Horror has always been one of my favorite genres, yet it seems to one of the hardest to get right. All too often both films and games take an overly aggressive tack these days, totally devoid of subtlety, either confusing gore with fright or forgetting that no matter how crazily mutated a monster looks, it’s not nearly as scary once you SEE it. Wax Lyrical Games has now ventured into this perilous territory with its debut adventure called Baron Wittard: Nemesis of Ragnarok, but don’t let the clunky title throw you off. It may have a bare-bones plot and be a little lacking in the creativity department puzzle-wise, but the game’s creepy atmosphere demonstrates once again why adventure games are frequently at the forefront of truly compelling suspense.
The titular Baron Wittard was an architect who spent years constructing an indoor metropolis, modestly named the Wittard Utopia. With hundreds of apartments, an indoor mall, and tons of office space, it was to be his crowning achievement in modern architecture. Sadly, the building was condemned due to mysterious issues with structural integrity, and now lies decrepit and abandoned. Following Wittard’s recent passing, a publication has hired you as a photographer to take some pictures for an upcoming article on the Utopia. Surprisingly for a professional photographer, but predictably for a horror story protagonist, you arrive late at night. Exploring the courtyard of the massive structure, your editor calls to make sure you arrived safely and chooses now to drop the info that several people have gone missing around the Utopia lately, so y’know… be careful in there.
Shortly after finding a way inside the building, you discover a curious amulet that speaks with the voice of the Baron himself, which reveals that one of the functions of the Utopia was to stop the coming of Ragnarok (Norse mythology’s answer to the Apocalypse). Wittard instructs you to find ten hidden rune stones and use them with ten matching devices he constructed to combine their energies and stop the approaching End of Days. Naturally, he protected many of these stones and devices with puzzles in order to prevent all but the chosen one from using them for their intended purpose. That doesn’t sound so hard, but you aren’t in the Utopia for long before you discover that the Baron isn’t the only spectral presence trapped inside with you: an ancient spirit is trying to break into our world from there, and its intentions are anything but benevolent.
Baron Wittard utilizes a classic first-person perspective, with its game world made up of a series of nodes, all of which can be examined with full 360-degrees of rotation. The cursor stays in the center of the screen as you pan with the mouse, but a simple right-click will stop the camera from moving, allowing you to explore a particular scene without shifting the perspective. Each location has a number of hotspots that are highlighted by a context-sensitive cursor as you pass over them. The default cursor is a faint hand which changes to a magnifying glass if something can be examined closely, a pointing hand for exits, and a slightly grasping hand for objects than can be picked up or manipulated. The latter occasionally causes problems, as it’s a very similar shape to the standard cursor and makes finding hotspots somewhat tricky at times. There’s an inventory bar at the bottom of the screen, but it’s fairly limited since the only real objects you’ll find are the rune stones and the amulet.
Along with a video camera (which does nothing for most of the game but needs to be used for one key moment), you can also easily access a basic map of the Utopia once you've found it. The map is a very helpful addition, as it can be confusing at first to know just what parts of the Utopia can be explored. Despite its enormous size, your visit to the indoor city consists of only a small fraction of the building’s full scope, and you’ll find many doors that simply refuse to open. The map helps clarify what areas can actually be entered and explored, ensuring that you don’t get stuck on a puzzle simply because you can’t find the room that holds the key. Even better, the map allows fast travel back to locations you’ve already explored. This is a must, as many of the locations in Baron Wittard are spread out, and several are rather hard to get to.
You’re going to need all the help you can get in exploring Wittard Utopia, too. Most first-person adventures demand very careful scanning of the environment, but Baron Wittard takes this requirement to a point that sometimes borders on sadism. It’s not that the hotspots are tiny, though some could certainly have been expanded a little, but a few key items and devices can only be accessed from one specific node, even though that same object can be clearly seen in two or three others. I had given up on a suspicious looking electronic panel in a certain room because my cursor didn’t change when I moused over it. It took me a long time (and a large amount of frustration) to realize I simply had to move to a different spot in the same room to be able to open it. Both points are the same distance from the panel, and it makes no sense to be accessible from one and not the other. To be fair, these situations don’t occur frequently, but they may happen more than once, reinforcing the need to explore the Utopia very carefully indeed, from every viewpoint possible.
