[29 January 2009]
Remember adventure games?
Yes, I know. A dead or dying breed, adventure games, for the most part, got swept out with the ashes of Windows 95 and the rest of the mid-to-late nineties garbage. But with the release of A Vampyre Story last November, I had high hopes for the return of one of my favorite genres, especially given that Bill Tiller (of Monkey Island fame) spearheaded the project. Extra points for a female protagonist and a cherry on top for fortuitously coinciding with the Twilight-induced vampire craze that’s currently sweeping the nation. Sadly, someone should have told Tiller that working as a graphic artist on a successful game does not necessarily translate into the ability to successfully write and develop one, and A Vampyre Story left me colder than a dead opera starlet’s manicured hand.
When A Vampyre Story crossed my desk, I was pretty excited. My excitement was somewhat dampened, however, when I tried to install the game onto my laptop. I generally use my souped-up desktop to review games, but I figured, hey, it’s an adventure game, how much power could I need?
My four-year-old laptop has an incompatible graphics card, and as a result I had serious installation problems. I had a crash-to-desktop error on startup and had to go troubleshooting. I downloaded and installed the patch, but thanks to the very scanty documentation about the patch, I had to find my solution on the adventuregamers.com forums. It turns out that the default anti-aliasing setting causes problems with some graphics drivers, so if you’re having trouble launching A Vampyre Story, you have to manually select “Safe AA” when you apply the patch. The problem is, if you don’t know that it’s an anti-aliasing setting that’s causing the crash, how would you know to choose the alternate patch mode?
Long story short, I had to solve a convoluted, poorly-executed puzzle before I could load up and play my new adventure game. How satisfyingly ironic. How unspeakably frustrating.
When I finally loaded up the game and got started, I was pleased to discover that the gorgeous, hand-painted backgrounds were everything I had hoped. The sweeping landscapes are stellar, and the art style is cartoonish without being juvenile. The music, too, is spectacular, setting the mood in every location and pulling the game together with a musical score that is both varied and cohesive. Even the back story is an intriguing and unique twist on the usual grim-and-grimy vampire tale.
In 1895, a beautiful young opera singer, Mona de Lafitte, has been kidnapped and locked in Castle Warg by a stunted, homely vampire with a Napoleon complex and a voice like Peter Lorre’s. Mona’s fondest wish is to return to Paris to resume her singing career, but her escape is prevented first by her captor’s romantic obsession with her, and then by the unique restrictions placed upon her by the fact that she, too, is a child of the night.
Unwilling to accept the fact that her life is over and her undeath has only just begun, Mona chooses to believe that the thick crimson liquid she drinks is a very special vintage of merlot, that the dirt-filled coffin in which she sleeps is a cozy bed, and that her ability to change into a bat is some effect of a spell that her captor must have cursed her with. When her captor fails to return from a trip to the “wine shop,” Mona sees an opportunity to escape. With your help, faithful gamer, and the aid of her pet bat, Froderick, will Mona be able to make it back to Paris to sing once again in the Paris Opera?
No, she won’t. I hate to offer a spoiler here, but A Vampyre Story is part one of a planned trilogy, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the happily-ever-after doesn’t quite arrive at the end of this chapter. Which brings me to my first and most important complaint: no matter how good the game is, I would rather not pay $90 over the next two years to collect all three parts of a game that will probably not, in total, offer more than 40 hours of entertainment with no replay value. (I base this estimate on the fact that I played through part one in under ten hours with minimal use of hints; your mileage may vary.)
Unfortunately, the lack of a satisfying denouement is not the most disappointing aspect of A Vampyre Story. The uninspired voice acting was pretty terrible, and the character development was severely lacking, even among the main characters. For some reason, even though Castle Warg is located in the fictional Eastern European country of Draxylvania, the castle rats sound like Italian-American mobsters, the Iron Maiden has the Northwestern lilt of a Sarah Palin soundalike, and Froderick’s Woody Allen-esque demeanor places his origins closer to the South Bronx than a baron’s cursed palace in the middle of a frozen swamp. It’s like the designers opened an enormous box labeled “stock characters,” shook it, and used whatever fell out.
The most egregious foul, however, lies in the development (or lack thereof) of Mona de Lafitte. In video games, female protagonists should serve to draw in women players, but Mona’s vain, shallow, and lazy persona will repulse some and offend others. If Monkey Island’s Guybrush Threepwood was one of the most likeable characters in the history of adventure games, then Mona de Lafitte is the yin to his yang. Naïve and self-centered, Mona openly shuns reading and all kinds of physical labor. Fame motivates all her actions, and even her beloved opera is only so cherished because it represents her path to greatness. Her voice is shrill and whiny, and her accent is less “Paris opera star” and more “vaguely European with a mild speech impediment.”
It’s never a good idea to have an unsympathetic main character, and Mona’s decisions often seem arbitrary. She is sometimes compassionate, sometimes cruel, so when she refuses to perform an action that seems useful on ethical grounds, it tends to strain the limits of believability. For an adventure game to work, the player really ought to want to see the protagonist succeed, but that feature is lacking in A Vampyre Story.
Some old bugaboos that haunted adventure games of old are, mercifully, corrected in this late example of the genre. For instance, conversation paths are grayed out once they have been exhausted, so you don’t have to remember which options you have already selected. Furthermore, the inventory can be accessed via left-click, freeing up screen space in the main game for navigation and a deeper appreciation of the artwork. Items can be combined within the inventory, and if an object is too large or cumbersome for Mona to carry (opera gowns don’t often come equipped with pockets), she can carry with her the idea of the object for later retrieval.
Yet some of the more irritating problems with adventure games remain. For several puzzles, Mona gets sent on an errand from one end of the castle to the other, about eight screens away. While it’s possible to teleport Mona across the screen with the space bar (thus skipping her sultry but protracted saunter from doorway to doorway), screen loads can take anywhere from five seconds to half a minute, depending on the speed of your system. That’s a lot of lost game time for an unnecessarily drawn-out quest, especially when Penny Arcade Adventures so masterfully sidestepped this issue by allowing players to zip from one set of locations to another via menu screen. Why did Autumn Moon Entertainment fail to consider that Mona’s vampirism is the perfect excuse to allow teleportation? More importantly, why doesn’t anybody consult me on stuff like this?
Finally, we must examine the puzzles themselves. I won’t get too specific for fear of giving out spoilers, but I found A Vampyre Story to have the usual mix of simple errands, complicated but internally logical puzzles, and enigmatic and arbitrary riddles that can only be solved with the “randomly throw every item in your inventory at every object in the room” approach. Of course, there’s no way for the developer to predict what will be obvious and what will be obtuse to an individual player, but I do wish Autumn Moon had chosen to include more in-game clues. For instance, when I chose to “examine” a well in the village, it might have been helpful for Mona to say something like, “I wonder what’s at the bottom, maybe I could fly down and see,” instead of, “It’s a well.”
All in all, A Vampyre Story offers stunning graphics, fantastic soundscapes, and challenging puzzles. But its stilted dialog, abhorrent voice acting, and a few systematic annoyances mar the finish on what could have been a very promising title. And when it comes right down to it, an adventure game with bad writing is a very poor game indeed.