Remember Loath Nolder? Probably not, or if the name rings a bell, it's a title long since consigned to the "Where Are They Now?" files. And for good reason. Well over a year ago, news of its cancellation appeared to sound the death knell on the independent horror adventure game. Yet before the corpse was even cold came a surprise announcement that it was being resurrected from the grave (hopefully without any gruesome occult rituals) by a splinter group from the original development team in Turkey. And then… nothing.
Recently, Loath Nolder: Labores Solis emerged from the ashes once again, not only still alive, but apparently very much kicking. The game is still in the hands of the "new" developers, though having gone through another name change, that team is now known as Zoetrope Interactive. But while you might suspect that a game with such a troubled past would be much worse for the wear, quite the opposite is true. Whatever else might have been going on behind the scenes, the developers have been busy overhauling the game's basic engine for better graphics and improved versatility. Better yet, they've produced a playable demo to showcase their progress, and if my early experience with the game is any indication, they're well on their way to creating one of the spookiest adventure games in recent memory.
Heavily inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft, Loath Nolder is set in a fictional place called Hilltown in the year 2011. The game casts players in the role of a police detective named Howard Loreid, called in to track down a man he's always admired, but who is now on the run as a fugitive murder suspect: the titular Loath Nolder. Once a successful private detective, Nolder's last case mysteriously caused him to spend five years travelling in African and Oceanic countries. While rumours abounded about his activities, Nolder lived among aboriginal tribes, including some cannabilistic ones, where he learned many ancient secrets from shamans and sorcerers. When he returned, he was a changed man, with a disturbing skin disease reflecting his changed mental state.
His first case upon returning was investigating the disappearance of Clark Field, but Nolder soon became the prime suspect of Field's murder and fled suddenly. A short while later, the missing detective was found by police, unconscious and in poor health. But Nolder escaped the hospital upon awakening, and to track him down this time, Loreid (and the player) must follow in his increasingly terrifying footsteps.
One of the first clues to Nolder's whereabouts leads players to the home of an eccentric, wealthy recluse named Edward Braunbell. Braunbell's property includes a huge garden with a strange little building that dates back long before the luxurious mansion residence. It's in the attic of this building that the demo begins, as Loreid's goal is to find an ancient artifact and get out before nightfall.
The game's graphics are rich with detail, allowing smooth, 360-degree panning at each node. Outdoors, seagulls fly overhead against the backdrop of drifting clouds, while elsewhere water ripples and fog wafts in ominously. Still other real-time effects are promised for the full game, including rain and snow, though these weren't available in the demo. But Loreid's not here for sightseeing and picnics, and his vision frequently becomes impaired to reflect his psychological condition. The game introduces an ambitious variety of dramatic graphical effects to increase atmosphere and player immersion, and the results are (intentionally) disturbing. Included are such things as a noise filter, which creates a deliberately grainy appearance whenever Howard feels uncomfortable (though Zoetrope will offer an option to disable this effect in the full game), motion blurring for moments of panic, radial blurring for enhanced attention, and other "unrealistic" post-screen effects for when Howard can no longer determine the real from surreal. You see, though an ordinary man in most repects, he's a lucid dreamer who believes he has a sleep disorder causing night terror. But in Loath Nolder, there is only a thin line between the waking world and the dream world, and Howard won't always be sure which side of the line he's on.
In addition to these effects are some clever uses of sound and camera work. Music is used judiciously to support the game's atmosphere, and when he starts to get anxious, Howard's breathing will become heavier and audible, which creates a very palpable sense of fear. Even better, at key moments the camera will automatically begin sweeping in various directions, desperately looking for the source of stress. While some may object to this as an intrusion on the first-person experience, it's always over quickly, and it's incredibly effective at producing a heightened sense of dread in a way that a playable drone simply never allows. It's sadistically creepy stuff (and any horror fan will know I mean that in a good way).
The cause of all this tension centers around an ancient legend of lizard-like people and their dark god who existed eons before mankind, but now lies dormant, sleeping deep within the earth until the moment of awakening. This legend has been carried on by rare, esoteric human sects throughout history, whose worship initiation rites include modifying the human body to become saurian. As players soon discover, Hilltown exists above a complex underground tunnel system used by the modern followers of this deity. After locating the source of the eerie sounds and voices he's been hearing, Howard's exploration in the demo takes him down to these catacombs, where he observes sarcophogi covered with heiroglyphs, reptilian statues, and in an incredibly frightening moment, a… wait, nah, I better not spoil it. What I will say is that the experience is a wonderful combination of both the implied and the real. There is nothing that will kill you, and no cheap scares of things jumping out of the shadows saying "boo!" Like Lovecraft's own works, the focus is on psychological horror in Loath Nolder. And yet one of my laments about some of some of the other horror adventures of late is that the fear can't sustain itself with no tangible threat. Things that go bump in the night are indeed terrifying, but if all it ever does is bump, at some point you decide the house is just settling. And it's that precarious balance that this demo manages to handle superbly. Whether Zoetrope can maintain that over the course of a whole game remains to be seen, but they've already proven themselves capable.
Along the way, there will be some non-player characters for you to interact with during the game, most of whom are what the developers call "sinister and tight-lipped". NPCs include Braunbell, a policeman, a ship captain, and perhaps even some creations of Howard's imagination. But you'll largely be doing solitary exploration throughout Hilltown's environments, such as an old ruin and a witch cemetery, along with Braunbell's property and the tunnels.
But if the plot, atmosphere, and locations all have your teeth chattering and hands shaking, rest assured that the intuitive point-and-cl-cl-cl-click interface will at least make you feel comfortable. In fact, the gameplay of Loath Nolder is very traditional all around. The demo included a nice range of logical puzzles that Zoetrope claims is representative of the full game, from simple item applications to a multi-tiered clue matching challenge. The inventory has examine, rotate, and combine options which will all be necessary at various times to complete the puzzles. The developers are also considering an option for players to "use" Howard's investigative notes in a manner similar to inventory items. All this should take players between 20-25 hours of play time, not counting the time spent with your eyes shut and a blanket pulled over your head.
At present, Zoetrope is planning to include several sequences that players will need to react to in real time. However, these are intended merely to increase tension realistically, not to challenge dexterity, and the developers plan to listen carefully during playtesting before deciding whether to keep them in the final version.
If there's one fly in the ointment of anticipation, it's that Labores Solis (a Latin phrase which translates as "Eclipse of the Sun") is only the first of a planned series of three games. I know, I know... I can already hear the collective groan from those who can't abide episodic content in any form. But hey, just think of it this way: if it's as good as its early promises indicates, this will just save everyone the trouble of asking for a sequel later.
Unfortunately, the complete first game is still going to be a while yet. With just a small team of three, Zoetrope is cautiously predicting a target of third quarter ' 07 for release. But with titles like Dark Fall, Scratches, and Barrow Hill leading the way, it seems indie developers own the horror genre these days, and with titles like Loath Nolder: Labores Solis on the horizon, that trend is looking secure in the foreseeable future.