Adventure Gamers Awards
I enjoy many types of games, but often find myself drawn to certain types more than others. If a game promises an isolated, scary environment with many strange goings-on, extensive exploration and a gradual discovery of the story, that game gets put on my personal must-play list. When done right, I forget the time as I play, ignore the work I should be doing and lose myself in whatever desolate, haunting place the developers have chosen to place me. So when I found myself reviewing the latest offering from William R. Fisher Studios, Last Half of Darkness: Beyond the Spirit's Eye, I hoped I would be in familiar territory.
The latest entry in a series that now spans almost two decades, Beyond the Spirit's Eye takes players to Shadowcrest, which hasn't been the same since Captain Marcos Fernado returned with his treasure. Since then, a curse has taken over the town, its inhabitants have been dying of blood loss and Shadowcrest is filled with vampire-like creatures that seem to be guarding something. You are called to the town by Madame Ze Hira, a gypsy woman who knows of your knowledge in magic and science, to help break the curse.
The story is introduced in the opening scene and unfolds through limited character interaction, journals, notes and cutscenes throughout the game. Your ability to explore most of the town and graveyard is unlimited right from the start, so the story unfolds in pieces, and not always in a natural sequence. The story is pretty easy to follow, but given the non-linear nature of the game, I occasionally viewed some cutscenes out of intuitive order.
The eeriness and loneliness of the game envelope you right away as you find yourself alone in a dark crypt trying to find out what is expected of you. The spooky graveyard and town, with its run-down houses and abandoned businesses, are presented in a familiar first-person, slideshow format with nice attention to detail. At every turn in your travels in Shadowcrest, you are met with cobwebs, boarded-up doors, broken-down furniture and strange décor, which add to the creepy atmosphere. Quite a few of these details can be examined, which provides some descriptive text.
The graphics aren't cutting-edge, as you'd expect from an independent production, but they're clean and crisp, and more than adequate to set the right mood. The pre-rendered backgrounds have a muted, earthy palette indoors and a gray and blue look outside. The light from the moon and the glow from lamps and candles are nice highlights in their respective environments. The ambient weather effects such as lightning and wind add even more to the spookiness. The cutscenes not only move the story along, but often contain clues to some of the puzzles. They tend to be more pixilated than the static backgrounds, but they still managed to make me jump out of my chair on more than one occasion. For those who have played the previous LHOD game, the detail in the graphics doesn't seem to have changed significantly since Shadows of the Servants.
All of the haunting visuals wouldn't matter much without a great array of ambient sounds, including creaks, moans, wind, cawing crows and the occasional 'greeting' by unexpected visitors. The sounds don't play constantly but the occasional silence is unnerving and heightens the scare factor when they do occur. Music is only present during the opening menu and it's a beautiful and somber orchestral piece. It may have broken the atmosphere had it played during the game, but it is something that I would listen to again, so it's a shame that none of it was worked into the actual game.
Given that this is a deserted town in a first-person game, you wouldn't expect much character interaction, and it isn't extensive in this game. However, the limited time you do spend with the two characters you meet add to the story and provide clues to progress in the game. The gypsy, Madame Ze Hira, who has summoned you to town, is the character with whom you have the least interaction. However, you encounter Tia, the narrator and daughter of the town physician, multiple times in the game. When they speak to you, their voices reverberate for a creepy effect, but the reverberation is a bit overdone occasionally, making it difficult to understand. Fortunately, all of the dialogue is subtitled. In my own experience, however, at times the subtitles appeared during speech, and at other times they would show up after the character was done speaking. The dialogue is very informative, but took me out of the game somewhat, as it seemed too intentionally instructive and not fitting with how you would expect the character to speak. The voices otherwise sound appropriate for their characters.
Once you think you've seen all there is to see, explored every last part of the town and graveyard, and looked in every possible entrance, there is more around the corner. That may become a good thing to remember, as whenever I got stuck, it was often because I missed a room, a nook or a passageway that would lead me to a clue or an object that would get the game going again. One location was not easily seen due to the dark environment but the majority of them are quite noticeable. I tended to miss some mainly because there are so many. Navigation itself is very easy, however, with a prominent cursor appearing wherever you are able to move, supported by a text message. While exploring the town, you often need to travel back and forth quite a bit. This could have been tedious if not for the acquisition of a map early in the game. It contains the five major locations that you can click on to take you there in an instant, which proved very convenient throughout.
Inventory puzzles are predominant in the game, but there are logic challenges sprinkled in, with the occasional lever and a couple of brainteasers. Every so often a text message will appear, reminding you that you can right-click items added to your inventory to further examine them. Inventory items that are used in the environment will quiver when held over that spot. Objects need to be combined occasionally, but they don't quiver in the inventory, so it's more challenging to know when two things need to be put together.
The majority of puzzles are clued extremely well--perhaps too well at times, taking some of the challenge away. But while most are quite straightforward, there are some that will take a little more time to figure out. One of the logic challenges took me quite a few tries. Fortunately, that particular puzzle comes with a reset feature that restarts the portion you are currently working on. You may also encounter a puzzle or two that displays a text message explaining why they can't be solved yet if you attempt them too early. One of the puzzles requires the use of a paper journal that comes with the game. The cinematics that are vital to solving puzzles will replay more than once if you click on the item or step into the room that triggers them again. It doesn't happen every time, but they reset occasionally so they can be seen again without being obtrusive.
The game comes on two CDs (the second CD needs to be in the drive to play). Along with the journal, accompanying the game are an author's note with helpful game play tips, a quick-start manual, and a letter from Madame Ze Hira asking for your help in Shadowcrest, which comes complete with an old coin as partial payment. Many games nowadays just come with the discs, so the extras included are a very nice touch that hearkens back to older adventure games.
Last Half of Darkness: Beyond the Spirit’s Eye is available for purchase at the official website, and while not the cheapest indie on the market, its extras do offer some additional value. If you'd like to try for yourself before you buy, a playable demo is also available. If you've played its predecessor and weren't impressed, there's probably not enough here to change your mind. But fans of Shadows of the Servants will find more of what they liked last time.
Overall, the game took me six to eight hours to complete and I had a generally good time losing myself in it after a long day. I thoroughly enjoyed exploring every inch of the town and graveyard, and with just enough of the story to start you out, it was fun to find the small pieces of the story and put them together as I went along. The game kept me on edge constantly with its creepy environments, and scared me outright occasionally without resorting to gore or relying too heavily on cheap thrills to induce fear. I rarely got stuck in the game, and even when I did, further exploring often resolved it quickly enough. The game is not perfect, of course, and it succeeds as much because its ambitions are fairly modest, so anyone looking for innovation, rich plot progression, or many bells and whistles won't find them here. But what it does, it does quite well, so if you're in the mood for a very traditional, first-person horror adventure that doesn't try to overreach its grasp, I can certainly recommend this game.