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Video Game Thoughts: Sepulchre (2013)

by Jamie Downes

Developer – Owl Cave

Genre – Point-and-Click (Horror / Thriller)

Released – 2013

Price – Free!

Before diving head-first into this write-up, and without intending to falsely claim any amplitude of influence on the matter, I just wanted to articulate a quick appeal to any potential readers who may look upon non-casual video games as an activity for an alien community that they are automatically outcast from. That is to say, if your usual method of story consumption is via books, film or TV drama, please do not be afraid to give the humble point-and-click adventure game a chance – when done this well, it is simply another way of presenting a story, one that is close enough to the other mediums to be familiar, but distinct enough to warrant your attention in its own right. The context in which I proceed to discuss Sepulchre may admittedly elude you, so here is the link to freely and legally download the game. It will take 30-60 minutes to complete, and saves automatically upon your exiting the game, should you wish to take a break.

Onwards…

It’s a wonderful thing when an activity you have long enjoyed, but more recently begun to question, is once again demonstrated to still possess the qualities that endeared it to you in the first place. Written and directed by Ashton Raze (Richard & Alice) with art provided by the preposterously prolific Ben Chandler (more good-looking games than you could shake an exceedingly large, but surprisingly lightweight tree at), Sepulchre is a traditional point-and-click adventure game that, most crucially, is developed by a team with unequivocal confidence in their vision. To go into details about the story is to unnecessarily give too much away – indeed, it is a game best enjoyed with minimal prior knowledge of what is to come – but suffice to say it is a Lovecraftian tale where the creepy, mysterious atmosphere is not just built, but maintained. The competence of the writing, attention to detail in the dialogue, calibre of voice-acting and superb efficacy of the soundtrack (courtesy of Jack de Quidt) are all major contributing factors, as is the avoidance of common mistakes found in many a supposedly serious game, namely, ridiculous inventory puzzles, forced, inapposite humour and breaking of the fourth-wall. In a genre that has too often relied on goofiness to get by, the developers deserve a great deal of admiration for being so clearly and unusually unabashed about taking their works seriously.

My, what the guys and girls at Daedalic could learn from such a cognisant creation as this. I name Daedalic specifically, not because I think them as the worst exponent of the genre – although ‘A New Beginning’ is certainly a near unvanquishable contender for the title of ‘Worst Commercial Adventure Game Ever Released’ – but because they have seemingly become the modern standard-bearer, and in some quarters, had their games lauded as amongst the greatest of all time. Evidently, I disagree strongly with anything even remotely approaching this level of praise, yet having been so apathetic towards many of the well-received titles of recent years, particularly those developed by the aforementioned company, it does lead one to question the possible presence of either nostalgic obstinance, or at the very least a certain jaded disposition.

On the very basis that it is as immensely compelling and enjoyable as the great titles of yore, Sepulchre has made it that much easier to confidently refute both notions. Indeed, it suggests nostalgia to be more of a diaphanous eye-patch than the back-to-front double-layered woollen headscarf it is often claimed to be; that while the games from a previous decade are often looked upon more favourably when it comes to comparisons with modern efforts, it’s not because of a blind yearning for days past, but because the best of those classic titles were, and remain, for the most part, simply better. Owl Cave have delivered one of the magnificent exceptions that will hopefully help to instigate more of its kind.

If there is a caveat, it is perhaps that the gameplay is very much on the simple side, although an absence of intelligent puzzles is undoubtedly preferable to the inclusion of the obtuse, poorly integrated variety that artificially extend the playing time of other titles. On that note, the game will likely take those familiar with the genre no more than half-an-hour to complete, and those less familiar not much longer than that, but in spite of its modesty in this respect, Sepulchre still has the feel of a commercial effort, and is more memorable and diligent than contemporaries clocking in at many times its length, and many more times its development cost.

I wrote a somewhat similar piece to this a little over a year ago regarding another free independent effort, ‘Chance of The Dead’, a game which despite my genuine praise, was undoubtedly of the style that propelled adventure games to mainstream recognition in the early nineties. In contrast, Sepulchre is less a creation with fans of the genre in mind, more a game that simply uses many of the the strengths of the medium to create a satisfying experience for anyone who enjoys being immersed in a good story. It has reaffirmed my own dwindling belief that point-and-click adventures are still a relevant form of video game, and more importantly, of storytelling. Whether you are hoping to rediscover your passion for the point-and-click adventure, or keen to uncover the joys of the genre for the first time, playing Sepulchre is as good a suggestion as I can make.

