I have this rule, see, about movies. Whenever I see a movie poster with those little one-line mini reviews from critics, and that one-liner is just about how the film is like some other film, I get worried. “More action than The Fast and the Furious and National Treasure combined!” they promise. However, as any film buff knows, these sorts of referential comments usually translate to “this film is so lame we couldn’t think of anything original to say about it.” Those films are almost always a waste of my time and money.
So imagine my gut-wrenching consternation when I picked up the box for Razbor Studios’ point-and-click adventure title Legacy: Dark Shadows, and saw this comment emblazoned on the box:
“Finally, someone who realized that The Longest Journey had a perfect interface, and decided to work on something similar.”
I’ve never seen this phenomenon on game boxes before, but it was only a matter of time, right? “Be afraid,” I thought to myself. “Be very afraid.”
My troubles with this “game” (and I use the term loosely. “Interactive storybook” might be a better term, for reasons I’ll discuss later) began at installation. I had to load the game no less than three separate times, when the buggy installer application hung up and became non-responsive. Eventually, I just told the game to load to the default Windows folder (even the selection box that was supposed to allow me to choose my own location was bugged) and went out to have dinner. After about two hours, I finally managed to get the game loaded.
I launched into a broken, dingy brown, new game screen, complete with an early 1990’s era menu, space age synthesizer music, and near-unreadable text. I’ll give the menu this: it certainly did evoke a sense of nostalgia for the “Good Old Days” of point-and-click adventure games from a decade ago, although I suspect that this was not the developer’s conscious intent.
Launching a new game took me straight into (what is considered) the action, with no fancy-shmancy opening cinema or music. The game box promises “Your adventure will involve two very different main characters and span many different time periods,” so I was not surprised to begin the game in a black-and-white scene set in a WWII trench. This was an interesting approach to a prologue, but a piece of annoying, looped music and some of the worst character dialogue that I’ve heard in years mars the potentially credible scene. Mercifully, the WWII “prologue” presents only three screens and a single event (don’t blink or you’ll miss it), before launching the player into an exciting futuristic world, where women wear their thongs on the outside of their clothes and everyone speaks with a thick Slavic accent!
From there, the player follows the exploits of Ren Silver, who is a detective of some sort, vacationing on Mars. The thrilling roller coaster ride (“More chills and spills than a James Bond film festival, honest!”) continues as Ren is summoned back to Earth to investigate the disappearance of her partner, Ted.
I’m not going to mince words with you, I’m just going to come out and say it: this game is bloody awful. It has awful music and awful pixel-hunting sessions, in which the player looks for tiny, murky-brown (or even invisible) clues in dark, murky-brown and gray environments. The dialogue is poorly written. Character models are poorly animated. Dark Shadows includes a clich?-ridden plot involving bad guys with IQs in the single digits. The list goes on and on. As I played through Legacy: Dark Shadows, I kept waiting for it to get better, waiting to do something or see something – anything – that was at least a teensy-bit better or, at the very least, different than what I’d done or seen before. But, alas, Dark Shadows never manages the trick.
If you loved the immersive game play of titles like Syberia or The Longest Journey, that include lush graphics, compelling stories, interesting characters, and top-notch production values, go play those games again, and don’t waste your time with this weak B-grade stinker.
Game Play: The inventory menu is easy to use (once you figure out that you need to click beside the actual interface item you want to use instead of on it – a very disturbing thing for a game that’s all about pixel-hunting for tiny objects), but that’s about the extent of my praise.
Plot pacing is glacially slow and uninteresting. Dark Shadows touts “heavy emphasis on non-linear game play,” by which I assume they mean that when talking to NPCs, the player is usually offered two or three different dialogue options initially. Which one you choose, however, seems irrelevant to the story’s outcome, as you usually run through them all eventually in the course of the conversation. I felt firmly “on the rails” almost every moment I played. Puzzles are inventory-based almost exclusively, with a few simplistic “turn the switches” type logic puzzles scattered in. Bad guys are painfully dumb, so much so that any last lingering traces of suspension of disbelief that might survive the game’s technical shortcomings will doubtless be eradicated. The game is also very unstable, and often crashes to the desktop. It’s a good thing the game offers extensive Save Game slots – use them or risk having your game progress lost.
Graphics: Some of the backgrounds in Dark Shadows are well-rendered, dutifully depicting a gritty, Blade Runner-esque world, but the 3D elements are crude and primitive. I realize that people play Adventure games for the plot and story, and not for cutting-edge, FPS-grade eye candy, but if a player has to stare at a character for hours upon hours, then the avatar should at least be interesting, or barring that, at least not be ugly. Menu item graphics are a throwback to early-90’s titles, crudely drawn and often times impossible to make out without their pop-up text description. Razbor really should have just done this title completely in 2-D and spent whatever cash they invested in licensing the game engine on a bigger graphics team and another few copies of Photoshop – it probably would have turned out better for them in the long run.
Audio: Dark Shadows’ sound is the real Achilles’ Heel in an already weak title. Razbor Studios is based out of Croatia, and you’ll certainly be able aware of that fact over and over as you struggle through the heavily accented dialogue. To their credit, the developers did record all the dialogue and did not simply rely on text, but it’s clear they did it on a shoestring, since the playback quality is dreadful. The actors hired to read the lines often sound more than half-asleep. Did the developers just pull people off the street to cold-read some dialogue that they often did not understand into a microphone? It sounds that way: “Hey, is that your hovercraft (pronounced “hoovercraft” )outside?” “Why yes, that is my blue hovercraft.” Someone, please, shoot me now. Couple the amateurish dialogue with some of the weirdest environmental sound FX I’ve heard to date (a notable, and annoying “flushing toilet” sound in an early street scene, which was not only confusing but downright irritating springs to mind), and you have a true recipe for a design disaster. After about an hour, I just turned my speakers off and relied on the dialogue text, and the game notably improved. You have to love it when the absence of audio actually improves the game experience.
Value: The plot is long enough at least, taking several hours to work through. Although, to be fair, the occasionally frustrating pixel-hunts the game forces upon you probably added a good two hours to my play-through time – not necessarily a good thing in my mind. Whether or not this time investment is a positive aspect of Dark Shadows is dependent on how the graphics and audio weaknesses of the game affect you. If you can see past the game’s many flaws, you’ll at least have a title that should take you several evenings to play all the way through. I admit, I did not play this stinker through a second time, trying alternate conversation options to see if they would generate different endings or plot-twists, as I felt that the “totally on rails” story progression would not be altered by choosing conversation option number two before option number one. Legacy: Dark Shadows plays like an interactive book more than a game that touts its “non-linear game play.”
Curve: Dark Shadows represents a giant step backwards in the Adventure game genre. There’s nothing here that we haven’t seen elsewhere in other titles, that implemented the same elements better anyway – and they did so back in 1992.
Look for Legacy: Dark Shadows – coming soon to a discount bin or yard sale near you!