Adventure Gamers Awards
What do you know about Welsh mythology? For most people, the answer is probably 'not a lot', but in a welcome change from the usual gaming fare, Rhiannon: Curse of the Four Branches explores this little-visited area of folklore. And for good reason, as Welsh mythology has all the stuff of legends: heroic kings, evil magicians, and magical curses. The 'Four Branches' of the game’s title refers to the Four Branches of the Mabinogi, an important part of Welsh mythology that features a warrior prince named Pryderi and his family. Although Rhiannon doesn't directly borrow from much of the Mabinogion, one of its stories is used as an integral background to the plot, and the setting and presentation of the mythology are handled well. Unfortunately, not every aspect of the game shows quite the same deft touch, as the production values and gameplay fall short of the quality of its subject matter.
In the original tale, Pryderi's mother was named Rhiannon, and she and the prince were trapped when they touched a golden bowl in search of a cure to the magical curse that was making the kingdom of Dyfed barren. Like the kingdom, however, the bowl had been cursed by an evil sorcerer named Llwyd. The two were eventually freed after Rhiannon's husband captured Llwyd's wife, who was among those causing the curse, and Llwyd was forced to promise not to exact revenge on Pryderi during his lifetime. Only after Pryderi's death could Llwyd exact his revenge on his nemesis – or at least on those he perceived to be related to Pryderi... such as those with the same name as his mother.
Flash forward almost a thousand years to the modern day events of the game, and the Pryderi farmhouse is now home to another Rhiannon. This time it’s a 15-year-old girl who becomes convinced that all Rhiannons who come to Ty Pryderi (Pryderi's House) are cursed. Obviously I don't want to give away much of the plot, but after hearing strange noises and seeing ghostly visions, it soon becomes clear to Rhiannon that there really are weird things going on at this remote Welsh property.
At the start of Rhiannon, the girl’s parents have taken her away on holiday, in hopes of relieving her from the source of her recent stresses, if only temporarily. You play as a friend of the family who's been asked to house sit in their absence. There is no immediate aim to the game, but after arriving at the farmhouse and getting settled in, you quickly learn that Rhiannon had her reasons for being worried about living there. In addition to the visions and sounds, she'd been in touch with an expert in local history who'd been telling her about the house's history, and you’ll find the details of her discoveries as you begin to explore.
Digging around, you eventually stumble across an old research paper, divided into individual sections for each Branch of the Mabinogi that seems to have a possible solution to the curse of Pryderi. Of course, this being an adventure game, you don't just find the whole paper at once, and each of the following four chapters deals with one part of the paper. Along the way, you’ll also experience some of the visions Rhiannon was seeing and encounter other victims of the curse, both through ghostly visitations and in the things they’ve written.
Like other supernatural adventures like Dark Fall and Barrow Hill, which first-time developer Arberth Studios have cited as an influence, Rhiannon has no characters to interact with. What few other characters are involved are presented through narrated letters, phone messages, and other recordings, but you never actually meet anyone else. Your own character has a name – Chris – but that's the only detail provided, as even his or her gender is a mystery. This allows players to fully invest themselves in the first-person role, but in doing so it totally deprives the character of any personality. There isn’t even any interactive commentary; you can look at items close up, pick some up and use them, but your character never describes or comments on anything. This lack of vocal, or even textual, feedback often makes the game setting feel dull and lacking in detail, and your own explorations aimless.
Navigation in the game is done in a traditional point-and-click, slideshow-style method. There is no camera panning at all, and you simply click on a highlighted direction to move to a new screen a short distance away. While simple enough to perform, even the smallest rooms have three or four different perspectives, and in larger rooms it can be quite easy to completely miss an area on first exploration, since you can’t access every part of the room from any angle and the connections aren’t always intuitive. It also makes moving around quite tiresome when you have to click the mouse four or five times just to leave a room. The play area is fairly large, so to travel from one side of the grounds of Ty Pryderi to the other could cause RSI symptoms in the most hardened mouse-clicker. There's no map or quick navigation method, so you're forced to slog your way by foot every time. These are common complaints in node-based games, so first-person adventure fans will likely overlook them, but Rhiannon does little to minimize the problem for those who feel restricted by such issues.
The puzzles tie in well with the mythology presented in the game, with details of the Four Branches used along the way to solve the mystery. I'm not entirely sure how much of what's featured in the game comes directly from the Mabinogion, but everything that's included at least feels appropriate to those stories. The mythology is used in such ways as deciphering ancient runes and understanding the values represented by certain kinds of trees, and combining the symbology of things such as swords and shields, robes and boots with modern items is essential. Puzzles are mostly of the inventory-combination type, with a few other logic puzzles mixed in. The inventory puzzles are mostly straightforward and sensible, with the research paper giving you clues as to what needs to be done, and the way they involve the mythology makes them feel more relevant than just going along trying to solve random problems.Continued on the next page...