As any seasoned adventure gamer knows, the strength of a first-person adventure like The Arrangement generally lies in its puzzles. They occur everywhere in the game, almost haphazardly, and are a decent mix of originality and cliché (Right. No one’s heard of “The Puzzle Hall” before…). I particularly liked one of the puzzles that manipulated the layout of a room towards the end of the game. At the same time, some of the puzzles seem a bit fantastic given the semi-realistic setting. Is Rick’s quest real, surreal, both or neither? While certain challenges take place in self-contained Virtual Reality worlds, inventory objects can pass in and out of these seemingly “virtual” worlds. Although it would be easy to label the conflicted variety of puzzles as artistic interpretation, a few of them are definitely out of place, especially a sequence with real-life trivia questions. While the game’s conclusion does what it can to tie some of the nonsensical puzzles together, it is ultimately a poor Band-Aid on what is otherwise hit and miss puzzle design.
The Arrangement took me about ten hours to complete, although I spent at least half of them devoted to the time-honored frustration of pixel-hunting. While the difficulty level of the puzzles is not high, finding the proper items and correct places to click is a pain. Without the benefit of a walkthrough, I frequently stumbled about aimlessly, thumbing my cursor over screens I’d seen hundreds of times. With diagonal movement rarely used, it’s even possible to miss entire rooms. The Arrangement suffers from the classic adventure problem of having too much to look at and too little to interact with. Without a walkthrough, expect a great deal of time pixel-hunting.
One of the few excellent features in The Arrangement has to be its creepy atmosphere. This is due much in part to the amazing score in the game which I fear will be overlooked by critics who are turned away by the graphics or gameplay. Easily better than the majority of budget adventure titles, the background music is listless and haunting, perfectly matching the story’s themes of mystery and loss. Christopher Brendel deserves credit for his amazing work on the score and I hope that he continues to provide music for other adventures. Also, John Bell, the voice actor who plays the antagonistic Fortrey, is easily one of the game’s strongest assets. When you hear Fortrey speak over the cell phone at the beginning of the game, you can tell his character is absolutely mad. Bell’s inflection is spot-on for an adventure game voiceover and makes Fortrey a gruesome pleasure to listen to. Although he can be a little over-the-top, I still loved Bell’s performance and hope he continues to do work for other adventures as well.
The other voice work in The Arrangement is, unfortunately, pretty mediocre. I was particularly dismayed with the voice of Annie Sullivan, who sounds distant and unemotional. With such restrained voice acting, it is difficult to feel the emotional weight of her possible betrayal of her husband. There were even points in some of Annie’s voiceovers where I noticed distinct aural compression in the background, whereas with Mr. Bell’s performances I noticed no distortion at all.
I think it’s interesting to note that better testing and quality assurance could have prevented a lot of these problems from occurring in the first place. The inhibited voice recordings and script errors could have easily been reworked with a few more rounds of QA. For example, as part of trivia puzzle I was asked the following question:
50 – 5 x 2
The correct answer, 40, is not in the multiple choice list of solutions. The in-game answer is 90, effectively ignoring standard mathematics and the Order of Operations. This miniscule error shattered the fourth wall for me and made the game much less enjoyable to play. To put it objectively, with such a plethora of minor errors, The Arrangement exudes a lack of polish that does it more harm than it deserves.
My final issue with the game is perhaps where I felt the most betrayed: the ending. Without spoiling it, I must say that as both a consumer and a lover of quality writing I felt used. The ending uses a certain plot device that has gained notorious status in both film and television for cheapening the plots it frames. I was extremely let down by the ending, which seems to choose an arbitrary deus ex machina over a proper resolution to the questions raised at the beginning of the game. It’s a pity, too, as the majority of the story is rather compelling. It is disappointing to see it all resolved with such an unsatisfying conclusion.
So what is my final impression of The Arrangement? I believe that it would have been an excellent shareware adventure game. At the $20 the game is currently retailing at, I find it hard to justify purchasing for only five or so hours of gameplay. The Arrangement suffers greatly when competing against the quality of adventures produced by larger companies. Although it is possible to overlook the somewhat pre-dated graphics, poor elements in both plot and puzzle design taint what could otherwise have been an excellent game. With its short length and $20 price point, I simply cannot recommend The Arrangement. Hopefully Michael C. Clark will continue to produce adventures, as this title shows lots of potential for more polished releases in the future.