Even a year ago, the line between casual games and adventures was still fairly defined, with only a few tentative steps taken into each other’s territories. Then along came the pleasant surprise of Big Fish’s Mystery Case Files: Return to Ravenhearst and its convincing blend of conventional puzzles, hidden object sequences, actual plot integration, and the unprecedented (for the casual market at that time) need for free exploration. Since then, several other titles have expanded on this hybridization, whether adding new game mechanics in Women’s Murder Club: A Darker Shade of Grey or focusing on a seamless blend of story and puzzles in 3 Cards to Midnight. Now the Big Fish designers have returned with Drawn: The Painted Tower, a beautiful lite adventure that represents yet another step in a welcome direction, and with the exception of a few inconsistencies, a rather successful one at that.
The very first qualities that will catch your attention right from the opening cutscene are the game’s awe-inspiring graphics, its powerful musical score and the husky, impassioned voice acting. Compared to both story and gameplay, these facets may seem secondary and superficial, but upon closer look here, these elements actually play a pivotal role in making Drawn the pleasingly imaginative journey that it is.
The developers have referred to Drawn’s distinctive art style as “off-kilter and skewed”, and indeed the luscious environments seem to stem from a Tim Burton dream, with wonky geometries and exaggerated baroque shapes that wouldn’t be out of place in Edward Scissorhands. Every location – from a dimly lit, shabby foyer to a sparkling, colorful theater; from a dark, eerie forest to a tribal hut full of pots and bottles – is a real feast for the eyes, and the hand-painted backgrounds display a quaint, gentle quality that makes them both endearing to look at and fascinating to explore. These environments are lavished with details and enlivened by many little animations, like a fire crackling in the hearth, dust dancing in the faint light of a candle or bees and dragonflies buzzing about. But what is really impressive about the graphics is the inspired, vibrant use of colors: the majority of the game takes place in a dusky, tarnished tower, where the hues of blue and grey make for a gloomy, cheerless experience. Then, suddenly, as soon as the player steps into a painting (more on this later), explosions of bright red and luxuriant green, warm yellow and peaceful azure bring to life a picturesque, jovial world full of enchanted trees, talking scarecrows, quirky magicians and fire-breathing dragons.
The musical orchestration, much like the graphic design, takes advantage of this disparity between the two worlds, as the melancholic flutes and soft, meditative piano notes that accompany players during exploration of the Tower can be swiftly ignited by vivacious violins and epic symphonies when approaching the fairy lands hidden behind the paintings. Reminiscent of the great composer Danny Elfman, you will immediately appreciate the romantic feeling of Drawn’s soundtrack, which has the very rare gift of perfectly highlighting the game’s atmosphere without ever becoming annoyingly overdone. Add to this the believable sound effects, which make the omnipresent rain an almost tactile experience, and the hushed voice of the narrator, whose somber, meditative tone reminded me of a grandfather telling an old fable, and sitting through the game really feels like reading – or better yet, hearing – a Brothers Grimm fairy tale.
Just like those classic stories, this tale begins in the most time-honored fashion: once upon a time, there was a magical kingdom ruled by a benevolent royal family, whose members were gifted with the power to bring their dreams to life by means of enchanted paintings. The kingdom was thriving and the townsfolk were always merry and warm-hearted. But one day, ruin befell the realm in the form of a dragon and its malevolent master. People watched helplessly as their houses burned and the evil man grabbed the power for himself and overthrew the old king. Desperate, the queen entrusted an old, loyal servant with her newborn daughter, Iris, and told him to run away and protect the child at any cost, because she was their only hope for the future. Through many dangers and miseries, the old butler and Iris fled from the kingdom until they reached a secluded tower by the sea. There they lived in hiding, never leaving their safe haven, with only the company of each other and Iris’ dream-friends, like gnomes and griffins, wizards and talking squirrels. But one day they were found, and the nefarious king put a curse on the tower, a curse that transformed the old servant into a statue and imprisoned Iris forever.
This is where you, as a typical AFGNCAAP (for those who weren’t around for Zork, this stands for ‘Ageless, Faceless, Gender-Neutral, Culturally-Ambiguous Adventure Person’), step in. You are given no explanation about who you are or why you find yourself at the bottom of the tower’s stairs, but from the moment you enter the task you’re given is very clear: make your way through the many traps and snares to reach the top of the tower, where Iris is held prisoner by the curse. To save the princess, you will have to explore not only the stark steeple, but also the various paintings Iris animated through the years to soothe her loneliness. The wicked curse has warped the tower, sealed its doors and knocked its staircases down, so your only hope to get to Iris is to seek help from the paintings’ inhabitants. Many of them will recognize you as a friend and savior, and will aid you as much as they can, like the old Forest Heart who will let you inside his trunk to find Iris’ most precious treasure, or the heedless witch doctor who will concoct a precious growth potion for you. Others have been corrupted by the dark spell, like the sly, greedy dragon that is guarding a key to the upper rooms, and betrayed the little princess and sworn loyalty to the evil king, and they will try everything to thwart and capture you.
Regrettably, the backstory recounted in the many letters and journal pages scattered throughout the tower is rather thin and stereotypical, without any surprising twist or original spin. Everything – from the background of the royal family to Iris’ own personality; from the exact nature of the princess’ peculiar gift to the reason why the evil tyrant is so desperately searching for her – feels rather vague and undetailed. As a result, the sense of urgency the game tries hard to create flounders, and the quest to find Iris, while motivating enough to continue playing, failed to really enthrall me. The game also ends with an abrupt cliffhanger that resolves almost nothing, clearly hinting at a possible sequel. Even with these annoyances, the solid writing and lush, diverse locations help make Drawn’s eccentric journey quite enjoyable, and I really liked the segments set in the painted worlds. However, without a strong narrative framework tying them together in between, these moments seem a little disjointed, thus hampering the overall emotional impact of the adventure.Continued on the next page...