Delaware St. John, Volume 1: The Curse of Midnight Manor review
When I was a wee gamer, my parents used to buy little variety packs of cereal instead of the big boxes. Generally there would be a few good boxes, a few mediocre boxes, and a few awful boxes. The logic was that if we didn't like any of the cereal, we just threw out a small box instead of spending more money and having to suffer through a giant family-sized portion of something we didn't want to eat (although to be fair, I fed most of the awful ones to my little sister).
Gaming has been tentatively going down a very similar path over the past few years, with the concept of serialized (pardon the pun) adventures. By putting out a short, self-contained story at a cheap price every few months, players can decide if they like a game enough to stick around for more, and developers can avoid two year development cycles only to see their games flop on the shelves.
Delaware St. John is the latest such series. Planned as a ten-volume adventure, developer Big Time Games is banking on The Curse of Midnight Manor to be the launching pad for Delaware to be around for a very long time. Unfortunately, due to the mish-mash of styles in the first volume, this is very similar to taking an entire variety pack of cereal, dumping it all into a big bowl, and just hoping for the best. And from experience, that's not a very good taste at all.
You play the game as Delaware St. John, paranormal investigator. Delaware is prone to being contacted by the dead -- souls in need of help in order to move on to the beyond. With remote assistance from his partner Kelly, Delaware visits the locations of these spirits to investigate the reason for their demise and free their souls.
In the first chapter of the initial installment, Delaware is drawn to a deserted hotel known as Midnight Manor, where some teenagers previously decided to stop for the night and never returned. But once Delaware solves that mystery, he realizes that he's in deeper than he thought, and that the hotel holds secrets much deadlier than he had imagined. This leads into the second chapter, in which Delaware has to investigate the murder of a magician in order to solve the curse that has plagued the hotel for so many years. Oddly, rather than keep the first volume as one large story, the developer has made each chapter a distinct segment that can only be accessed from the main menu, with the second part locked until the first is completed. This has caused some people to miss the second half of the game, as it's completely unintuitive to start a second "New Game" just to continue with the second part of an ongoing story.
When I first heard about Delaware St. John, I was a little worried about the comparisons with the Gabriel Knight series. Sarcastic investigator, bookshop, female partner, plenty of tension between the two -- you know the drill. But the resemblance is only skin-deep, and the developers really did a good job of taking what could have been a bad clone and moving it off in new directions.
The plot for the first story is fairly flimsy horror movie territory, and didn't draw me in much. But the second story, full of revenge and death, really plays out well and also sets the stage beautifully for future installments of the series by introducing what hopefully will become Delaware's nemesis for the rest of the games.
The graphics for DSJ are very well done. The opening screens and static image cutscenes have a nice hand painted look to them, while also being reminiscent of the older intro screens that we all know and loved from way back when. With the exception of a few oddly chosen textures here and there, the in-game graphics are nicely detailed, and really convey the look of a run down hovel that was once a gorgeous hotel. The developer also did a good job of changing the look of the hotel from floor to floor in order to keep things from getting monotonous.
As with most first-person node-based games, the screens are static, occasionally broken up with some animations as you make contact with the spirits of the hotel. The ghosts are all nicely done, and really creepy in an understated way, as opposed to the blood and gore that you would see in most games.
One issue that I have with the horror genre is the tendency to shock and scare with startling music and sound effects rather than with a good story. Luckily this isn't an issue with DSJ. The music is beautiful and haunting, but never overbearing or used for shock value. For the most part, DSJ adheres to a very minimalist score -- creepy and moody, but always in the background where it belongs, adding a wonderful texture to the game. I would not hesitate to say that this is some of the best music I have heard in a game this year.
The sound effects are likewise great, and really add to the atmosphere. Nothing will give you goosebumps quicker than wandering through a hotel in the dark with a rapidly failing flashlight hearing creaking floors above you and whispered voices from the shadows. This is definitely a game to play with headphones on or with a nice speaker setup, as the ambient noise really helps sell the game.
As far as voice work, the results are, for the most part, very good. I was very impressed with the laid back ribbing from Delaware's partner Kelly, although Delaware himself took some getting used to, as I thought the voice artist sounded more like a snappy sitcom teenager than an amateur paranormal investigator. The voices of the ghosts in the hotel are all wonderful, but because of the effects used on the voices, some of them (especially in the second story) are a little hard to understand. This emphasizes the lack of subtitles, which is an unfortunate omission as it's pretty much a given in today's games.
