Faust: Seven Games of the Soul review
Let's play a quick round of word association:
Obsession... Redemption... Torment... Compassion... Jealousy... Loneliness...
Too tame? Well, while we're at it, how about:
Child slavery... Suicide... Sexuality... Abuse...
If none of these words elicit responses like "adventure game" or "point & click," you're not alone. The gaming industry is reluctant to embrace more mature, complex psychological themes. Fortunately, every once in a while a developer will venture beyond safe boundaries and provide us with a fresh, original perspective. Such is the case with Faust: Seven Games of the Soul, a sorely neglected game that is well worth a look, despite the fact that its philosophical reach exceeds its entertainment grasp.
Before moving on, let's clear up the inevitable confusion about titles. Seven Games of the Soul is a game re-christened by DreamCatcher for publishing in North America. Developed by the talented (if erratic) team at Arxel Tribe, the game was originally published by Cryo under the name of Faust in 1999. Although DreamCatcher deemed the heading too obscure for its audience a year later, Faust is a direct namesake of the two-part 19th century poetic drama by Goethe which inspired the game. Goethe's "Faust" was itself based on the famous legend of Gregorius Faustus, who sold his soul to the devil because of his insatiable desire for forbidden knowledge.
Seven Games of the Soul plays fast and loose with the source material, but stays true to its spirit. In the game, the player adopts the persona of Marcellus Faust, an elderly black man who has arrived at an abandoned amusement park called Dreamland. We are introduced to a suave, debonair demon named Mephistopheles (or Mephisto), who explains that Faust has been chosen to help settle a dispute with God. The owner of Dreamland has recently died, and now the fates of seven park inhabitants' souls are being determined. It's Faust's duty to mystically move back in time, investigate the troubled lives of a very bizarre cast of characters and unravel the macabre history of the park. In a twist on the now-clichéd amnesia premise, Faust is stripped of his memory in order to remain an objective observer, which suggests that he, too, was once an active participant whose role is yet to be revealed.
The real beauty and beast of Seven Games of the Soul is that it's so intrinsically multi-layered. There is mystery within mystery, puzzle within puzzle, and subplot within plot, and progression on one level will either tease and tantalize with hints at the larger picture, or frustrate and confuse from the lack of cohesion. Or both. In fact, definitely both, at various times. The game's structure plays out in seven distinct episodes, with each focused around one of the central characters. Yet while the individual segments are self-contained and linear, each one weaves in new narrative strands of the other characters, adding yet another level of depth overall. This guarantees some intentional disorientation, and integration of all the pieces can only be done retrospectively. If that sounds convoluted, you're catching on fast.
To make matters cloudier still, you don't ever actually meet the characters you're investigating. As you delve into one disturbed life after another, clues are revealed only through visual or audio flashbacks, notes, and various personal items. The only actual requirement in each episode is to find the one crucial piece of material evidence that will either implicate or absolve them of complicity with Mephisto.
The characters themselves are a fascinating, eclectic bunch (they are carnies, after all). Whether freakshow exhibits like the Siamese sisters and 550 pound woman, or employees like the costume seamstress and tiger tamer, they all possess intense personal baggage, emotional turmoil, and secrets that haunt them. Exploring their lives is not just a matter of exposing deeds, but uncovering insights into their psyches, where black and white simply don't exist.
Accompanying Faust's own investigation is a sort of dual narration. The first is from Mephisto, who periodically appears to present his role in the drama, portraying himself as an integral instrument of God's plan--motivator through temptation, without which man would be less than human. The other narration comes at the end of each episode, as our sleuthing earns Faust visits with Theodore More, the park's former owner. Theodore clearly has his own agenda, but one he is unable to openly reveal, so his relevance is perhaps the most elusive of all.
The game mechanics are probably the only traditional aspect of the game. It's a node movement, mouse-controlled game that will be instantly familiar to anyone who's played another first-person adventure in the last several years. The backgrounds are static, but the viewscreen offers 360 degree panning. Hotspots and movement indicators are highlighted by context-sensitive cursors. Strangely, these aren't as intuitive as they should be, as the highlights are dull, and some cursors too closely resemble each other. It's rarely an issue, but there will be a few occasions where you're playing the interface, rather than the game.
