Baron Wittard: Nemesis of Ragnarok hands-on archived preview
Baron Wittard: Nemesis of Ragnarok is an upcoming point-and-click adventure by Wax Lyrical Games, a cooperation between writer/programmer/artist Alan Thorpe (whose two earlier freeware adventures are available on his personal website, and graphic designer Marlies Maalderink. Baron Wittard is their first commercial game together, and with the game nearing its scheduled February release, we were recently offered an early preview version to play by its publisher, Iceberg Interactive. Those who yearn for more first-person puzzlers these days should be pleased with the result, as Baron Wittard promises plenty of solitary exploration, lots of puzzles, and a bit of Scandinavian mythology to boot.
The game revolves around the story of an eccentric architect, the titular baron, who planned to build an entire city in one building. It was to be called The Utopia, consisting of a thousand apartments, hundreds of offices, leisure facilities, a shopping mall, and everything you'd ever need under one roof. Sadly, the project was canceled because of structural problems and rumours about mysterious events plaguing its development, including people disappearing entirely. The baron died with the building only half-finished, and the construction site was abandoned. You play a nameless photographer sent to take pictures for a magazine article about Wittard a few years after his demise. The baron died under unusual circumstances, but that is not the focus of the article. Your editor, Kate, just wants you to take pictures of the building from as many interesting angles as possible, inside and out.
In the introductory movie, you drive through rainy landscapes and a short trek through a forest before you find yourself inside a fence with abandoned machinery and construction site shacks. Not far away, you make out a large brick-and-mortar building that must be the Wittard Utopia. As the local council has securely locked all doors of the building, you'll have to find an alternate way inside, which is the first of the many puzzles you'll get to solve in this game.
Baron Wittard uses node-based mechanics similar to the Myst series, which Wax Lyrical cites as one of many sources of inspiration. At each node, you can view 360 degrees around you (apart from a rather wide circle around your invisible feet and above your head). As soon as you have gained entrance, almost the entire building is open for exploration. The developers took great care to make this game as non-linear as possible. In their words, "the story should not get in the way of the gamer. It should not put limitations on the locations that the gamer can explore at any one time." That doesn't mean you'll be overwhelmed by the myriad rooms, as most of the levels were never finished and are therefore off-limits from the player. The building is certainly large, however, with lots of ground to cover, so you’ll have a fair bit of wandering to do before you find all the rooms. There are even some secret passageways you’ll need to discover.
It turns out the eccentric baron was a tad paranoid, and asked his security staff to install a series of puzzle-based locks. These locks represent the majority of the puzzles. Wittard was obsessed with Norse mythology, and in particular the stories about Ragnarok (the end of times). Allegedly he’d discovered a secret related to Ragnarok and took it to his grave. However, before he died he hid a number of rune stones and devices throughout the building, each protected by a puzzle lock. Perhaps these can lead you to that secret yourself? Clues to these puzzles are also strewn across the building, in the form of notes from construction workers, diaries, sketches, and work sheets. The key is to explore the grounds thoroughly, taking copious notes and recognizing the relevant details among the information you find. The camera you are carrying around can't be used to take pictures of the clues you encounter, which makes having a notepad next to you essential. There is no need to draw a map, though, since as soon as you find one in the game, you can use it to fast-travel to locations you have visited before.
The puzzles include such types as numeric magic squares, sliders, encrypted letters and chess-based challenges. They are quite varied in style, and range from moderately difficult to very hard to solve. We've seen most of them before, but they are still fairly entertaining in their own right, and there is no specific order in which the puzzles must be solved given the non-linearity of the game. You cannot do anything wrong, because if you fail to solve a puzzle the first time you can try again immediately, or continue to explore for clues elsewhere. You can’t die either, so you can safely explore at your own pace. Right at the end of the game, Baron Wittard offers an important decision to make that leads to two possible endings.
New bits and pieces of the story are uncovered at locations such as the on-site Viking museum, or when you receive a phone call from your editor. Adding a supernatural element to the game, the spirit of the baron also talks to you through an amulet you find right away. At various points in the game, like after successfully opening a locked door or solving a puzzle, he encourages you to find the rune stones and devices and tells you what to do with them, while also warning you about an evil spirit that is trying to enter our world – a scenario that would mean the end of all things if you don't stop it. Apart from these few interactions, you do not encounter any other characters in the game, as the developers believe not meeting anyone else heightens the dramatic effect of interactions during the solitary exploration, and gives you more time to uncover the mystery all by yourself.
The malevolent spirit is mostly heard when it's messing with the electricity, but you do catch a few glimpses of him periodically. Wittard seems to think it is very dangerous, but it doesn't really come across as such, so this shouldn’t be considered a horror game, or even one that’s particularly tense. Still, it is obvious the spirit doesn't belong in this world, so you’ll take care to follow Wittard's instructions on closing the portal between worlds before the being gains enough strength to enter it completely. It doesn't yet have enough power to really make a difference, but it does provide a sense of purpose. You're not just wandering about for the article anymore, as you’ll have to start solving puzzles sooner rather than later in order to stop Ragnarok from happening. Speaking of your article, I wasn’t able to take any pictures, which is kind of weird given the premise of the game, but perhaps that is simply not yet implemented at this stage.
The realistic graphics, combined with sound effects such as creaking floorboards and footsteps plus the occasional eerie music, do a decent job of making you believe you are alone in an unfinished building. There are tins of paint and toolboxes full of equipment in one room, while another room looks almost ready to be lived in. There are obvious signs that everything was left behind in a hurry, and the spirit makes the lights flicker and produces lots of static noises. In some rooms, this flickering is a bit overdone and starts to annoy, rather than provide the slightly unsettling atmosphere that’s clearly intended.
We don’t get too many first-person puzzle adventures anymore, and Baron Wittard: Nemesis of Ragnarok promises to be a solid return to that style of game, offering a lot of challenging puzzles that will even require note-taking to succeed. It takes quite a while to fully explore the setting, and there are lots of hidden clues to discover along the way. With little character interaction or lengthy story segments to interfere, the experience is all about your solitary journey through this intriguing but ultimately failed Utopia. The baron’s building never had the chance to welcome visitors as planned, but for adventurers looking to uncover its dark secrets, the doors will open sometime next month.