Reviewed by Mark Hasley
Take the year 1727. To that year add an ancient curse, a mysterious baronial estate, a twisted and evil secret past, and a mysterious death. Place that whole classically Gothic combination on a beautifully gloomy island that is located off the coast of England but seems to exist by itself. Add a fairly simple but entertaining mystery story and a long unseen demon with a vaguely remembered but violent history. If that entire literary stew was sprinkled with an elegantly crafted atmosphere and beautiful artwork, then someone should have developed a nearly perfect adventure game. In the newly released Dead Reefs they almost did.
The story contains little that could be considered unique or new, but the tale is quite clearly and very well told. It seems that "Once upon a time" the island named 'Dead Reefs' was a haven for evil pirates who lured passing ships to crash onto the reefs. These evildoers would then murder the crews of the ships and plunder the contents of the wrecks. It seems that one of these ships carried a demonic relic that would cause several mysterious deaths. One hundred years have gone by, and it seems that these deaths have apparently begun again. The gamer plays a royal investigator who has been sent by the King to see what, in fact, is going on. This detective (who has what must be recognized as one of the great names in the history of adventure gaming) is called Armideo Finvinero. He has been assigned the task of finding out how the Baron’s youngest son, Patrick, was killed. His investigation constitutes the game. The story also is the reason that the game is generally a linear one. The player will have to complete one set of actions before he can proceed. There were a few exceptions to this statement, but very few. Without giving too much away, be assured that the story was well and cleverly told. There was no blood or gore, and no blatant ugliness, so the 'Teen' rating is completely reasonable. It was simply a Gothic version of a Sherlock Holmes-type mystery story, which then morphed seamlessly into a Lovecraftian horror story. I liked the tale a lot!
I will, for the moment, skip any comment on the interface and move on to some other elements of the game. The entire world of Dead Reefs looks and sounds wonderful. The visuals are exquisitely lovely. The wind and water effects are really impressive. Indeed the water effects are virtually perfect. Hopefully the pictures that appear with this review can show some of the details that the gamer will enjoy, but they can’t be big enough to show everything. The weather in the game changes logically from storm to sun and from day to night. The textures of the buildings, the seemingly infinite variety of the trees and rocks, the strange but perfectly rendered birds, and the well presented facial expressions of the characters, all combine to make this a visually stunning game. Not only are the backgrounds and general scenes most impressive, but the many cut scenes are also impressively executed and fit into the plot without a hesitation or flaw.
One odd but notable example should show the amount of detail here. The game is set in early October. As Finvinero wanders all over the island searching for answers or clues, there are lots of leaves falling softly from the various trees. I was about halfway through the game before I realized that there were several different kinds of leaves falling from the different trees. I also noted that they were falling a bit faster or slower, depending on how hard the wind was blowing. For some reason this really impressed me. The settings for all the varied scenes had these kinds of details. The buildings are made of many different types of building materials. There are many different kinds of shrubs and flowers. The various scenes on, in, or near the water display the best water effects that I have ever seen in a game. Even the mists that inevitably surround a spooky old fishing/shipping village are well done. All in all, the visuals in Dead Reefs are as good as a player is likely to find.
The music too is perfectly used. There is a lot of piano, but it’s always backed up with some orchestration, and always sets the mood for the particular spot where the gamer finds himself. What really impressed me was that somehow, throughout the entire game, the music added an undertone of melancholy. The story provided thrills and fears, but the music allowed a certain sense of sadness to pervade the entire situation. It seems that the characters and the gamer were aware that the island of Dead Reefs was being forced to pay for sins which had been committed many years ago. The game was seldom gloomy, but it often felt sad. As I re-read this I am aware that it doesn’t seem too important; and indeed it is only background music. However, the gamer may be assured that the music adds an important element to the game.
