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Adventure Gamers Awards
How do you defeat a witch, a vampire and a snake combined? It’s no easy task, it seems, but that's exactly what Billy Black faces in the latest chapter of The Last Half of Darkness. But unlike its predecessors, in Society of the Serpent Moon, players can actually face Billy as well, as the new game moves the series to a third-person perspective, putting the protagonist front and center on screen for the first time. There he remains calm and stoic throughout this supernatural adventure, rather unimpressed by the prospect of confronting such a multi-faceted monster. Fortunately, the game itself manages to make a much bigger impression thanks to its creepy atmosphere and solid gameplay.
As the game opens, Billy receives a package from the European town of Antibes, where his journalist fiancée Wendy went some time ago on assignment to investigate a number of reported cases of missing girls. Billy hasn't heard from her for a while and is already getting worried when the package reveals a mysterious disc and her notebook, in which Wendy expressed fear for her safety. Billy sets out to find her at all costs, beginning at her hotel room and branching out from there to such locations as a bar, a cemetery, an abandoned mine, and a handful of other interesting locations. Eventually his journey ends in a temple dedicated to the Society of the Serpent Moon, a cult that has settled down close to Antibes. What they represent, exactly, the townspeople don't know, but they suspect they have something to do with the girls that have gone missing. Billy is determined to find out, and he must find a way to defeat its evil ruler if he is to free Wendy.
Following clues he finds in diaries and poems on prison cell walls, Billy has to deal with many an obstacle along the way, several of them dangerous in nature. He also gleans information from the people he meets, though only after doing little chores for them or finding ways to get rid of prying eyes. The characters you meet include townspeople like the proprietor of a junkyard, a tattooist and a pawn shop owner. All of them are strange in their own way and a bit scary. They have lived in this town for years and have gotten used to girls disappearing around them, and although frightened they willingly tell Billy about the dangers of the Society and the way other people around them might be involved. Billy accepts it all, however absurd it may sound to us, as if it is business as usual for him, and helps them out if he can.
Not every encounter is friendly, however – or even human. Billy also meets quite a few other creatures, from aggressive animals to supernatural shadowy figures guarding the Society temple, and of course its nasty high priestess. Despite the implied threats, however, you can’t actually die in this game. You can get bitten by a snake, and if that happens, Billy will not be able to solve some of the puzzles until you find an antidote. He will look at them but refuse to solve them, saying the poison is keeping him from thinking straight. Even if you know the answer, like when you want to start up a computer and need to type a password, you can’t resolve it until you’ve found a way to cure Billy first.
Billy himself is a mysterious guy with a long, brown coat, who never takes off his sunglasses and doesn’t reveal anything about himself. He’s never shown close up, so you won’t see what his face looks like, but he remains extremely – at times even ridiculously – calm under the scariest circumstances and never seems to falter even when danger crosses his path. Beneath the stoicism, he is a nice enough person and you do get to like him during the course of his adventure. His cause is noble, and he seems completely trustworthy and dependable. He only has one goal, to save his Wendy, and nothing in the world (or out of this world) can stop him from doing it. The change in visual perspective does tend to take away some of the immersiveness of the previous games, unfortunately, as it is a bit harder to get into a visible character like this. As an unseen protagonist, it's easier to imagine it's you in that dangerous situation, and here Billy often responded in a way that was totally unlike my own reactions, not even blinking or shrugging in the face of danger. The game still succeeds in sucking you in, just not as quickly when playing through such an impassive protagonist.
Although most of the game is non-linear, some locations only open up after you've solved a couple of puzzles and discovered a few secrets. A handy map facilitates fast-travel once you've found it and visited each new location a first time. At each stop, though you can now see Billy walking across the screen, you can't move him directly. Only clicking active hotspots causes him to walk over to an object to investigate. As with the previous Halves of Darknesses, many things on screen are clickable and trigger a comment from Billy, even if they are not important to the story. The colour and shape of the cursor tells you when something is essential or simply a bit of scenery. This is a nice touch and saves people who just want to get on with the game a lot of unnecessary clicking, while at the same time encouraging others to explore every nook and cranny to enjoy all the descriptions. Either way, scouring each screen carefully is necessary to find all the collectable objects you need for puzzles later on.
