Delaware St. John Volume 3: The Seacliff Tragedy review
Sequels are a tricky beast. How do you maintain what your audience liked about previous entries, while still moving forward with enough new stuff to keep them interested? Sometimes it works well -- think the original Star Wars trilogy -- and sometimes it doesn't -- think any Friday the 13th movie after part five.
This issue can be especially problematic in the world of gaming. Because you're dealing with an interactive environment, on top of the usual issues you have to move forward with new features, new environments, and new puzzles, or you risk losing your audience to flashier titles. In movies, story is everything, but in gaming, it's only one part of the package.
The Delaware St. John series is facing just such a challenge. After a lengthy delay following the second episode, volume three is now available, and while the story and graphics are better than ever, the game itself is starting to seem like the same movie with different sets.
Before we get too deep into the new game, a little recap is in order for those coming into the story with no background. In the previous two games, we're introduced to bookstore owner and paranormal investigator Delaware St. John. From time to time, Delaware receives visions of haunted locations and lost souls in need of his assistance. With the help of his partner Kelly, Delaware visits these sites to investigate the reason for the haunting.
In The Curse of Midnight Manor, Delaware visited the namesake hotel where a group of teenagers disappeared suddenly, only to discover the hotel contained even deeper secrets dating back many years earlier. In The Town With No Name, Delaware was drawn to a remote, uncharted town whose population completed disappeared decades before. While investigating the tragic fate of its citizens, Delaware learned that he himself had ties to the town. In both episodes, Delaware was stalked by a mystical creature intent on making him the latest victim of each location.
And that leads us up to our new installment, The Seacliff Tragedy, with Delaware visiting an abandoned amusement park that was shut down after a terrible accident. Delaware's partner Kelly is along for the ride in person this time. Her friend Simon now plays point-man back at the bookstore while the two sleuths investigate the tragic park accident and its aftermath. And of course it wouldn't be a Delaware St. John adventure if you didn't have a certain beast popping up at the most inopportune times to chase you down.
I'm constantly amazed by the stories that are chosen for this series. Just like the previous chapters, the creators have managed to take the location of countless movies and books and turn something that should have been clichéd into a fresh story with plenty of twists and turns along the way. Adding Kelly in as a playable character really moved the story along, and while the play style is no different between Kelly and Delaware, it was nice to have a chance to flesh out her character a little more. And while almost nothing can be said about the story without spoiling it, I can say that we do get more insight into Delaware's background, and it's got me definitely on edge waiting for the next installment.
Another area that the DSJ series has never had a problem with is its graphics. Although a noticeably low budget affair, from the very beginning the developers have managed to put a great visual flair into the games, whether it's the ghostly apparitions that appear from time to time or the wonderful location graphics with their lived-in look and feel. And with each new installment the creators have managed to up the ante. The first game took place exclusively in the hotel, which resulted in a bit too much repetition. The haunted town offered a bigger taste of what the developers were capable of in the second game, before thrusting us into an abandoned orphanage that suffered from the same repetitive issue. But with the amusement park setting in The Seacliff Tragedy, Big Time Games gave themselves a wide open area to work with, and they have definitely taken advantage of it.
For starters, the 3D cutscenes are amazingly well done for a smaller-sized company, and not only do they really lend a nice feel to the game, they also allow us to get a better feel for the characters. And the in-game graphics have moved up the ladder as well. With a wider area to work with, the feeling of sameness that hurt the earlier games is no longer a problem. The various sections of the carnival are different enough that getting lost is not as much of a problem as in the past, and since you'll spend a good portion of the game revisiting locations, it's nice to have more to look at than the same hallways with different room numbers.
That's not to say that there aren't still issues. While the cutscenes are great, there's still no way to exit them early, so if you have to reload to a previous portion of the game, be prepared to sit through them all over again. And this is not just during the game itself, as when you start a new game you'll be forced to sit through the entire credit sequence before you can start playing. And while this isn't a huge deal, it is easily preventable, and it's something that takes away control from the player, which can be rather annoying.
Musically, Big Time Games seems to subscribe to the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" theory. For the most part the score is identical to the previous volumes, which is definitely not a bad thing in this case. They generally prefer using a minimalist approach, blending the music into the background instead of using it to force a mood or throw a fake scare at you. Another nice touch is hearing the main theme being integrated into the game itself in different ways. Imagine my surprise when I played one of the carnival games only to hear the DSJ theme song coming out of a horse racing game on the midway. Kudos to the development team for finding inventive ways to make music matter in the game without cramming it down our throats like many companies do.
