Adventure Gamers Awards
If you ever end up on some lonely stretch of highway, far from home, and see the soft lights of a roadside motel, a word of warning. If the city limit sign reads Welcome to Shady Brook, best drive on by. But of course, gamers rarely listen. So go ahead, stretch your legs, grab a cup of coffee and stroll around a bit. But watch your back and keep your engine running. In Shady Brook, people who linger too long never find their way home.
Feeling a bit wary? That's the way the developer likes it. Chris Brendel and his independent company, Unimatrix, entered the game arena last year with Lifestream, an original story told with a subtle Twilight Zone flair. Their newest game, Shady Brook, is its more sinister successor. Goodbye, Rod Serling, and hello-o-o, Crypt-keeper. First stop: that small town on the side of a lonely highway.
Jake Tobin is a struggling writer, looking for a quiet place where he can live with his aged father and complete his novel. But he's a guy with a problem. Where can they go? Money is tight and other than he and his dad, there is no other family. As luck would have it, he finds an advertisement. There is a home for sale at an affordable price and better yet, it is located in an idyllic small town. Nestled in the mountains, just off a rural route, it has all the hallmarks of a perfect place to live. Sight unseen, Jake moves fast to buy the house, packs up their few personal possessions and takes off with his dad to their new home.
They aren't in Shady Brook more than a minute before Jake gets the edgy feeling this may not have been the best decision of his life. First, the house is cheap for a reason and it isn't termites. The former owner mysteriously vanished, not long after his daughters were discovered brutally killed. And what is going on with the master bedroom? Why is it locked and where is the key? A stroll around the town does little to reassure. There's a sinister aura about the place, the friendly townfolk's smiles don't run very deep, and the motel never seems to have any guests. The innkeeper keeps a lonely vigil at the main window most nights and his young wife has a nervous way as she clutches her baby, tending to the town store. The remaining locals are more than a little peculiar and how does everyone already know his name? He has more questions than answers, but it's late, so they'll have to wait. At the door, he glances back and is startled by what he sees. High on a nearby hill, on the front porch of a dilapidated house, sits a lone, motionless figure staring grimly at the homes and people below. Jake registers a slight chill, but first thing he has to do is get the master bedroom door open, as he really needs some sleep.
The next day, the sun is up and things look better. After all, doesn't every town have at least one odd local? And besides, where else can he and his dad go? But in the days that follow, Jake learns the town has a definite dark underbelly and everyone has something to hide. Nothing is what it seems and the truth is worse than he could have imagined. Whether he survives this move is a question of wits, caution, and perhaps fate.
The characters that populate the town set an eerie tone for this game, including the local minister. Forget the traditional image of the neighborly preacher; this guy is closer to Rasputin. From his monk's robe and wild-eyed glare to his glowing, globe-topped staff, you really don't want to attend his Sunday services. Then there is Curly, the local tough with a sleazy girlfriend, overworked muscles, and an unchecked attitude. "Oh, don't mind him," drawls the ominous woman who runs the town diner, "He's just an excitable boy." Yes, Shady Brook is home to the largest collection of sinister oddballs this side of Tales From the Crypt. The analogy is close to home in other ways, as the story and characters are dark and adult. Eavesdrop and you might hear Curly and his girl deep into a lot more than romantic chitchat. The barber is a tough guy and has quite a selection of magazines, the kind you might keep stuffed under a mattress. This is also a horror story, and it has its fair share of mature plot twists and visceral images. There is an option to tone down this aspect of the game, but the more adult references suit the plot, and nothing is that offensive since the grainy graphics obscure much detail. Just be warned, the game has some mild adult overtones and instances of gore.
The various cast of characters, each with a unique history and vivid personality, is nicely designed. Modeled in 3D by Michael Clark, a fellow independent developer who made Harvest, the graphical quality of the people adds much to the overall gameplay. Although they have slightly disproportionate bodies and a stilted walk, their faces are well animated and dynamic, with detailed expressions and lip-synching. Since the game features a very personal story, focusing on the relationship of the characters to the town and each other, the extra care taken to create highly expressive characters pays off by drawing you in deeper.
Adding to this positive mix is the dialogue format and quality. Shady Brook features player-driven dialogues, with multiple topics available. Although this is hardly new, it has been largely abandoned by more recent games in favor of autopilot exchanges. The more traditional interactive mode has been missed and is a welcome design choice here. What makes it more than mere interaction is the strength of the dialogues themselves. The conversations have a natural flow, always in keeping with the plot and personality of the speaker. There is no substitute for good writing and this game showcases that skill. And it would be a shame if such lines were spoiled by poor voice acting. Fortunately, the actors behind the scenes are fairly strong. John Bell, the ever-familiar voice actor for many a game these days, makes an appearance in several roles. Although his voice is recognizable, which may bother those with a more discerning ear, he provides professional flair to give each character a distinct sound.
