At the end of 2008, we may look back and declare this the "Year of the Vampire". Whether humourous or horrific, at least four games will feature a nocturnal bloodsucker this year, with the first already laid to rest and another trio waiting in the wings. Next to see the light of day (figuratively speaking) is the only one that takes its inspiration largely from Bram Stoker's classic, in the form of Frogwares' Dracula: Origin. I recently had the chance to play a preview section of the game, and while the abbreviated sampler didn't reveal much insight into the game's story or atmosphere, it did provide an early glimpse of its rich production values and plenty of puzzles to take a stab at.
With Frogwares leading the charge of free-movement 3D adventures in recent years, from 80 Days to the last two Sherlock Holmes mysteries, the natural assumption would be that their first foray into Transylvania would be similarly direct-controlled from a first-person perspective. Wrong. Dracula: Origin represents a step back (not backwards, just to the studio's own past efforts) to some good ol' fashioned, third-person, point-and-click gaming. So for those of you who live and die by the mouse, take heart, as navigating through this game is a breeze. A rather gentle, slow-moving breeze, as there's no run option included, but auto-exits ensure you're never stuck being a pedestrian spectator for long.
That's a good thing, too, because you'll much rather be admiring the scenery. Regardless of your control preferences, the most obvious benefit of the return to 2D backgrounds is the visual quality. Although I didn't get to visit many locations, from my starting point in an exquisitely decorated 19th century parlour to a serene English cemetery where I finished (thankfully still alive), I was duly impressed by the graphic presentation. Detailed pre-rendered environments have become the norm in the genre nowadays, but to support the technical merits Frogwares brings an skilled artistry that many games lack. How often do you bother noticing a ceiling in a game? Well, here you can't help but observe such details as the ornate molding above, or the sheer sleeves of a woman's dress, and it's touches like these help Dracula stand out. The one cinematic I saw was equally polished, and the character models blend in nicely. Even the animated menu screen is stylishly eerie, and there are plenty of detail options to tweak to your system's content.
Players assume the role of the renowned Professor Van Helsing, who has dedicated his life to the destruction of Dracula. As the title suggests, Dracula's legendary origins are integral to the premise of the game. Once a fervent defender of the Christian faith, Dracula renounced God when the woman he loved chose to end her own life rather than give herself to him. Tormented by his loss, he performed gruesome, demonic rituals, and finally sealed his pact with Satan forever in becoming the world's first vampire, satisfied only by the blood of others. But while blood quenches his thirst, it cannot ease his grief, and after centuries of shame for causing his beloved to forsake her soul in suicide, Dracula learns of a manuscript that can bring damned souls back to life. And when he sees a stunning likeness of his lost love in Mina, fiancée of Jonathan Harker, Dracula determines to find the manuscript and use Mina as the living host for her resurrected soul.
So says the game's promotional materials, anyway. Unfortunately, the preview demo revealed few background details, or in fact much in the way of plot development of any kind. I did meet with Mina briefly, but saw no sign of the vampire, although there was plenty of (implied) evidence of his handiwork. Dracula reportedly takes players on a far-reaching adventure through Egypt, Austria, and finally into Carpathian Europe to confront the Count himself, but I never got out of London personally. The section I played was introduced by a narration from Van Helsing of the known ways to kill a vampire, and gameplay began with reports of several unexplained deaths across the city.
While I saw little of the storyline unfold, I did encounter a generous sampling of puzzles. The first involved gleaning clues from written documents and applying those a map to pinpoint my next destination. Jumping in cold as I was, it took me a while to discern the actual objective, but the puzzle itself is quite clever and works very nicely as an interactive exercise. Inventory puzzles are well represented, and a series of visual riddles rounded out the bulk of the gameplay. The latter proved very creative, and challenging enough without ever being overwhelming for the most part. My only complaint is that these puzzles include multi-part answers, and yet the solution is treated as all-or-nothing, with no feedback at all about where you've gone wrong. As with any riddle, this can stop you dead in your tracks, and given all the possible permutations, even trial-and-error won't easily bail you out.
Help does come in other ways, however. One welcome feature is the option to reveal all exits and hotspots. This is becoming commonplace in modern adventures, but I intend to keep touting it until I'm sure no developer dares NOT to use it ever again. Even in this limited segment, a couple items blended a little too well into their backgrounds, and it's always good to know that no tedious pixel hunts await to trip you up. On the other hand, there aren't too many interactive hotspots of any kind in the game, limited almost exclusively to those necessary to proceed.
In some games, the thought of hearing more dialogue than necessary is cringeworthy, but that shouldn't be the case in Dracula: Origin. The game's localization is solid all around, at least in the preview demo, so there's no need to harp on the all-too-frequent problems of butchered translations or lousy voice acting. The Adventure Company reports that the key voices for the final game are still being updated, but the performances I heard were quite good already, so the thought of further improvement bodes well, though I can't verify that for sure. In any case, voices take a distant back seat to the soundtrack. Frogwares regularly excels in this area, and this game's impressive orchestral music selection is no exception.
It's a shame that I didn't get to discover more of the game's plot, as I don't yet feel I've experienced a "Dracula" game based on the demo alone, and it's unlikely that the whole game is so densely packed with puzzles as the part I sampled. The jury is still out, then, on how successfully it's able to convey a compelling vampiric storyline and haunting atmosphere that would do justice to Stoker's original classic. In all other respects, however, Dracula: Origin looks to be a fine new offering from Frogwares. For some it will be a welcome return to more traditional controls, but for everyone it's a game that looks as good as it sounds, and if it's able to follow through on its early preview promise, this is one adventure you may just want to sink your teeth into when it's released in the coming weeks.