The production values of Seven Games of the Soul are generally excellent. The visuals are naturally somewhat dated now, and as with many games that utilize this sort of engine, the backgrounds are disappointingly blurry. Still, the graphics hold up remarkably well thanks to the vibrant colours, thoughtfully crafted environments, and stylized art direction.
While not a dialogue-heavy game, solid voice acting is an absolute must to sell the story as a convincing morality tale, and Arxel manages to nail the most important characters of Mephisto, Theodore, and Faust. Mephisto, in particular, exudes a charismatic arrogance that's perfectly suited to the character. Some of the other characters aren't quite as strong, and you might notice a repetitive use of actors, but this doesn't detract much from the overall experience. Musically, the game is a triumph, with a wonderful blend of old jazz, blues, and classical vocals and instrumentals alike. My only quibble is that each particular piece is looped and wedded to an entire episode, and as the tracks typically clock in under five minutes, even the best of them start to wear thin as the hours pass in the lengthier episodes.
Seven Games of the Soul is a puzzle-intensive offering with a little something for everybody, varying widely in both type and difficulty. Most of the puzzles maintain balance between enjoyment and challenge, and the proper combination of careful observation with lateral and logical thinking keep the game moving, but you’ll undoubtedly get stuck on a few head-scratchers. Some of the puzzles do feel contrived as nonsensical obstacles, and there are some notable exceptions to puzzle quality, which bring the game to a grinding halt when they occur. Several are very poorly clued, while others involve some nasty pixel hunting, and another few are just dreadfully implemented. The most blatant of these--an issue of mirror reflection--is either a game glitch or completely illogical design. You know there's a problem when you can't tell which even after solving it.
The game does provide an in-game hint system in the form of a genie creature, the Homunculus. However, accessing the help involves a mindless, aggravating arcade mini-game, and the hints provided are essentially worthless. A good idea wasted. As difficulty is so subjective, it’s hard to measure game length of a title like this, but disregarding excessive “stump” time, Seven Games of the Soul should offer in the neighbourhood of 15-20 hours of gaming.
Like far too many games of this style, the gameworld suffers from a severe lack of interactivity. Virtually nothing but puzzle-related items can be manipulated, and the environments are quite confined, so there's no freedom of exploration at all. I don't mind the linearity, but since the basis of the game is investigation, the gameplay would have been enhanced considerably by letting the player do more than follow the trail of bread crumbs to the next puzzle.
My final lament is that Seven Games of the Soul ultimately stumbles somewhat under the weight of its own ambition. By design, the bulk of the game is spent raising more questions than it answers, which is what makes it so intriguing. Still, a certain degree of resolution is necessary, in one form or another, and that doesn't adequately happen. Some of the key questions are simply abandoned. Not left to the gamer's imagination--just forgotten; discarded in favour of more profound issues. I can't say more without revealing critical plot points, but suffice to say that the conclusion, while fascinating in its own right, made some unfortunate narrative sacrifices that could easily have been avoided.
These criticisms of the game, however, are secondary to my overall appreciation of it. I admire the risk the developers took in tackling the subject matter, and I enjoyed the game within a game dilemma. I consider Seven Games of the Soul to be a true thinking gamer's adventure. That may seem like a redundancy, but I'm referring to thinking outside the borders of the gameworld. Exploring the complexities of the human soul and the ambiguities of good and evil are what give the game its value, and thankfully the exercise is all wrapped up in an above-average puzzle adventure game.
The game has its flaws, without question, so I have to mark it down from my highest critical endorsement. Still, I have no problem recommending the game to any adventure gamer. It's deep, dark and daring; it has attitude and atmosphere; and most of all, it's original. In a world of "me too" clone design, this is a quality that can't be underestimated. Seven Games of the Soul is simply one of those titles that deserves to be played. In fact, I'll go a step further and say it deserves to be played twice. You'd be amazed at how much richer the experience is when privy to the grand scheme from the beginning. So work through it once, and absorb it the second time.
No game this unique will appeal to everyone, but it's a great example of the diversity the genre has to offer, and I can't imagine anyone regretting the time spent with it. Love it or hate it; either is fine. As Mephisto would tell you, the real sin is apathy.
The game is still widely available, but if you need help acquiring it, help is close at hand. Just sign here on the dotted line. _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
We'll discuss terms later.
A philosophically ambitious game that distinguishes itself from the crowd. A rewarding experience, but expect plenty of confusion along the way.