Adventure Gamers Awards
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.
The game also has background music throughout which is normally in keeping with the atmosphere of each location. Genteel classical music plays in the English drawing room and more forbidding organ music plays in the castle. Whilst initially pleasant, I found these tunes grating after a while, in large part due to their constant repetition. The main reason for this is that the music restarts every time you change location, with scenes within a larger area often sharing a common musical theme. Worse, the opening section of each score plays on the main loading screen and then starts again when the section has loaded. Fortunately, there is a separate volume control for music so this can be turned down if desired without affecting the voices.
The control is standard point-and-click with four interactive cursors. The cursor constantly throbs red, which initially was confusing as it made it feel like I was pointing at hotspots all the time. This throbbing makes it harder to distinguish cursors quickly when sweeping the screen, leading to me to use the hotspot reveal option more often than not. Double-clicking on exit icons instantly transports you, which is a welcome option with Van Helsing’s leisurely walking speed. A journal of all the facts and documents discovered is automatically collected, including transcripts of all conversations. Van Helsing also has a doctor’s bag serving as a standard inventory. This bag must be an astounding item. I was impressed that it could hold a flaming torch and a six foot plank but there is one item in the game that far surpasses anything I’ve seen before. At one point Van Helsing, to all appearances, picks up a rolling library staircase about 3 times his own height! Both journal and inventory are just a mouse click away and it soon becomes a natural action flicking between these and the game world. Actions in the main view are equally straightforward, especially since appropriate cursors are selected for you over hotspots.
Right from the start, the game presents you with a nice assortment of puzzles to solve, and this variety continues throughout the game. Two particular puzzles stand out as examples of original and mind-taxing ideas. The first, early in the game, involves working out how to manipulate the lock on a magically sealed book. The second, much nearer the end, involves decoding the lock on the crypt of Dracula’s castle. In both of these puzzles you are given just enough information to solve them, but in a form that requires serious brain-work and experimentation to do so. As well as these standalone puzzles, there are plenty of other conventional activities such as gleaning information from other characters and combining inventory into new useful objects to keep you going. Whilst many of these are fairly standard adventuring fare, the majority are solidly implemented and the variety ensures you don’t get bored doing the same things over and over.
Sadly, the same high standard is not maintained throughout. For instance, an early puzzle requires you to identify wolves on a stone carving. The carving in question has so many creatures that could be wolves that this proves an exercise in frustration, a fact borne out by its regular appearance in hint forums. Some puzzle solutions are also highly contrived. Two in particular involve combining such bizarre items they made me laugh out loud. The other main problem with the puzzles is that almost all of them are blatantly "game" puzzles and not real-life obstacles. The wolf puzzle is one of four scattered across a graveyard. The effect of solving all four puzzles would have required a major feat of engineering covering half the graveyard to achieve. I find it hard to believe that a night-watchman and statue carver would have been capable of such a feat. This is a recurring theme, with many puzzles' existence completely defying logical explanation. I accept that this is a game, of course, but such obvious constructions constantly serve to remind players of the fact, limiting their ability to get sucked into the story.
But far worse in ruining the immersive atmosphere is Van Helsing himself. It is almost always impossible to act on information unless Van Helsing knows it, even if it is readily apparent to the player. I suffered a frustrating time near the end of the game because I hadn’t “looked at” some vital information, despite it appearing on-screen in letters an inch high. Until you have succeeded in generating an entry in the journal, it is best not to rely on any written information being usable. In a strange but equally disruptive contrast, he also demonstrates a near-psychic ability to detect things the player is unaware of. Over and over again, he would refuse to leave an area because he had “not inspected everything” or was “missing information”. I’d hunt around a bit more and, lo and behold, he was right, but there was usually no way I could have known about the items missed. I appreciate the desire to avoid dead ends and backtracking, but there are better ways of ensuring a player has everything they need. This also serves to reinforce how linear the game is, as these comments force you to stick to the path the designers have laid out for you. This, combined with Van Helsing's habit of talking directly to the player, usually after mistakes in close-up puzzles, made it seem less like I was controlling him and more like I was offering suggestions that he could take or leave.
Despite the criticism that prevent it from realizing its potential, this is by no means a bad game and could serve you well if you’re looking for something new to try. I consider the eight or so hours I spent playing were a reasonable investment of my time. It is glorious to look at and many of the puzzles are extremely satisfying to solve. The problem is, it rarely seems to rise above the level of satisfying. At times it felt more like I was playing a loosely strung together series of puzzles rather than an adventure. I expected a more immersive experience from a title so steeped in rich literary tradition and in this respect, Dracula: Origin fails to deliver. If you enjoy games like the The 7th Guest, where puzzles and plot are largely divorced, then you’ll probably enjoy this game. If you prefer a more integrated, story-driven experience, you are probably best leaving this one for a rainy day. No doubt Dracula will return to haunt us in future adventures, and I look forward to confronting the vampire again. I just hope he’s a little less retiring on his next outing.