Since it was first written by Bram Stoker in 1897, Dracula has provided inspiration for countless films and television series, as well as quite a few games. Even in recent years, the popularity of this blood-sucking fiend has not noticeably waned, a fact not lost on Frogwares, who give him the title spotlight in their new game, Dracula: Origin. Somewhat surprisingly, though Dracula is undoubtedly a worthy foe for the player, he serves more as a menace lurking in the background than a direct antagonist, somewhat reducing the impact of such an iconic figure.
The game actually puts you in the role of Van Helsing, Stoker's aging German professor and professional vampire hunter. Most of the major characters from the book put in appearances, but the Origin of the title does not mean there is any real attempt to stick to the story of the original. This is clear right from the opening cutscene, where Jonathan Harker is introduced as a vampire hunter actively seeking Dracula instead of an innocent solicitor visiting a foreign client. This is not in itself a bad thing, as sticking rigidly to the original story would have severely hampered gameplay. However, whilst vampirism does play its part, there are large sections of the game where a generic evil cult could have been substituted with minimal alterations. The infrequent appearances of Dracula and his undead servants in all but the final Transylvanian section can lead to you forgetting exactly who you are fighting against.
The story starts with Van Helsing on the trail of Dracula. You’ll soon discover the Count has sinister plans to use ancient magics to try to bring back the love whose loss led him down the path to darkness. These magics could serve to bring back much more from the other side and so you end up in a race around the world to prevent these plans coming to fruition. The save-the-world scenario is a staple of adventure games, and with good reason, but such an unsubtle approach does not sit well with my image of Dracula. I’ve always seen him as an aristocrat with rigid self-control and his brief on-screen appearances do nothing to dispel that. So I find it hard to believe such a character would unleash something he could not control, even for such a personally important goal. That discrepancy aside, the plot serves well in providing clear goals and a motivation to move along. From the moment you discover Dracula’s greater plans a sense of urgency kicks in, the grand scheme supported by a quest more personal to Van Helsing himself: saving Mina, the fiancée of his close friend, who is to be used as the vessel for the return of Dracula’s lost sweetheart.
Unlike Frogwares' last few titles, the new game is rendered in 2.5D with fixed camera angles for all locations. Visually, this is a good move on the part of the developers, as it has allowed them to create some truly stunning backgrounds. From the fine English drawing room at the start, you’ll travel to the dusty streets of Cairo, a magnificent Viennese library and, ultimately, to the forbidding castle of Dracula himself. Each scene depicts all the necessary detail to portray a realistic environment, and most include some animation such as trees moving in the wind and birds circling to enhance that feel. This level of detail does make it harder to locate hotspots, however, particularly since the generic pointer and action cursor are not easily distinguishable at a casual glance. Fortunately, a tap of the space bar highlights available hotspots for all but a few close-up puzzles.
The characters are also nicely presented models with a full range of articulation. There is realistic mouth movement when characters speak and they also gesticulate convincingly as they do so. Van Helsing himself moves smoothly, though his long coat hides much of his leg movement, and he even crouches to pick items up from the floor. Given the amount of work that has clearly gone into this modeling, it is surprising that care has not been taken to maintain this detailed movement throughout. On more than one occasion objects are collected by an arm casually waved in their direction rather than a full pick-up animation.
This graphical quality comes at a technical price for older computers. Depending on where you look, system requirements for video memory may be listed as 64MB, but the Readme file on the CD ups the minimum to 128MB. Having played the first part of the game on a machine with the lower spec, I would strongly advise against doing so if at all possible. It did not create game-stopping problems in the section I played but it did cause major graphical glitches, such as the glorious sunlight streaming through a window flickering like a thunderstorm. Playing it on a machine with the additional video memory resolved these problems, allowing full enjoyment of the sterling work done in this area.
The voice work in the game is of a decent quality, with Dracula in particular exuding an air of quiet menace in every word he says. The North American version of the game includes several key voice changes from the European version, including Van Helsing, and whilst I can’t comment on the original voices, I can say I am happy with the final choices in this area. It is possible that some of the voices, particularly that of Mustapha the Cairo camel merchant, could be accused of being caricatures of regional accents, but I don’t consider that an issue. The accents are always consistent with each character’s background, with none of the all-too-common problems such as English characters with American accents, and that makes me more prepared to put up with stock diction.
The dialogue is, for the most part, reasonably written as well, in particular Van Helsing’s own. His speech is littered with odd phrasings that would normally be an indication of poor proofreading but here it fits the fact that English is his second language perfectly. The occasional bit of incongruous dialogue has slipped through, however. I could hardly believe it when Van Helsing, the professional vampire hunter, announced he would hold on to a stake because it “may come in handy some time. Who knows?” Fortunately, such oddities are the exception rather than the rule. Helpfully, all dialogues come with full subtitles and are easily skippable.Continued on the next page...