But of course the meat and potatoes of any game is going to be the gameplay, and DSJ is unfortunately all over the map. In a large game that is somewhat annoying, but in a smaller game, this can be the difference between a classic and the bargain bin.
For starters, the node-based system used here makes it rather easy to get yourself turned around if you're not paying close attention. Add to that the fact that you're playing in a darkened hotel, and you'll quickly wish you had some breadcrumbs to leave a trail. Navigation is pretty standard, with arrows pointing the available directions that can be selected from each screen. The Exit button and the Reverse button did cause some confusion until I got used to it, so be warned, because there are some sequences in the game where every move counts and these could mean your downfall.
The puzzles are fairly clichéd and incredibly easy, which surprised me considering that Delaware at one point actually makes a rather funny jab at conventional puzzles in games. The majority of the game is spent in the usual "find a key to open a door to find a clue to find a key to open another door". That would be fine (if a little boring) since we've all done it before, but I'm still scratching my head over the fact that I'm running all over a haunted hotel to find keys for locked doors, when at appropriate times I'm simply able to bash them down with my fist.
If you do run into any trouble, there is always VIC. VIC is your electronic link to Kelly, and I found this to be a great addition to the game, although very underused. VIC will allow you to photograph items and record voices to send to Kelly for analyzing, and if you get stuck at any point, you can contact Kelly and she'll put you back on the right track -- after some good-natured hazing, of course. This is a useful tool for newer gamers, as a subtle hint is often right there if you need it.
The photography and recording are a nice touch, and one that I hope is used more in future installments. But some of the challenge is taken out by the fact that Delaware tells you whenever you need to take a picture or record anything, which removes what could have made for a few nice head scratchers.
But sadly, most of the time when the game tries to break out of the holding pattern, the results are...interesting choices.
Now, I'm not a huge fan of action sequences in my adventure games. You keep your chocolate out of my peanut butter and I'll keep my peanut butter out of your chocolate. There are instances where I'm okay with some action, but for the most part I'm a purist about this sort of thing. With that being said, if you are going to put an action sequence into your game in order to boost the adrenaline, then commit to it fully or leave it out. If I'm playing an adventure game and I've suddenly got to navigate a rail shooter sequence in order to finish the chapter, I'm not going to be the happiest of campers. But when I've suddenly got to navigate a rail shooter sequence and it's slower than my grandmother driving on the freeway, then it's just defeating the purpose. I don't see any reason to put in an action sequence if there's absolutely no way you're not going to pass it no matter how reflex-challenged you may be. That, to me, is just pointless.
The same can be said for the chase sequences in the game. Frankly, the concept of a node-based chase scene just makes me giggle. Granted, it's nice to see the chase from the creature's point of view, but there's no suspense when I can just sit at a screen and calmly try to remember which way to go next. It's kind of like Dracula taking out his teeth and trying to gum you to death -- not too scary and plenty of time to plan your escape.
So, we've covered the conventional puzzles and the action sequences that are not full of action, so how about we finish up with one of our favorite ways to pad out a short game. That's right, DSJ has not one, not two, but three maze sequences -- although they're all in a row, so you could consider it one extremely long maze instead. Now don't get me wrong. I have seen some good mazes put into games that really lent themselves to the story. But this is not one of them. Spending time deciphering clues to navigate a series of hallways that all look the same, finally getting through, and then opening a door to a longer version of the exact same maze is not fun and not challenging. It's just a pain.
The problem here is that there's no real group for me to recommend the game to. The puzzles are going to be too easy for experienced adventure gamers, but the maze and action sequences keep me from endorsing it even for newer gamers. Add to this the fact that both stories can be completed in around three hours total, and there's just not much here to warrant the purchase price. What I certainly can recommend is trying the game for yourself by downloading the demo from the official website, where the game is also available for order.
I think the series has potential, and I'm keeping my fingers crossed for the future installments. With a little more VIC in place, some work on the puzzles, and ditching the action sequences, this is a series that could really be great. I could already see a lot of progress from the first chapter to the second, so here's hoping Delaware isn't down for the count from the beginning.
A series with potential that's just not starting out on the right foot. I'm holding my breath for the next installment.
What our readers think of Delaware St. John, Volume 1: The Curse of Midnight Manor
Want to share your own thoughts about this game? Share your personal score, or better yet, leave your own review!