Hotspots aren’t the only reason you’ll need to keep a sharp eye out. One of the more grueling puzzles in the game involves counting multiple copies of four different symbols around the Utopia. Some of these are in plain sight, while others are concealed and need to be actively sought, several of which are just plain extremely hard to see, even from the best angle. You’ll need to know how many of each symbol is hidden around the building to solve the puzzle. Miss one, and you’ll likely still be able to solve the puzzle with trial-and-error. Miss two or more of differing types, which even the most careful explorer is likely to do, and you’ll have to choose between tedious systematic guesswork or a painfully thorough retracing of your steps through the entire building, as the symbols can be hidden absolutely anywhere. While careful exploration should certainly be rewarded, this puzzle became more trying than satisfying, especially since the most complicated thing you actually have to do to solve it in the end is count.
The rest of the puzzles in Baron Wittard are a mixed bag. There are a few environmental puzzles such as figuring out how to route electricity to an elevator, but most are traditional standalone classics. To turn on that electricity, for example, you’ll need to complete a magic square where every line of a four-by-four number grid adds up to the same total. Another puzzle involves playing a memory game reminiscent of Simon, where you have to click on a sequence of stars after the computer shows it to you. Other puzzles are even more routine: there’s one where you’ll slide tiles around to make a picture; another where you must transport a seven-layer Hanoi tower piece by piece without stacking larger pieces on top of smaller ones; even the final challenge requires sliding different-sized blocks around to move a large square from the top to the bottom. Though tried-and-true, this means any experienced adventurer has likely solved these puzzles many times before, and they make up a good chunk of the challenges Baron Wittard has to offer. That’s not to say some original challenges can’t be found here, however. There’s one rather clever logic puzzle involving fuses and another creative one involving colored lights and power switches, but these are the minority.
Fortunately, adventure games – and horrors in particular -- are as much about atmosphere as puzzle-solving, and Baron Wittard delivers on that front. The graphics are simple but crisp and well done in a realistic fashion. Wittard’s ostentatious apartment and classically designed study create a nice contrast to the completely dilapidated state of the rest of the building. Other subtle touches like an empty baby pram in a dark hallway help cultivate an atmosphere of unexplainable dread. While nothing is animated outside of a few cutscenes, flickering lights sometimes create the illusion that Wittard Utopia is more than just a static environment. More importantly, sound is utilized brilliantly throughout. Your footsteps echo between each hub, modified to whatever surface you’re currently walking on, whether sand or cement, while electric lights pop and buzz. Plenty of things go bump in the night in the Utopia, and other touches add to the feeling of unease, such as the sound of children wailing in the distance in Wittard’s apartment, an effect that is never fully explained but nevertheless creepy. The whole medley of sounds is backed by a wonderfully haunting score to round out the chilling ambience.
What makes the whole experience work is that only occasionally does anything alarming actually appear or threaten you. Most of your visit is spent walking through the dark, hearing things you can’t quite see, wondering when your nemesis will make its presence truly felt, either by calling your cell phone and taunting you or by actually manifesting itself as a menacing, humanoid figure made of electricity. It’s not really possible to “die” in the game, but it’s easy to forget that when the lights suddenly go out, your heartbeat becomes audible, and you hear what sounds like a feral creature growling nearby. This game may not scare you as much as horrors posing more tangible dangers, but play it in the dark and it will definitely leave an impression.
With its focus more on mood than story for its eight or so hour duration, there’s little more to the plot than completing your rune stone task in time. There are two different endings possible, but they’re entirely based on a simple choice you make right at the end and aren’t even all that different from one another (though one is a tad more ominous). But solitary adventures like this are more about cautious exploration and first-hand experience, with a heavy emphasis on feeling like you’re in the game rather than embroiled in a complex plot. On this front, Baron Wittard: Nemesis of Ragnarok succeeds admirably, and proves that psychological horror is far from a dead art form, particularly in the world of adventure games. A few rather punishing hotspot hunts and some lackluster, unoriginal puzzles don’t detract from what is otherwise a wonderfully immersive game with a palpable sense of loneliness and tension. Baron Wittard may have failed in his bid to create a real Utopia, but he did manage to leave behind a haunting legacy that many will find worth exploring in its own right.