becomes your enemy. It's not a long moment, it's not a terribly hard moment, but it is an Annoying Moment. It is, if you will, as close to the Platonic ideal of an Annoying Moment as you can get without living in Carrot Top's palatial mansion.
I'm already ranting about design. Sorry, sorry, I meant to save that for closer to the end.
Gameplay is as in Myst: first-person perspective, slide-show pictures of each location, a mouse cursor which lets you move forward or turn around. There's an inventory and a little PDA known as H.I.M., Hero's Information Manager. Your H.I.M. holds a map of the chateau as well as the solution to one of the puzzles in the game. (No, I'm not spoiling the game for you. This is no more information than is given in the CD booklet which comes with the game.)
Graphics are passable, and work fine for a title such as this. Not every game can or should be Myst. The game is attempting to invoke the feel of a French chateau, and it does so.
Music -- well. There is different music for different locations, and the music often suited the location. But none of the music is longer than about one minute or so. Then it repeats.
I didn't notice this fact until I'd been in the Artist's Studio for a while, trying to solve a puzzle. I was seized with the urge to climb the walls, run away, do anything other than sit in front of the computer and play the game any more. The music in that one location had just about driven me mad.
Misty turned the music's volume down and I was much happier from then on.
Puzzles in Adventure at the Chateau d'Or come in two varieties. The first are puzzles of experimentation. Find stuff and fiddle with it to see what happens. The second are puzzles of memorization. Here's a giant wodge of French history, with some architecture thrown in. Memorize it. You will be quizzed later.
Right, now that all of that's out of the way I can rant about design. I fear this will take a while, so sit back. Design flaw the first: you are given no direction or pacing. Here is this big house; go ye into all the rooms and see what you find. It is not until the end that you are given a true goal you can focus on.
You in the back, the one jumping up and down and shouting, "But Myst got away with that!" You can sit down now. You're absolutely right. Plenty of games have used this style of gameplay. It doesn't work here, though, because of design flaw the second: you are not adequately rewarded for your exploration. When you begin the game the entire chateau is available to you, save for some rooms behind locked doors. Often games give you access to neat new areas of the game as you progress. Not so here. Nor did the story progress as I went along -- really, there was no story to progress.
Design flaw the third: not enough feedback. I mentioned how doors in the chateau were locked. To unlock them, you had to do a variety of things, none of which were obviously connected to the locked doors. I offer as a counter-example the Myst series. They excel at giving you mechanisms to thwap which you can look at and understand what they should do. Adventure at the Chateau d'Or gives you vases and halberds and other random things which I had to manipulate merely because I could. Feedback, gentle designers. Give me little hints to let me know I'm on the right track, or have veered off onto the wrong one.
Design flaw the fourth: the quiz puzzle, though "puzzle" is a misnomer. It's more of a homework assignment. At one point, to progress you must answer questions about French history and architecture. The answers don't require you to synthesize new knowledge. Reference materials are available in the chateau. As you read them, keywords are entered in your H.I.M. During the quiz you select the proper answer from the list in your H.I.M. When I was done I didn't feel clever. I hadn't figured out anything. I'd just parrotted back material I'd read elsewhere.
And the quiz is made harder by the lack of subtitles. The man asking you the questions speaks rapidly, making it hard to understand him. And woe to you should you get questions wrong. Every time you give an answer from your list, it vanishes whether you get the question wrong or right. And once it's gone you can't select it again, so if you get questions wrong and have to start the quiz over again, you'll be minus a few answers.
Design flaw the fifth: the timed puzzle. (I'm going to have to spoil this part of the game a bit in order to make a point. It's an important point, though, and a small spoiler.) At one point in the game you end up in a locked room. As soon as you're in there, a "life force" bar appears. That bar starts counting down, and when it runs out, so does your game.
Fine, fine. It's a little strange that there's this timed section in the middle of an otherwise-untimed game, but I can deal with that.
Inside that room are some materials you have to read. (Have to. Really. If you play the game you'll understand why.) In fact, there are three pages of notes.
You cannot take the notes with you.
I will pause to let that sink in.
You must stand there in the middle of a room, your life force ebbing away, and read three pages of notes.
To quote Brad Dourif, "No no no no no no no!" Listen closely, you who would design an adventure game: do not give me a task to do which benefits from careful attention and put it in the middle of a timed section.
Or if you do, be sure to have an unlisted phone number.
The game is astoundingly short. My gameplay clocked in at just under three hours. I suspect the average will be between three and five hours.
To wrap this up, the game's promise is trampled underfoot by the many missed opportunities. There are some nice ideas tucked away in the game -- it certainly has an interesting premise -- but you're likely to miss them out of frustration with the game.
PC: Pentium 100 MHz, Windows 95 or later, 32MB RAM, 70MB hard drive space, 4x CD-ROM drive, SVGA graphics card.
Mac: PowerPC chip, MacOS 7.5.5 or later, 32MB RAM, 70MB hard drive space, 4x CD-ROM drive, SVGA graphics card.
My computer: iMac DVD SE (400 MHz PowerPC, 386 MB of RAM, 24x CD-ROM), MacOS 9.1.
Bugs: Strange things happened with some items at the end of the game. I had to go back and get them again; apparently they'd been sent back to where they started for no apparent reason.
(Since this review was written, Karma Labs has responded to it.)