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.Continued on the next page...