Anacapri: The Dream review
The lovely scenery of the titular island greets you on every slide of Anacapri: The Dream. Not bad subject matter to work with. Made up of beautiful beaches, quaint towns, charming stores and great sea views, it has remarkably good genes. The game is made up of thousands of photographic depictions of actual locations, which offers a wonderful opportunity to forget the story and puzzles and just explore. And with a good 50-60 hours of gameplay, the gamer will have a lot of time to get acquainted with this island.
While Anacapri may be a dream location, the game's subtitle is meant to be taken quite literally. It seems, in fact, that you are in a dream for most of the game. When in the dream world, the storyline revolves around a missing obsidian disk on the present day island. You play as Dr. Nico N, an expert in ancient civilizations who is brought in to help find the disk. In real life, your character is better described as an expert on the psychology of dreams, as this appears to be the main line of the research he is pursuing. Other characters from the real world take on different roles which are ultimately meant to be symbolic and self-actualizing in the end, helping our character to come to a greater understanding of himself.
But back to that disk -- it has quite the history, having appeared and disappeared at various times over the course of more than 3000 years. All manner of powerful men have wanted to possess it and its strange powers. Where many of them believed it would bring them glory and power, most of the current islanders feel that all the disk brings is bad luck and misery, and a number of them, fearing it is soon to be found again, have decided to flee before destruction rains down on them.
And that is just the start of this incredibly lengthy game.
The story itself is made up of equal parts fantasy and reality. While in the dream world, characters from Nico’s real life make appearances, sometimes as individuals who lived in the 19th century. Others become supernatural figures, handing out wisdom or acting as keepers of sacred information. All in all, the storyline is quite busy with characters and symbols to figure out, some of which are clear and others whose metaphorical relevance went right over my head. I just can’t say the story worked for me, becoming too outlandish and hard to get into. Maybe it's the lack of exposition before certain characters or plot points are introduced, which makes their presence less than believable. Maybe. But that issue certainly isn't alone in creating this dysphoria.
The graphics themselves are beautiful, but for some reason they seem to be tad grainer than in the preview version I played. I suspect this has to do with disk space and compression issues, and may perhaps be limited to the North American retail version. Unlike the game's predecessor, A Quiet Weekend in Capri, there are lots of extra little flourishes added here and there to give the static nature of this slideshow game a little pizzazz: signs blink with neon lights, water ripples, and plenty of other animations add a nice dimension to the graphic design. But even without the bells and whistles, such lush source material has a natural ability to speak to the soul of a traveller. You feel so immersed that you want to shop along the avenues or grab a coffee from the café. This is the next best thing to being there.
The game's point-and-click interface is generally solid, allowing intuitive and easy movement through the game's many nodes. Right-clicking provides access to a variety of options, including the inventory and game map. The map is indispensable. There are so many roads, trails and pathways to wander that you'll probably roam aimlessly around at times until you eventually realize you are very lost. Luckily, a quick scan of the map lets you know where you are. Better yet, the addition of a jump feature is another savvy touch that allows you to instantly move to locations you have already visited. These locations are often quite a distance from each other. To have backtracked all those spaces would have been very frustrating.
Not only is there a huge amount of territory to cover and explore -- a real surprise in an indie game like this -- there are a lot of puzzles to solve. None of which I would call easy. Most involve exploration, interacting with different characters, picking up items and learning stories and trying to piece them all together. With enough time and willpower, most people will be able to do this. For some, however, the difficulty of a number of challenges combined with the breadth of exploration is going to mean not finishing the game. Of course, all games have qualities that appeal to us personally and some players will revel in these exact attributes, while others will hate them. I can see people either really liking this game, committed to solving it over the long haul, or giving up and throwing in the towel. The only other commercially available game that I can think of that comes close to its length and difficulty is Riven, though in most other respects the two are worlds apart.
There is quite a bit of inventory to pick up and use along the way. Some inventory items are easy to spy, others not so much. Where things get really tricky is when you start trying to figure out where to use some of it. The game gives you the option to play with hotspots turned on, which I did. What this means is that a thin black box appears around objects or interactive areas. This is helpful when simply wandering the streets of Anacapri, but it only helps marginally with the puzzles, as there's no indication that an inventory item can be used there. If you don’t just plunk something down randomly at times, just to check it out, you might completely overlook it as a viable option. This wouldn't be so bad if it was more clear where items need to go, but it is far from obvious at times what to do with the items in your possession. On an island the size of Anacapri, this is a problem.
The interface isn't the only obstacle, however. There are many times when more exposition or clues are needed to let you know what to do next, as your direction is often unclear. The designers do pepper clues throughout the game, but some are so obtuse that you just won't realize what the reference is meant for. Some puzzles require jumping in and out of the dream world mid-puzzle, a scenario for which I felt the game had poorly prepared me. And I am not talking about two or three difficult puzzles; I mean that the vast majority are at this level of difficulty. While certainly not opposed to challenging puzzles, a better variety would have helped the game greatly. No doubt some players will relish the opportunity to contantly chew over what to do next. I suspect, though, that the majority of gamers will find the sheer amount of contemplation required to be exhausting. For me, I started to feel that this game could be another Blue Ice, a beautiful but deadly difficult game.
One of the strengths of the game is that is has a large number of characters to interact with. Character animations consist of static images of real people in a series of fluid poses; it has sort of a stop-motion feel to it. The characters provide the player with a great deal of information and sometimes objects that you will need. However, these exchanges are one-sided. They talk and you listen. You don’t have the ability to ask questions.
Unfortunately, the character interaction also highlights one of the game's major flaws. Originally made in Italian, Anacapri shows some serious localization problems, particularly in the area of voice work, which teeters on laughable. There are a couple of characters who rise above the median, but the large majority sound like the actors were reading directly from a script they had never seen before. In particular, the voice of Roman Emperor Augustus will convince you it's done by the same guy who does Porky Pig. Not the best choice for a man who was supposed to have led the Empire. Most dialogue is delivered in a halting style, which suggests that either most of these people are not professionals or had inadequate time to rehearse with the script (or both). While this might be understandable from the perspective of a small developer, for any commercial game this element should be far more polished than it is. Even smaller independent games like the Carol Reed series are ahead of Anacapri by comparison.
The localization problems also factor into the in-game reading material, as the many notes and letters you find are full of grammatical errors. As a teacher, I can’t abide this, but any gamer would find this type of slapdash work to be unacceptable, if not unforgivable. There's simply no excuse not to have properly edited the content for such things.
The sound work is shaky in other spots, as well, though it does seem to pick up the further you get into the game. The ambient sound is fine, but the attempt at creating a small soundtrack is not always as successful. There are a couple of pieces that sound like they were put together by someone on a Yamaha with high school band experience. The only time the music rises to the occasion is with songs that sound culturally native to the island, as if such songs had been played for years and could not be performed incorrectly here.
With such wonderful source material to use, Anacapri: The Dream was already ahead before it entered the race. The sheer number of slides in the game must have taken countless hours to photograph, and the effort pays off handsomely. But it seems that the designers relied too much on the beauty of their setting to enchant gamers. Despite the incredible scenery, this level of dedication was not extended to the rest of the game's elements, seriously hurting its credibility in a commercial marketplace. So while the developers can be lauded for a job visually well done, and Anacapri will no doubt acquire a cult following and a steadfast, hardcore fan base due to its level of difficulty, the vast majority of gamers are probably better off spending their leisure time elsewhere.
The game's allure rests almost completely in the amount of exploration available, and lovely though the scenery is, it is not enough to overcome the unpolished nature of so many other elements. And with the length of the game, players will have plenty of time to ponder this fact.