I wasn't very impressed with the voices in the first chapter of the series, but I've been pleasantly surprised as time has gone on. The voices that originally sounded too young for their characters and a little on the shaky side have developed into a set of strong, confident characters. Delaware now sounds exactly like you would picture him to be, Kelly has the perfect amount of smarm in her voice, and the addition of Simon as a full-fledged team member gave me ample time to enjoy his performance. Likewise, the supporting cast did a great job of pulling me into the story with their work. In many games, you can count on one or two voices being grating, but I didn't come across this at all during The Seacliff Tragedy. And as a nice touch, after two episodes practically begging for the feature, subtitles are now in place to help decipher some of those ghostly voices from beyond.
Of course, as always the gameplay is what really matters, and this is where Delaware stumbles a bit. While the graphics and sound get better and better with each new release, the gameplay remains largely the same -- for better and for worse.
While at one point there were rumblings that the series was moving to full 3D, a reversal of plans meant that the new game is still a matter of moving node to node through static screens using a first-person view. As with most slideshow-style games, it's a fairly simple navigation scheme, and extremely easy to pick up. The only problem comes from the size of the game. While the graphics make it easier to keep your bearings in the park, it is still possible to get turned around awkwardly due to an errant mouse click on the wrong part of the screen. And when you're playing a game where you're being chased by hellish creatures and every click counts, this can make for deadly mistakes.
The rest of the interface has also remained unchanged and this, for the most part, is a good thing. Delaware, Kelly, and Simon all communicate through a device called VIC -- a combination communicator, sound recorder, and camera. Using this, Delaware or Kelly can communicate with Simon back at the bookstore, as well as being able to send recordings or pictures of strange phenomena to be researched.
VIC is anchored to the bottom of the screen and serves as the interface for the game, with your phone, record, and photo functions joining the inventory and menu screen buttons. I love this feature, and I'm glad they've kept it in the game, but it still doesn't feel like it is being used to its full potential. As with the other games, you'll use VIC a few times when prompted, but it mostly just seems like wasted opportunity.
Puzzles are mostly inventory-based, with a few navigation, code, and switch puzzles thrown in for good measure. Unfortunately, the game seems very linear, with items usually not available until Delaware "sees" them, meaning lots of backtracking to find items that you've been walking by the whole time. None of the puzzles are terribly difficult, and as you'll usually only have one or two inventory items on you at any one time, it's not especially hard to figure out what to use and where.
Along with your standard adventure game puzzling, Delaware will also need to have his wits about him during some light action sequences. As Delaware wanders the park, dark spirits will occasionally pop up in front of him and attempt to drain his life force, and the only way to stop them is to click on them with Delaware's flashlight, destroying them. While it's not a very difficult thing to do, as you have ample time to click on them, it does add nicely to the atmosphere.
As mentioned earlier, you'll also encounter a few more chase sequences, requiring you to navigate portions of the park while being hounded by the park's denizens, as well as the familiar beast from Delaware's previous adventures. In the past, this seemed odd to me as you were merely navigating hallways and there was no real sense of urgency. This time around it becomes a little more difficult, as you may need to be picking up inventory along the way, or maneuvering your way around as you are boxed in by the spirits of the park. I've been critical of the pseudo-action sequences in the series before, but here they have made me a believer.
But a part of the goodwill generated by the improvements is evaporated by the inclusion of not one, but two instances of my pet peeve -- the dreaded maze. I keep hoping that developers will stop padding out game time by including these in their games, but some of them still continue. And while Delaware St. John at least makes them fit the context of the story, they are still mazes and they're generally unpopular for a reason. Being drawn into a story and then having to stop to map out a maze and then hope that you don't accidentally click the back arrow instead of a direction arrow (which will leave you completely turned around) has a tendency to kill the immersion and remind me that I'm playing a game.
With the mazes involved and the backtracking, most people will get through the game in around seven hours or so, which is a fairly significant increase in playing time over the first two episodes. New players to the series may feel a little lost by some of the references tossed out by Kelly and Delaware, but the story does a good job of standing on its own, and I think anyone playing volume three will be intrigued enough by the story to go find the other two parts.
All in all, the series seems to be at something of a crossroads. The graphics, sounds, and music are all improving gradually, and I'm still excited at seeing where the larger story arc goes next. But the series doesn't seem to be evolving in the more important matter of gameplay. If we could get more significant use of the VIC, along with some challenging puzzles, more than a couple inventory items at a time, or even a less linear story that allows for more exploration, I would be totally behind the series. But as it stands, there just isn't really a whole lot of thought needed, even with the pretty screens and interesting story to keep me moving forward. Nevertheless, I'm keeping my fingers crossed that the next game takes a more substantial step forward, because with the potential it shows and another seven planned episodes yet to come, I still believe that Delaware St. John has the makings of a memorable and enduring series.
The Seacliff Tragedy is worth checking out for the story and the graphics, but the series has yet to reach its gameplay potential.