Originality in adventure game scenarios is never a given. If you throw out the games based around Atlantis, Egypt and, umm… Atlantis, the numbers drop significantly. When Galilea announced the premise for its first game, Cameron Files: Secret at Loch Ness, it was welcome news for bored gamers everywhere. Scottish highlands, ancient legends, a wee beastie named Nessie, and other creatures of the mists… This is a region ripe with wonder and mystique.
But before we settle into Scotland, let's visit Chicago, circa 1930s and an upstairs office in an aging building. The soft strains of a Scottish melody fill the air and we meet one Alan Parker Cameron, a world-worn, smart-talking private eye, and our alter ego for this game. He sits at his desk, feet up, and reminiscing about his recent case. You know this guy. He's the red-haired, balding guy in his late 30s who prefers a western-styled hat and clothing to tough guy suits. "Wait a minute," you say, "maybe this isn't your typical gumshoe cliché after all." And how right you are, as Cameron is no ordinary detective, and Secret at Loch Ness no traditional mystery.
This time the stakes are much closer to home for Cameron than his standard daily grind. In fact, he leaves for Scotland, not because of a client, but to collect a family birthright revealed in his father's will. To claim it, he must make his way to the ancestral seat of the Cameron clan, which lies along the shores of the fabled Loch Ness in a place called Dragon's Ridge.
After an uneventful sea voyage, he arrives at his ancestral home. The wail of bagpipes and a rollicking Scottish tune start up, as his hired car pulls up to the castle gate. The news is not promising. Chaos abounds, for it seems the Laird of the manor, Allister MacFarley, has gone missing, and most likely kidnapped. His daughter Moira is away, but Lady MacFarley is waiting to meet with Cameron. Before he can even remove his hat, he is ushered into the drawing room to meet his hostess. She sits in stunned silence and it seems this is not going to be a very productive encounter. Just as we start to wonder where this story is headed, she takes off on a wild rant about kidnappings, enemies, ancient curses, banshees, and powers beyond. In a state of collapse, she is carried upstairs, leaving our hero to his own devices. We know what that means: time to search every nook and cranny, make some sense of those mad ramblings, and hopefully locate the missing Lord MacFarley.
It isn't long before he makes a new acquaintance, who floats across water and speaks in a distant tone. His new ally is a banshee, but this seems normal in such an odd, mystical place. We learn here that Cameron's inheritance is actually a special jewel -- one of three that are rumored to possess an ancient power and play a key part in the legacies of the Scottish kings. Before the first day has ended, our detective is up to his hat in a mystery that stretches from deep into the past to modern day conspiracies, and he has no choice other than to pursue the case if he doesn't want return home empty handed.
As we make our way through the corridors of the house and beyond, we meet an eccentric and diverse group of personalities who add to the enjoyment and throw more mystery into the mix. The characterization is a definite high point of Loch Ness. Starting with Cameron himself, the characters are intimately presented, and you really develop a sense of their personalities and mannerisms. Our hero has that familiar hard-as-nails attitude; cynical yet determined to solve the case, with an unwavering nerve, and a gift for the comeback line. Even when faced with the banshee, Cameron is nonchalant and trades quips with ease. Other characters include the elderly Lady MacFarley, who seems a bit addled, or as Cameron says, in dire need of some calming libation. Moira's feisty disposition goes along with her being a "take charge" sort of girl (which suits Cameron just fine). Throw in a creepy whiskey distiller plus a kilt-wearing gardener with great strength but few words, and you have a solid blend of quirky, memorable personalities.
Each of these characters is enhanced by the voices in the game, which are well done and suit the varied personalities. Unfortunately, the dialogue is sparsely used and none of it is player-controlled. Instead of interactive dialogue, all conversations in the game are presented as animated cutscenes. With characters as interesting as these, having player interaction would have added considerably to the feeling of engagement with the storyline. Sadly, this decision waters down one of the real strengths of the game.
When speaking of characters in a game called Loch Ness, of course Nessie can't be overlooked, but she appears less than you'd think given the choice of locations for this mystery. However, the mythical beast does play a key role in the storyline. What that role is… well, that's for you to uncover. And the story? Though certainly engaging, it is not so much a detailed, intricate tale as one that you roll so smoothly through you scarcely notice a story is even being told. It is so seamlessly integrated into the gameplay, characters and puzzling that it is almost difficult to separate it from the other strong elements of thiis game. Is there a Nessie cruising silently through the depths of the loch? The stones of power, once united… will they create a future too terrible to imagine or are they just pretty gems after all? What happened to Lord MacFarley, why was he abducted, and who is behind his disappearance and other odd events taking place on these dark, mist-layered hills? These are but pieces of the mystery that the intrepid Cameron must pull together to get through this adventure.
Despite the personal charms of Loch Ness, some flaws quickly emerge that mar what would otherwise have been a more enjoyable experience. The first troublesome aspect is the interface itself, which is somewhat clunky, and can leave you disoriented at times. The game uses the common control scheme for first-person games: mouse-driven, with 360-degree panning, coupled with click-through movement. The problem is that each click has the potential to leave you completely turned around, and you are left with frustrating navigation that could have easily been minimized. When these wild gyrations of panning occur, negotiating the corridors and many halls of the house can quickly become disorienting and maze-like. Even at the end of the game, I repeatedly got turned around in making my way from one place to the next, and it was a constant irritation when inside the house.
