Some adventure fans might remember an unassuming little indie adventure released last year called Hauntings of Mystery Manor, by Cindy Pondillo. This was her first independently developed title using the Adventure Game Studio engine. While receiving lukewarm reviews, the style of her debut effort was a pleasant departure from standard commercial and AGS offerings alike. Pondillo's latest adventure, Intrigue at Oakhaven Plantation, was created in a similar manor… err… manner, yet features an altogether different plot. Like its predecessor, this is a commercial release and can be found for sale on the Mystery Manor website. So was Pondillo able to benefit from her previous experience to create an improved offering this time around? Let's take a closer look at this brief yet enjoyable little game to see if it's worth your time and money.
The game begins when you arrive one afternoon at beautiful Oakhaven plantation at the behest of your beloved Grand-mère, the reason for her invitation remaining vague. You find yourself standing at the tree-lined path leading to the steps of the estate; the mirthful chirping of birds leading you to the quiet interior of Grand-mère's home. Inside the lovely Louisiana plantation, you are introduced as a young woman named Daphne, and engage in fairly lengthy conversation with your Grand-mère about her deteriorating health.
After the pleasant title screen and brief letter of invitation (there is no narration nor any voice work in the game), you are presented with a glimpse of a zero puzzle score, which indicates a running tally will be kept throughout the game. Filling the score box is paramount to continued progress through the story. Subsequently, the score can always be accessed through the pop-down menu if you want to check your current progress. However, each puzzle that is solved will result in sounding a chime and a view of your current tally.
And here we have the complete premise of the game: Grand-mère informs you of her desire to have a contest of will, wit and skill between you and your cousin Dominic in order to determine who is most worthy of the estate's inheritance. Whomever completes their tasks first (thus the tally) will win. Making matters more interesting, you'll actually play the dual roles of Daphne and Dominic, and throughout the game you will have access to both characters in the menu, and will often need to change into one or the other to propel the story forward.
The first thing you will notice about Oakhaven, the plantation and the game, are the lovely first-person visuals, which are so detailed it's a shame that the game presents them in such low resolution. You will have scenes off the balcony of the manor overlooking the mysterious swamp, picturesque rooms within the manor; lush gardens about the estate, and as you explore, other organic and nicely illustrated backgrounds. One nice touch, and a clear improvement in this game over Pondillo's original effort, is a nicely modified AGS graphical interface, which now includes a stylish menu design.
While your explorations aren't vast, you do get to cover quite a bit of ground in Oakhaven, eventually taking to the swamps via a boat, as you attempt to accomplish each of Grand-mère's tasks while unraveling the mysterious ball of yarn that is your heritage. The deeper you explore, the more the game delivers on its promise to provide intrigue, in the form of a surprisingly well written story of old bayou voodoo, lovelorn mystery and dark meanderings of branches along the Louisiana family tree.
It comes out that Daphne was born under highly unusual and mysterious circumstance, and her mother disappeared into the bayou and was never seen again. Or was she? Haunted by a past she is just now learning, Daphne discovers herself and uncovers enough secrets about Oakhaven to propel the player forward for more than just the fun, simple diversion of puzzling.
There are 22 puzzles in all (11 for each character) that range from slider puzzle to maze to anagram match to musical, and many more. Even some that rely on your reflex rather than your cerebrum. With the exception of a few inventory-based puzzles, all others are random tasks that Grand-mère requires to test your mettle as a possible plantation owner. Since you start the game as Daphne, it might seem she has a reasonable edge over Dominic in finishing first. I'll let you find out if that's true, but the puzzles are neither prohibitive nor frustrating for either character. They are a nice breather between story arcs, whetting one's appetite for more of the actual story, and their difficulty level seems well suited to the pace of the game.
Point-and-click navigation is easy in this static slideshow-style game. You cannot turn around in any given room, so you are limited to the entrance view, and can only leave by clicking an exit icon to back out. Your arrow cursor, when moved over a hotspot, will text label an item you can investigate. For you red herring lovers out there, there are relatively few exploratory items in Oakhaven, so don't expect a lot of extraneous information, other than the typical plot device of library book snippets and journals. The inventory is rudimentary and easily used to combine objects and apply them simply by clicking on the appropriate hotspot.
You will run into many non-playable characters, but their lives only exist in the words they speak in dialogue, as they are a static part of the background, posed to suit the inevitable conversation you will have with them. You can click through the text at your own pace, but at the end of each conversation, you cannot repeat the dialogue, nor is there a handy journal by which you can go back over what's been said or tasked of you to do. So read well the first time.
The music in Oakhaven changes in style and genre according to the character you play, ranging from reflective piano to the relaxed pacing of jazz. Attention was clearly given so that the appropriate music is conjoined with the location or scene you are in.
The sound effects are crisp, clear, and well done. The lapping of waves feels wet and cold, the cacophony of birds is cheerful yet oddly foreboding, and at various times you'll hear the creak from opening and closing of old doors, the sound of a grandfather clock, and the trill of a mysterious wind, just to name a few. All are effectively put to good use to create the proper scene-sation.
It bears repeating that the story in Oakhaven is the true darkhorse of the game. If the puzzles were a little more organically integrated and difficulty-graded (getting harder as you go along), this game would have more playability than just a few hours (the website says five, and that seems accurate, give or take an hour). The end game dialogue sequence is very long, and a lot of reading could have been done in bite-size segments through the course of the game instead of as a single chapter in the end.
Oakhaven is not epic in scope, but then it was never advertised as such. Instead, it's a simple, short, but fairly fun little adventure with a story well told. It won't be for everyone, however, as you'll need to be forgiving of low-res graphics, the lack of voice work, static NPCs and artificially integrated puzzles with a rather easy difficulty level in order to appreciate it.
I certainly believe this game is worth releasing as a commercial endeavour, as the quality is higher than most of what you will find in freeware adventure games. I'm a little reticent, however, in view of the obvious production values and fun-factor in episodic games such as Sam & Max that retail for less than this game, to recommend the game at its current cost. It would be better received, I believe, if the purchase price of $14.95 USD were reduced somewhat. But value for money is entirely subjective, so if you're looking for something a little different to while away the hours on a lazy Sunday afternoon, Intrigue at Oakhaven Plantation awaits.
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