Rating: 5 / 5

Sepulchre is available to download free of charge from the developer’s website.

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Game Thoughts – 3 Cards To Midnight

by Jamie Downes

Developer – Big Finish Games

Genre – Casual Adventure (Mystery/Suspense)

Released – 2009

Synopsis – With the help of a tarot reader, a young woman must gain access to the locked off memories that hold the key to her survival.

3 Cards to Midnight tells an engrossing story. The problem however, is that it rarely invites the player to become involved in it. While hardly surprising given that the game is a casual adventure by design, it nevertheless leaves one frustrated by just how little of its potential is fulfilled.

The primary gameplay mechanic is an interesting attempt at providing a more intellectual challenge than casual titles generally offer, albeit one that is botched into insignificance by a combination of indistinct visuals and a complete absence of item descriptions. Indeed, the idea is to select the items on screen that best associate with a given keyword – clearly problematic when you haven’t the slightest clue what you’re looking at. The static viewpoint of each location provides further disappointment, as the freedom to explore (like in a conventional adventure game) would have propelled 3 Cards to Midnight to inordinately greater heights in terms of both enjoyment and immersion. The one saving grace as far as the gameplay is concerned are the logic puzzles. Generally relevant to the story, they offer a degree of involvement in what is otherwise a series of non-interactive cut-scenes. Absorbing cut-scenes they may be, but if this is to be judged as a film, then it’s far too short with way too many breaks in the narrative.

Final Thoughts

Despite all the reasons to be disappointed by 3 Cards to Midnight, it is not an effort to pass up on without further thought. The story is worthy of a much better overall package, and if you can cope with the nagging irritation of what might have been, you’ll probably enjoy it while it lasts.

Game Thoughts – Chance of the Dead (Freeware)

by Jamie Downes

Developer – Bjorn ‘Ghost’ Ludwig with music by Mark ‘Mods’ Lovegrove

Genre – Point-and-Click (humour)

Released – 2011

Synopsis – Having been dead for five years, Janet Burdie is woken from her slumber with a chance to right a wrong by the ‘Unfinished Business Departedment’.

With streams of mediocrity dominating the here-and-now, nostalgia, it seems, is a point-and-click adventure fan’s most treasured, and sometimes only, worthwhile gaming experience. Occasionally however, a new title crops up that demonstrates a superior understanding of the genre and a glimmer of hope for a positive future. Those making adventures need not reinvent the wheel – and let’s be honest, they rarely try to – but what they must do is understand why the greats of the past are remembered more fondly than the also-rans. Chance of the Dead developer, Bjorn ‘Ghost’ Ludwig gives every indication that he does understand. The German’s fairly hastily made effort – available to download free of charge – is not merely a lament to the fallen, but a fantastic example of why the fallen must get up and stand tall, preferably marching but more likely lurching into the path of the clueless with swords and insults at the ready.

You see, capturing the magic of early nineties Lucas Arts has proven impossible for many, but Chance of the Dead does so with a comforting ease that makes one wonder why those developers with a budget to blow have so often missed the mark. Clocking in at somewhere between the thirty-minute and one-hour mark, it’s admittedly a short game by comparison, yet the warmth it fills you with is of far greater worth than the extraneous hours spent toiling through an aesthetically polished but ultimately soulless product.

The whole experience leaves the same goofy yet lovable impression of a Day of the Tentacle or Monkey Island, but undoubtedly has a more engaging and affectionate story to accompany the similar brand of easy-going humour; the kind that’s happy to simply coax a broad smile and a chuckle. It’s good honest fun with an endearing visual style and downright superb music, both more than reminiscent of the humorous adventures heyday. There are a small handful of spelling mistakes, but that’s about as much criticism as you be required to throw at it.

Final Thoughts

Most importantly, Chance of the Dead demonstrates that the classic Lucas Arts approach to the point-and-click genre is not beyond its sell-by-date; all it needs is the right person looking after the ingredients. Yes, this game will likely make Lucas Arts fans nostalgic, but does one need to experience that nostalgia to enjoy it? Absolutely not. A full-length effort in this vein would go down a treat.

Chance of the Dead is available to download free of charge from here.

Game Thoughts – Sherlock Holmes Versus Arsene Lupin

by Jamie Downes

Developer – Frogwares

Genre – Adventure/Detective (1st & 3rd person)

Released – 2007

Dear Sir/Madam,

I write to inform you of my experiences in attempting to thwart the master French thief, Arsene Lupin. I will not bore you with the specific details of the case, but will instead highlight the major factors that impacted upon it.

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