The soundtrack adds a definite flourish to the package. The intro cinematic has an original recording, reminiscent of Pulp Fiction or twisted rock-a-billy. The rest of the game has periodic musical moments that perfectly suit the corresponding cinematic or animation and occur naturally on cue, fading away when player control returns. This avoids the looping soundtrack that can become tiresome. The sound effects that track movements and events are more uneven, as the doors sound too much like grating rocks, but overall they're done well enough to add flavor to the place.
The game's weaknesses begin with the look of the game. One of the first things that strikes you is the graphics, or really the bare-bones look of them. Now, graphics alone don't make or break any given game, but the limited look can't go unmentioned. There is a grainy, blocky appearance to the backgrounds and environments, with details and customary subtleties noticeably lacking. An unfortunate side effect of the higher quality character modeling is the sharp contrast they create with the lower end environments. This pulls you out of the game, detracting from the immersive story and gameplay. The fuzzy graphics also impact some challenges in the game, many of which are organic to the game environments and involve careful manipulation of inventory or other items at close range. The visuals don't sharpen up much in close ups, and this can make it difficult to spot interactive spots or clues to the solution. Certainly graphics are a budget hungry area of game development and independently financed games frequently have to cut corners close in this area. But given the negative impact on immersion and the functionality of the gameplay, it is an area that needs some re-thinking for future projects.
The gameplay itself is a mixed bag, as it is logical in some ways, poorly clued in others. The game has a definite non-linear environment, as you can walk anywhere and talk to people or go places when it suits. However, a player can also feel lost or stuck without solid gameplay nudges along the way. In Shady Brook, most of these "what's next" clues are provided by an in-game to do list. While this notebook works fairly well, listing tasks for the day as they arise, they can be completed out of order and the information isn't detailed, providing only a vague reference of needing to talk to person about a topic. This leads to the other set of triggers that arise through key dialogues. Many of these critical game-advancing exchanges are triggered only after a set point of gameplay milestones are reached in a given level. This is not unusual in a game, but it is not apparent from the plot whether the person has more to say and needs to be revisited, or if they are simply done. This can lead to a great deal of unnecessary backtracking and walking around doing everything you can think of to find out why the game has stopped moving along. A small design change in the notebook or verbal hints from the main character could have easily clued the gamer in that specific NPCs had more to say, but wouldn't talk until you'd completed other items on your task list.
Besides serving as a built-in hint system, the task list serves another purpose as well. In another nod to classic gaming, the designer added a point system to track the player's progress and completion of all possible tasks and interactions. Although maximum point achievement isn't a requisite for beating the game, for those who like an added challenge, it's in there.
The in-game challenges themselves are well represented, without a maze or "push the key through the lock" in the mix. A few are quite well done, with clever designs and solutions. There are inventory application puzzles, standalone locked boxes and safes, and dialogue or character driven conundrums, among others. Despite some problems associated with graphical details, they are perplexing enough to be engaging without pushing the gamer into frustration. It should be noted that there a few "action" events included in the gameplay. However, the so-called action is fairly easy, and either generously timed or off the clock altogether. The type of challenges range from throwing a few well-aimed punches to playing a game against another character. To suit personal preference, the designer has provided an option to play the game in adventure or action mode. Having played both ways, I would recommend the latter. If you choose the adventure setting, these challenges are beaten automatically and the resulting reward added to your inventory, with nothing more than an abrupt visual skip forward. So while the option is there, I would urge you to give it a pass and play the full game. No reason to miss any part of this story by taking short cuts.
This brings up one of the best design add-ins of the game. The game cinematics include a hidden feature that gamers typically love: easter eggs, and tons of them. Although they require careful hunting -- meaning, move that mouse around and let the random clicking begin -- they aren't totally obscure. Most are character-based, so never assume you have heard the last word from anyone. Triggering one is always good fun, and most are full outtakes, including references to Lifestream, choreographed outbursts or well-placed cultural references. It is one of the areas where the game excels and it's a charming addition. It also makes a replay of the game more than a point-maximizing formality.
This game does have its flaws, leaving definite room for improvement in future projects. It certainly isn't going to be known for its eye-candy graphics or amazing cinematics, and the gameplay has some rough edges that may require a hint or two along the way. Despite these caveats, the atmospheric story, engaging characters, smart use of classic game features, and clever extras make the game worthy of a long look, particularly at its very reasonable purchase price. Offered only on DVD, the game is available directly from the Unimatrix online store. Assuming you didn't actually book a room at the motel and remembered to keep that engine running, a stopover in Shady Brook may suit you just fine.