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Adventure Gamers Awards
Modesty. Sometimes it's a bad thing. Say, if you're Brad Pitt or Cindy Crawford. But sometimes it can be a very good thing. The same is true for conformity.
Inherent Evil: The Haunted Hotel, the first game from Eclipse (and published by Head Games, a division of Activision), is a textbook example of when embracing conformity and modesty can be a virtue, and when rejecting it can be a vice.
In every single area in which Inherent Evil is traditional and modest, it excels. And when it tries to innovate, it falls flat on its scary face.
I could spend this entire review trying to explain how this game came to be released in the curious form that it is. But I don't want to talk about how this game was originally conceived and planned, I want to talk about the game as it was actually released.
And as actually released, it's a pretty darn fun, modest game. Why modest? Well, it's got modest ambitions, it's a modest length, and it's available for a very modest price.
I happen to be a big fan of modest games. Playing Inherent Evil reminded me of other lean and mean games like Safecracker, Cracking the Conspiracy, Connections, The Cassandra Galleries and Frankenstein: Through the Eyes of the Monster.
Like those games, the graphics have a crisp, clean, attractive look that's very easy on the eyes. Like most of those games, what your goals and challenges are fairly clear through the course of the game.
The game begins with a sharp, very well-done cutscene in which your character answers an urgent phone call from his brother. Evidently he's being held prisoner in the same hotel in which both of your parents died years before.
Quicker than you can say "Please rip off Stephen King's THE SHINING," you are whisked off to the lobby of the very evil Reed Hotel.
Naturally at the start of the game very little of the hotel is open to you. You have to try every door, every stairwell, and the elevator in your quest. The more you explore the more access you gain, and the more the story unfolds.
This is the tried and true formula of many fun adventure games. The gameplay interface is elegant, intuitive and unobtrusive. The game is not innovative by any means, but there's something comforting in its very familiarity. You don't play Inherent Evil to bang your head up against Black Dahlia-type puzzles. You breeze through it to enjoy the atmosphere.
There are a few wonderfully creepy sequences in the game. Exploring the dark second floor with nothing but a flashlight was wonderfully stressful. And there's a wonderful moment late in the game that involves lights snapping off and a ghostly messenger that's really delicious.
The music in the game is fairly cheesy, but effective enough. To be honest, when it comes to music in horror games, Amber: Journeys Beyond spoiled me forever with its brilliant use of ambient-only sounds. Silence is much scarier than a shrill soundtrack could ever be.
There is one terribly difficult maze sequence. Yes, you read correctly (I told you this game was modest and conventional). At least this maze sequence has a couple of ideas going for it, and it's visually striking. But dress it up all you want, it's still a maze. But at least it's a really long, really hard maze.
Also, there are a few places in the game that have important hotspots so small you practically need a microscope.
Pixel hunts and mazes are not the major problems in Inherent Evil, however.
What are the two real stinkers?
First, the acting is shockingly, unbelievably, unforgivably bad. I'm sorry, but these here adventure games have been made for lots of years now, and there's no excuse whatsoever for this problem. Good actors are NOT hard to find, no matter where the game developers were working. Frankly, if they had been stationed at an army weather data Quonset hut in central Antarctica, they should have been able to come up with better actors than this. At one particularly excruciating moment, the script calls for a mother to give frantic instructions to her young sons. The "actress" delivers the speech with all the color and intensity of a bored housewife reading aloud from the back of a cereal box.
I'm always baffled when I see game developers make this mistake. It's got to be one of the easiest things in a game to get right. Honestly. Hey game developers, I've got lots of actor friends who'd love a job, and you could wake up any one of them at 3 in the morning and get a better instant performance out of them than any of the actors in Inherent Evil. I'm also disappointed in Head Games/Activision for not insisting that Eclipse re-shoot the live actor sequences as a condition of their agreement to publish and distribute the game. It wouldn't have cost more than a couple of thousand dollars, and it would have helped the game immeasurably. This kind of amateur hour acting is simply unacceptable in a game released by a major company like Activision.
The second problem the game has is its already notorious lack of a game save feature. Yes, you read that correctly. No save feature. The game is separated into eight sections, and whenever you complete a section, you get booted out of the game - yes, booted out of the game, sports fans - and when you restart the game you can then progress to the next level. I understand this odd structure has something to do with the developers' early intention of this game being an online only adventure game. Whatever. It was released as a single player standalone game, and it should behave like one. I'll repeat my oft-chanted rule: DON'T GET CREATIVE WITH GAME SAVING AND INTERFACE OPTIONS. Leave them alone. It's an area where conformity and lack of imagination are a virtue.
One final quibble I have is with the name of the game itself. As you play it, the game constantly refers to itself of "Chapter One: The Hotel." At first I was afraid there was something wrong with my installation, then I realized the entire GAME was "Chapter One." Well, Chapter One of WHAT, exactly? I guess this was a way of announcing the developers' plans for sequels, but it actually comes off as a) confusing and b) promoting the uneasy feeling that you don't have the entire game on your computer. Plus, I'm sorry, but "Inherent Evil" is awfully generic sounding, don't you think? A little too reminiscent of Resident Evil. I wish the game had a more interesting title.
These criticisms aside, however, I have a very fun eight hours or so playing this creepy, atmospheric, comfortingly familiar game. If Eclipse DOES create a sequel, I'll jump on it like a duck on a June bug.