Obviously, there are other sounds here too. The proverbial 'ambient sounds' are well used and add a touch of common background. Gulls sound like gulls, the wind sounds like the wind, and old ships (of which there are several) creak and groan as they should. Things sound like they should sound. The voice acting is as good as a player is likely to find. Everyone sounds as though they are English while speaking English, but the game developers have cleverly avoided the trite British accents that often damage games. There are no cheap cockney accents, and Rex Harrison is not likely to show up correcting everyone. The voices were also very carefully matched to the facial movements of the characters. Even in close-ups of conversation, the people who were speaking looked as though they were speaking. And I suppose that this is as good a point as any to note that the main character, Finvinero, looks and sounds a great deal like Johnny Depp. It is done well, although I cannot think of any reason why it was done that way.
So..... Dead Reefs is state-of-the-art when discussing the visual elements. It is excellent when defined in the area of scene and sound. It has a clearly written and easily understood plot. The characters and the sounds are well developed and entertainingly presented. Why then did I use the word ”Almost” in the first paragraph? It’s simple. This game has one of the silliest, most awkward, most irritating interfaces that I have ever seen in an adventure game. And it is made even more irksome because with just a bit more tweaking, the developer would have been on the verge of excellence. Instead the game has nearly been ruined.
Dead Reefs is a third person game. The player controls the functions of the aforementioned Armideo Finvinero. The keyboard controls the character, and everything else. I am not one of those adventure gamers who hates keyboard controls, so that fact in itself is not automatically a negative element. The gamer uses a key to turn left, another to turn right, a third to turn around, and a fourth to go forward. There are also various buttons to examine documents, display the inventory, and read various items and papers. However, I had a few problems with the entire concept.
The key used to make Finvinero go forward was the 'W' key. The key used to access the various documents was the 'Q' key. They are right next to each other on the keyboard. Since I have adult-sized hands, this fact caused me a few difficulties. I sometimes hit the wrong button at the wrong time. There were several times, especially during a timed puzzle, that I nudged the 'Q' key instead of the 'W' key. A book or paper appeared when I didn’t want it to, time was lost, and I died.
Also I played the entire game, with some care, twice, and never quite figured out how to stop my character once he got going. Several different keys and key taps worked sometimes, but nothing worked all the time, and poor Finvinero just kept going. This made for lots of distance and time lost. I became so frustrated that I did what adventure gamers have done for years. I made sure my character was always running into something. I would aim for a large tree or a thick wall and the poor detective would strut along until he ran into that object. Only then could I turn and tap a key and get him to go where he wanted to go. It certainly put a damper on any feeling of realism. I also couldn’t always stop the detective from turning too much or too fast. Sometimes, when attempting to turn left or right, he would simply spin for a while before settling on a direction. Only after the spin stopped could I choose a large object and smack him into it. All in all, moving the character from one point to another was, for me, consistently cumbersome and irritating.
The inventory is easily accessed and contained all of the items that Finvinero has acquired during the game. There were also a couple of what have become standard, but are still very helpful, items. One of the documents that was always available was the detective’s notebook. The valuable information and all of the clues that the gamer has acquired up to that point are automatically recorded in it. This was a very helpful tool and tended to eliminate the need to take copious notes. This part of the game worked fine. The inventory also included the now-typical ‘gaming map’ that allows for rapid movement in the game once the various areas have been initially explored. However this item also had a touch of strangeness. It worked well, but only outdoors. If Finvinero is inside a large building (say a large Baronial estate), he had to leave that building in order for the map to work. Again, the process worked well enough, but at times the additional work of getting outside while knowing Finvinero needed to go someplace else was simply pointless and irritating.
The interface wasn’t all bad. It was simply all awkward. There were some clever items included, but even these clever elements were bothersome. For instance, as is true in many third person games, there were times when the player wanted a different perspective. With a simple tap of the 'Tab' key, the viewpoint shifted subtly and the gamer was treated to a different, but still third person, view of the situation. This was a fine and a refreshingly helpful idea. The only problem with it was that a different view was only available sometimes. I never figured out how to learn when it was available. The 'Tab' key simply worked, or it didn’t.