The mystery is why the developers allowed this at all. Early in your exploration you recover a map that highlights areas around the castle. Once one of the locations becomes "active", you can automatically travel there by simply clicking on its place on the map. Even better, unlike similar map features in other games, you don't have to actually visit a place to activate it. Most are triggered by a reference found in a clue or dialogue. This feature eliminates all that tedious click-by-click travel between sites, which is a big positive in any game. However, for some unknown reason, despite the size and scope of the manor, the interior locations are not included on the map. I spent as much time navigating its twisted corridors than I ever would have between exterior locations. It seems like as long as you had a device in the game to cut down on traveling, you would also want to limit the endless traipsing up and down stairs and long hallways.
Adding to the feeling of displacement, the graphics use a dated engine that gives a grainy, distorted look to the scenes. Worse still, you feel as though you are looking at everything through a reverse telescopic lens. This gives a fishbowl look to some of the interior shots. Fortunately, the overall visual impression is a mixed bag due to the positive strengths of the exterior locales, character animation and cinematics. The outdoor areas look quite good in comparison with the interior shots. The romantic, somewhat dreamy quality of the style of this game just suits outside locales better, with their wavering trees, grey storm-tossed skies and misty grounds. The characters are also usually well designed, possessing a measure of fine detail not always present elsewhere.
The cinematics are clearly one of the best aspects of the game. It's not just their look, but their effective placement within the story. They are usually in logical places and have a natural feel to their occurrence. This is an element that enhances the plot more than many newer games. Typically you have the animated scenes served up in a predictable manner, as an official gaming gold star for solving a big challenge or reaching the end of a level. In Loch Ness, the cinematics do occur at times after some significant event has taken place, but they also crop up frequently in places where it just feels right to see something happen. A good example is looking out a window and seeing whatever is happening outside occur in a short animation. These carefully placed sequences remove the feeling of passivity and helped draw me deeper into the game.
Tying things together nicely are the sounds and music of Loch Ness. Starting with the opening cinematic and laced throughout, the musical selections are well chosen, adding to the feel of the game without ever being overbearing. Sometimes the music is a full song, while other times just a sudden, short burst that accents an event or hints at what's to come. The sound effects are subtle, yet effective, providing a nice texture to the game experience.
Unfortunately, the actual gameplay has some inconsistent design issues, as well. The puzzling part of the game is fairly straightforward and well-clued. The challenges are primarily inventory-based, though there are a small number of standalone puzzles. However, for those who dread particular puzzle types, there is one that is either outright hated or simply tolerated by most gamers: a maze. Loch Ness not only has one, it adds a whole new layer of unique torment to it. This maze is underwater, and even better, it has a game-over timed sequence at the end. (To any developers out there reading this review, if you must have a maze in your game -- and really you shouldn't -- at least ditch the timer.) As for placing one underwater, it is particularly disorienting to work your way through this, even though there are a number of visual markers along the way. No doubt, this will be a "forget it and grab a hint" moment for many people, and definitely brings the game down a notch.
The maze is just one example of timed challenges in the game, but there are others. In most, the timer is fairly forgiving, but it is hard to credit this for several reasons. For one thing, there is not really any warning that a game-over moment is at hand, so you can probably count on being caught off guard at least once or twice. The old adventure game adage "save early, save any time you feel the least bit edgy about what may lie ahead" (I'm paraphrasing) is definitely the rule for Loch Ness. To add to the frustration with these moments, there is one instance where two challenges co-exist, though it isn't necessary to complete both to have the timer fade away, as only one of the challenges is being timed. However, it is almost impossible to know this, and the design is structured so you may very well choose the untimed challenge first. By doing so, you'll unwittingly use up the generous time allotment intended for the critical challenge, creating a short, panic-laden frenzy when you realize your time is almost up. You are also unable to save during the timed phase, which certainly doesn't ease one's irritation.
Despite these rather glaring caveats to the puzzling, the developers did make another aspect of the game more user friendly by including a clue system. The game also uses a host of devices that help clue the gamer. There is a notebook that you access through your inventory, where Cameron writes down things of importance and what to do next. There is also the friendly banshee who appears from time to time to offer him hints in tight spots. Though there are a few moments when you have to dig a bit through documents to figure things out, most obstacles are fairly logical to the story and none hold up progress for an unacceptable time. You will need to search areas carefully, as there are some pixel hunting moments, and trying to move briskly through the game can leave you feeling stuck, as you need to find some key document or item to trigger game progress. For those who shy away from games with excessive note taking, there is relatively little to write down, though you might want to take note of some lists in your inventory, along with a few verbal clues that oddly do not appear in Cameron's notebook.
So where does this leave the game in terms of playability and overall enjoyment? Ultimately it may hinge on your tolerance or even affection for timed challenges. With the highly personable Alan Cameron, impressive use of cinematics, general ambiance, and engaging characters and story, Secret at Loch Ness has a lot to offer. However, the inconsistencies in many areas unfortunately tarnish what could have been a very good game. If the caveats don't send you running, this game definitely has enough positives to make it well worth a look, and enough charm to give you some hours of fun.