Adventure games: trendier than vampires.
Hold on a second, let me consult my Official Gamers’ Genre Fashion Chart for 2008… okay, point-and-click adventure game, back in season, that’s a plus… gothic atmosphere, plus… vampires, that’s a minus, only the nerdiest of emo nerds like vampires… based off of literature, another minus, I mean gamers don’t read… Oh crap, I guess this means it’s up to my better judgment, I can’t just make a snap reaction. Oh, how my safe, gentle world of modest pursuits and old ideas lays bleeding upon the floor!
But much like Bram Stoker’s classic Dracula, and its new computer game isomer, Dracula: Origin, perhaps I am being overly melodramatic. From practically the moment the game starts, it’s awash in drama punctuated by terrible voice acting.
You take on the role of professor Abraham Van Helsing, a dutch expert in all things vampiric. Classic figures from the novel such as Jonathan Harker, Wilhelmina Murray, Lord Godalming, and even Renfield, the bug-eating crazy man, are prominent characters. Likewise, the game sticks to the book’s style by playing almost like a series of somewhat disjointed diary entries retelling the storyline, split by newspaper clippings and letters.
Fortunately for those of us who’ve already read the book, Dracula: Origin is not just a rendition of the novel in game form. Though many of the same characters are used and a number of the same essential events from the book do occur, the game manages to tread different ground by adding to and filling in around the edges of the novel. Treading to Egypt, Vienna, and of course, Transylvania, the game keeps the environments fresh and the pace steady. It’s a trifle on the short side, though, lasting maybe ten hours of solid play with no real replay value.
Puzzles run the gamut from preposterously easy to the preposterously confounding. One of the classic irritations with adventure games – the pixel hunt – is back in force with Dracula: Origin. Handily, you can just hit the space bar, and all the interactable objects on screen will glow with a red outline. This begins to beg the question, though, why they bother hiding the objects in the first place.
A few of the puzzles rely heavily upon the player to have some knowledge entirely external to the game. This is a difficult line to walk, game developers. Relying upon your players to be competent outside of the game’s context is like expecting a herd of oxen to behave like bulls; they’re appreciative of the complement, but they would much rather have what’s missing. Suffice it to say, the puzzle that demanded that I know how to play the piano left my pride feeling equally neutered.
The story is ultimately a little thin, but keeps things moving at a sufficient pace to keep things interesting. Even bereft of the context of the novel, the core of a classic, well-worn story allows it to drape the fineries of gameplay and graphics about without needing to spend hour after hour in cutscene and heavy exposition.
The game looks fairly good, though there is a sort of sterility to the style that does little to spark the imagination or draw the player in. Everything is carefully detailed but in a mechanical way, and in the last quarter of the game, the Photoshopped-in vases, candelabras, and chandeliers are noticeable. Likewise, the character animation is wooden and generally constrained – many characters do little more than walk around like robots and pick at things with their clamps.
The sound is much less of a mixed bag. Voice acting starts poor and really doesn’t improve at any point. Van Helsing, as narrator and main character, is the first terrible voice you slam into, and oh boy, is it terrible. Imagine the phrase, “Beautiful roses”, spoken in the creepiest possible way by a 60-year old man, and you have Abe Van Helly’s voice in a nutshell. Now apply this to reassurances for ailing Victorian women whose maids were just brutally murdered, musings upon men who eat bugs, and the machinations of a blood-drinking vampire, and you have a sense of what listening to the game is like.
Overall, Dracula: Origin has the feeling of competence, but it also has inconsistent production values and schizophrenic gameplay choices. In many respects, the game feels as though it was rushed out the door several iterations early, before they had a chance to clean up the place-holder artwork and streamline the gameplay. Fans of the adventure game genre who have been craving another hit can find some decent fun here, but I can’t in good conscience recommend the game to anyone else.