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.Continued on the next page...