Adventure Gamers Awards
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” should be familiar words even to those who haven’t read the great Charles Dickens. Now adventure gamers can experience those times first-hand, as A Tale of Two Cities is the latest classic novel to get Chris Tolworthy’s ongoing Enter The Story treatment. Now in its fourth instalment, Enter The Story presents an interactive version of some of literature's greatest works, and it is a unique experience. Though not entirely faithful to the source material, players get to experience the classics in a new way. A Tale of Two Cities does have some shortcomings, but it is an enjoyable retelling of the original novel and should appeal to Dickens fans, though you certainly don’t need to know the book already to appreciate it here.
The late 18th century plot revolves around Lucie Manette, who discovers that her father is still alive after thinking he had died when she was a child. It turns out he was imprisoned in the Bastille by the aristocratic Marquis St. Evrémonde all those years. Upon his release during the period of the French Revolution, Lucie travels from England to France to finally bring her father home. Jumping forward years later, she falls in love with Charles Darnay, nephew of the Marquis who imprisoned Dr Manette, a revelation that mentally unbalances Lucie’s father. Realising the only way they can help rid him of his traumatic memories is to destroy the Bastille, Lucie and her governess travel back to France, this time to aid the revolution by enlisting the help of the common people, soldiers, and even a high ranking officer. Tragically, the shift in French political power results in the noble Darnay being imprisoned and put on trial. If found guilty, he’ll be sentenced to execution, leaving Lucie desperate to prove her husband’s innocence.
This premise is similar to Dickens’ novel, and there's plenty of the original plot in this abridged version, though of course the gaming experience is much shorter than the book. Even in condensed form, however, A Tale of Two Cities is well-paced and still creates the same sense of excitement, emotion and drama that was present in the original book. Observant readers may notice that the characters sometimes explore locations before their book counterparts encounter them, though the main story doesn't progress until the necessary actions have been completed.
The main protagonist in the game is not Lucie Manette, but Peri, a returning character from the previous Enter The Story instalments. In A Tale of Two Cities, Peri assumes the role of Miss Pross. Always referred to as Peri, she is the housekeeper for Lucie, who travels with her and looks after her throughout the course of the game. While it is necessary to periodically take control of other characters such as Sydney Carton, a barrister employed to defend Charles Darnay and to whom he bears a striking resemblance, the majority of the story unfolds through Peri. She serves as the driving force behind the storyline, and the majority of the gameplay centres around her.
Actually controlling the characters is an interesting experience. Only Peri and a few other key people can move around, though technically you can “control” any character you meet by causing them to reflect on any available subject. You can observe objects or scenery, but most of the time it is necessary simply to make one character talk with another. This is achieved by right-clicking on a character, which makes them active, then right-clicking again on another character to get them to talk. This can be done with anyone at all, even just people milling about in the street, and the response you get may be brief or more detailed depending on the character's significance to the story and their relationship with each other.
If the second character is in a different area, you can make the first person 'think' of them instead, left-clicking on exits to change scenes in between. In some cases, this even involves opening the map and selecting a different location to travel to altogether. While a little unusual, it’s a necessary part of the gameplay, and one of the biggest “puzzles” of the game, if it can be called that, is working out which character needs to think of which other in order to get the story to progress. This can become repetitive over time, with not enough gameplay variety to keep things feeling fresh, though it’s a useful device in retaining the novelistic style of the story.
Unlike most adventures, the environment in A Tale of Two Cities can't be manipulated directly. Characters will sometimes need to look at a key object in order to proceed, but any necessary actions are described rather than carried out by the player. There are a number of other interactions that require various keystrokes, but any function other than a right-click is explained to you at the time. One important feature is the F1 key, which causes Peri to give you hints. Hints are given incrementally for your current task, though eventually you’ll be told outright what you're supposed to do. Sometimes I found the hints necessary, as it was not always obvious what needed to be done next.