There were a few other things about the interface that I really liked. There were limitless saves, which was quite important since I learned that Armideo Finvinero could die at several points in the game. (There was also another spot titled 'Auto save', but I never could seem to make it operate. But that isn’t really a fair comment, because I never actually cared if it worked. The voluntary save process worked fine, without problems, and I could go back to where and when I wished. So I never concerned myself with the Auto save process.) Also there were subtitles, which I always use and appreciate in a game, since I’ve reached the age where I can read much better that I can hear. Another fact that I really enjoyed was that when running, Armideo Finvinero could run up or down stairs as well as on flat surfaces. For no logical or explainable reason, it always bothered me that Kate Walker couldn’t run up or down stairs. So I enjoyed the fact that Armideo could. And a final positive note is that there was a rather interesting ‘hint’ system. If the gamer tapped the 'X' key, the game converted to a first person view of whatever area he was playing. Finvinero couldn’t move from that location, but he (and the gamer) could scan up, down, left or right, and large eyeball symbols showed whatever areas would need attention when he returned to the third person mode.
However, these very minor positives can’t change the fact that the keyboard controls, with their awkwardness and function drawbacks, really lessened my enjoyment of the game.
Finally, any adventure should be judged most carefully on its puzzles. Perhaps what so completely frustrated me about the interface was that everything else in the game, especially the puzzles, was really well done. Dead Reefs provides the gamer with just about every kind of puzzle that can be imagined. There are a few code-solving puzzles, several inventory puzzles, a couple of the old reliable 'find-the-key' puzzles, a music puzzle, and some 'find-the-clue' puzzles. There is even a maze. There are a few timed puzzles, and there are several places where Finvinero can die. (And the game will not recycle from the point of his dying, so save often is the order of the day.) The puzzles range in difficulty from rather easy to very difficult. This is especially true in the case of the final and most important puzzle. It was made even more difficult due to the fact that in the original set of games the clues provided to solve the puzzle were not correct. A completely different answer was required to finish the game. I assume, but have not read, that this problem will be fixed in later versions of the game. However note that, without exception, any given puzzle was perfectly woven into and was part of the plot. At no time did I feel that the problems were simply ‘stuffed in’. The puzzles were really well integrated into the game. Decoding of documents and analysis of maps was reasonably and entertainingly done. The only 'unfair' elements to the game were caused, again, by the interface. The timed puzzles were reasonably timed, but since I couldn’t always stop Finvinero from walking away, I lost time, couldn’t get him where I wanted him to be, and died. When I knew what I was supposed to do and still got killed, it was irksome.
All in all, Dead Reefs was a fairly pleasant game that should have been much better. I greatly enjoyed the scenery and the attention to detail. I was thoroughly impressed with the plot and the voice acting. The tone and atmosphere were perfect for what this game was intended to be. This should have been a game that joined my list of 'replay-keepers'. It should have caused me to write a glowing review, and filled me with the intention to play it again. However the beauty of the game, the exquisiteness of the atmosphere, and the clever effectiveness of the various and varied puzzles, were all significantly lessened by the awkward and irritating interface. The game required more work than it should have, and this drained some of the fun from it. It was worth playing, but it could have, and should have, been one of the all-time great adventure games. Sadly, it was not.
© August 2007 Mark Hasley
Developed (2007) by Streko Graphics and published by The Adventure Company.
Rated: T for Teen 13+ (alcohol reference, mild blood, mild violence)
Minimum System Requirements:
PC: AMD 1800 + (1.5 GHz) or Intel 1.8 GHz Processor (AMD 2200 + (1.8 GHz) or Intel 2.2 GHz Recommended); 2000 / XP / Vista; 512 MB RAM (1 GB Recommended); 4X CD-ROM or PC DVD-ROM Drive; nVidia GeForce 5200fx or ATI Radeon 9200 Video Card; 16 Bit Sound Card (DirectX 9.0c Compatible Recommended); 860 MB of Free Hard Drive Space; DirectX 9.0c; Mouse, Keyboard and Speakers (5.1 Speakers Recommended)
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