The Inquisitor: The Plague

[7 October 2013]

By Eric Swain

The Inquisitor is the first game whose premise alone—without hype or prior recommendation—made me want to play it. You play as a Catholic inquisitor during the Middle Ages in Europe on a mission to out heretics and dispel the a land ravaged by demons. The inquisitor’s name is Nicholas Eymerich. Apparently he was a real life figure later turned into the main character of a series of novels by Valerio Evangelisti. This game is based of the mythology of those novels. Nicholas has been called out of semi-retirement to investigate the disappearance of the previous inquisitor sent to root out heretics in the south of France.

Right away we have a set up not seen in video games too often (or at all for that matter) and the game has some idea of where it wants to take its material. The colors are drab and everything has a tint of muddy yellow. The whole look of the monastery where the first episode takes place gives an impression of the less than sanitary life those of the period experienced. The environment speaks to disease and grime, at least as much as the engine will allow. Dramatic scenes in which Nicholas really lets loose his self righteous fury are accompanied by anachronistic high powered rock music. Despite the out-there stylistic choice, this tone works to underscore the intensity of the character’s convictions and really are the game’s highlight moments. It’s a pity, then, that so little about the game works close to as well as its visual and aural aesthetics do.

The Inquisiotr is a point-and-click adventure games that falls prey to so many of the genre’s pitfalls. The game lets you press a button to highlight all the objects you can interact with in a room, as has become the norm, and the interface also features an image of a cross that will fill up over time, which you then can click on to make Nicholas automatically take the next action that will advance the game forward. It is a nice feature that I would have liked to have been told existed several hours before I accidentally clicked it and found out what it did, especially because the logic of some of these puzzles approach mid-90s adventure game bad.

Small inconsequential items end up coming together to create solutions to problems that only exist to pad out the run time of the game. They might add challenge to hardcore logic-defying puzzle lovers, but they make no internal sense and grind against what the game is trying to do otherwise. The game won’t allow you to do things in any order, dictating only what it allows a sthe “proper path” through the game. You cannot pick up a nut, despite knowing your going to need it, until you get a list of ingredients for a magical totem that includes the nut. It gets worse in that some of the triggering events to allow progress in one area have no connection to the things that triggered the change.

It also doesn’t help that the game leaves you directionless much of the time. And I don’t mean moments when you have to figure out how to get to your next objective. I mean that at a few points the game either obscures or neglect to tell you your immediate objective at all. You have a journal that will list your current tasks, but they are written ina manner that that is either blindingly obvious or completely unhelpful. The one constant item on Nicholas’s to-do list is to go back and see the abbot, something that you cannot do until the very end of the episode. Yet Nicholas will constantly repeat that need like it’s the next thing that the player should be doing, while your notebook remains devoid of any indication of other things that you need to do before that journey back. And early on the game give you no direction at all.

I spent a long time trying to figure out what the game wanted me to do, and I eventually had to look it up in an FAQ. It turned out I had to walk through a random hallway—something the game discourages with its fast travel system—and talk to a random NPC that wasn’t there before and disappears afterwards and whose sole purpose is to instigate the next chain of events. The game will not proceed without this conversation, and there is no clue or hint that you need to walk through this particular hallway, and given that none of the other characters wandering the halls are helpful, there’s no reason to suspect this one will be either.

The whole structure of the experience is based on what the game thinks adventure games are suppose to be. It knows point-and-click adventure games have puzzles, so it puts them in, whether they make sense in terms of pacing or narrative logic. It needs locks and other barriers, but it doesn’t understand why they became a part of the genre in the first place or how they were implemented in ineteresting ways. One of these metaphorical locks is finding the exact book that it wants you to find in a large shelf of books that all look the same. There’s no timer, save one’s waning patience as the game pauses for Nicholas to slowly explain in the exact same words and tone every time that this is indeed not the book that he is looking for. And I know I will eventually go through this curtain, but Nicholas refuses to explore it until he gets a detailed explanation of what lies behind it.

Now, of course, the player is offered what amounts to a skip button, which apparently deducts one point from your final score for each time you use it (The Inquisitor apparently keeps score of the total experience), but soon the frustrations that the game creates were much and I ended up spamming that button to solve any puzzle that wasn’t obvious. It led to a strange experience. Frustration and hatred for the obtuse design set in, followed by relief that there was a method to circumvent this madness, before finally deeling despair at a game that encourages the button’s overuse. I ended up watching, not playing, most of the end section of the game.

These problems are rather standard to the genre and while they are nowhere near the most egregiously awful implementation of them, they just grate on one’s nerves. It doesn’t help that Nicholas has a very limited set of lines that he will say at every single click of the mouse and that the game will not let you skip.

The only thing that redeems any part of the game is Nicholas’s harsh, unhinged charisma. Hearing him lay down his holy wrath on an unsuspecting heretic or blasphemer is an affront to every modern moral that we hold dear and despicable in light of any historical knowledge of the inquisition, but you cannot turn your eyes away from the screen. He commands attention if nothing else. These moments were almost enough for me to ignore that the game only really spelled out what the end goal of this episode was when he was achieving it. When he is crowned High Inquisitor, the game acts like this is a great triumph.  But I didn’t know that’s what all this was leading up to. The main driving force of the action itself was just to gather information for the upcoming mission.

There’s a small scene in a village followed by a really trippy dream sequence that wraps up the episode, which I suppose is a teaser for what will come in the next release.  The game hints at greater mysteries and a world where demons and unholy nightmare creatures of myth are real, but it’s all obscured behind poor implementation and shoddy design. The material promises something great, a unique experience in a video game, and in better hands, it might have been worth the time to explore that promise.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/175710-the-inquisitor-the-plague/