There are no inventory items to collect personally, though sometimes it is necessary to prompt another character to acquire an object. In fact, traditional puzzles are practically non-existent in this game, occurring on only a handful of occasions. Maybe that’s a good thing, as they are generally weak and disappointing, suffering either from being unclear or action-based. The first puzzle involves deciphering a code in an almost uniform piece of knitting drawn in black and white. Even when I discovered the solution by accident and had the character who initiated the puzzle explain it to me, the logic behind it was still confusing. Another task becomes tedious, pressing the arrow keys to help a peasant sneak into a mansion by clinging to the bottom of a coach. The keys are used to make him avoid the various boulders on the road. He can't hit a single boulder, but staying raised up for too long will get him spotted and he will have to start again. The rocks come closer together as the coach gets nearer to its destination, making it extremely difficult to bypass them all. Eventually, if you fail enough times the character will just give up and walk, making the whole exercise ultimately pointless. There are more action-based challenges as well, though thankfully not many.
Graphically, A Tale of Two Cities is simple but impressive, with basic character line drawings done in black and white and backgrounds that look like they were painted with watercolours, giving it an artbook-like look. The design is minimalistic, though some of the backdrops are quite large and can take quite a while to scroll across. Scrolling can be done by moving the mouse to the edge of the screen or using the arrow keys. Animations are kept to a minimum, and often only mouths move when a character is talking or their legs when walking. The streets of Paris and the various locales of London, including the countryside inn on Dover Road and the Old Bailey, are nicely designed. Unfortunately, the storming of the Bastille, one of the more dramatic moments in the game, lacks finesse as it involves a puzzle which requires it to be knocked down using a catapult. When a section is destroyed, a jigsaw-like segment disappears, revealing the background behind it, which is stylish but not at all convincing. Nevertheless, the game’s overall visual effect is unique, always nice to look at, and seems well suited to the time period.
The soundtrack mostly consists of classical music with an occasional more lively synthesised piece at dramatic moments. There's quite a wide range of scores, some well known by composers such as Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, and others less familiar. The selection is well chosen and adds to the atmosphere, for the most part being mellow enough not to be a distraction while reading the extensive dialogue. If a particular track is really appealing, players can choose to replay it by holding down a mouse button and pressing a number from 0-9 to note it, then pressing the number later to hear it again. Aside from the occasional sound effect, the music is the only sound you will hear, as there is no spoken dialogue.
One minor flaw in A Tale of Two Cities is the language. Important passages are included directly from the book, but where the story has been adapted with new lines, the language isn't consistent with the rest of the text, noticeably apparent that it was written more recently and by someone other than Dickens. There are also a number of typos, though they are fairly few and far between in such a large body of writing. After finishing the game, players have the option to go back and re-explore locations, talking to characters and discovering any optional interactions they may have missed. The large cast, from Madame Defarge, nemesis of the Evrémonde family and Charles Darnay, to Jarvis Lorry, the guardian who took care of Lucie when her father was imprisoned, to the many minor background characters, often have a lot to say.
As usual, A Tale of Two Cities comes bundled with its predecessors in just a single purchase price from the Enter the Story website. Unlike before, however, you can now only access the other games from the main menu, not directly move between them in-game. While this may seem like a step backwards in functionality, in all likelihood few players would be tempted to hop from one story to the next, so the more streamlined approach should matter very little. You’re still getting four games (and counting) for the price of one, and they're playable in any order, though the developing over-arching storyline involving Peri is perhaps most understandable by playing them in sequence.
There's no denying this game has some weaknesses, with its over-reliance on certain actions that become repetitive and not enough gameplay variety to keep the experience fresh. As an interactive book, however, A Tale of Two Cities is a largely enjoyable experience. Transferring something like Dickens’ classic into an adventure game is no mean feat, and this effort succeeds as an innovative piece of storytelling. With as little as 4-6 hours of play time, it may not be enough to please diehard Dickens fans, as there as some noticeable ways in which the story has been changed and shortened to fit the format of this series, but overall the game gives players a good sense of the original tale. That, of course, is still undeniably a classic, and even in a watered-down version, A Tale of Two Cities still conveys the excitement, tension and emotion of its literary predecessor. Even if you've read it already and know how it ends, as the pace builds up towards the ends of the game, you'll find yourself eager to reach the gripping, surprising conclusion. This adaptation is neither the best of times nor the worst of times after all, but it does fall comfortably somewhere in the middle.