Though Society of the Serpent Moon isn’t technically impressive from a graphics standpoint, there is much attention to detail and the various locations look and feel believably old and derelict. Dark corners, shadowy places and dusty spider webs are everywhere. Most places include lots to see, although a few rooms are a bit bare in terms of interactive items. Objects that can be picked up are automatically transferred to your inventory, where they can easily be accessed to have a closer look or use. Whenever you try to apply or combine items, the icon vibrates to indicate you have found a possible action (or remain still if you haven't), and the game has a hotspot locator to ensure you don't miss anything important.
That doesn't mean the game is easy, however, as its puzzles are nicely varied and some are quite difficult to figure out. The solutions are never far-fetched, but they require a certain frame of mind to 'get' it, and it can be hard to know where to look for that one clue or object that'll help you figure out where to go next. To assist with this, the game has an in-game hint system. On the 'Easy' game mode, which can be switched to at any time from the main menu, the inventory will show a hint book that you can examine if you are stuck. Most of the hints provide just that little shove you need to get going again, but occasionally they will consist of remarks like "find a way to solve the gear puzzle", or tell you to go to a certain location. If you've already been there and weren’t able to find anything to do there, that isn't very helpful.
The puzzles themselves involve tasks such as repairing machines, mixing a potion, reordering bits of torn paper and opening a safe, and all are fun to solve. One puzzle requires the game’s manual and the disc in an innovative way, reminiscent of the old anti-piracy protections. There is one boardgame-like puzzle that feels out of place, however. By beating an opponent a number of times you earn points; get enough points and the puzzle is solved. The problem is, winning depends not only on skill but also on luck, although you can keep resetting the board if you don't like the odds when you first look at it. By moving your pieces of various 'strengths' next to the opponent’s pieces in a particular pattern, either his or your piece is 'hurt' and will eventually die. Fortunately, for those who don't like this type of puzzle, the game has an auto-solve mode to bypass it.
Sound effects range from whispers and moans to slithering and creaking, and these alone manage to create a tension that is almost palpable, but oddly you can't turn them down. Even if you lower the main volume a bit (not the way you should play any horror game, of course), the sound effects accompanying the scary bits still play at loud volume. There isn’t a lot of music, consisting mainly of disjointed flourishes of haunting melodies during cutscenes, but the soundtrack is very moody and contributes to the creepiness factor a lot. The game is fully voice acted, and Billy has a deep, raspy voice that fits the tough-guy hero character well. There is very little emotion in his voice, apart from a melancholy sort of sadness, which perfectly matches the mood of the game. Most of the other actors are fine, but you'll need to turn on the subtitles to understand some of them because of the echoing and sound effects that have been used.
Atmosphere is the most important aspect of any horror adventure, and it is here where this game really shines. Through both subtle and not-so-subtle details, WRF Studios manage to create a truly spooky mood and before long you are delightfully afraid to go on, as something scary could happen any moment. Most of the time nothing bad does happens; it's just the anticipation that something could that creates the suspense. Every now and again, when you click an interesting painting or open a closet, something will jump out at you or a spooky image is revealed, accompanied by appropriate, eerie noises. Some of these moments feel a bit cheap and predictable, but many are quite intense and not for the faint-of-heart.
After about ten hours of play time, Society of the Serpent Moon comes to a very satisfying end. The story isn't related to the other Last Half of Darkness games in any way, so you don't need to have played any of those installments to understand this one, which is available exclusively from the developer's website. Those who have will feel right at home with the style of art and the dark mood of the new game, even if it takes a while to get fully immersed in the third-person perspective. And for those considering a first taste of the series, Society of the Serpent Moon is well worth getting started due to its enjoyably creepy atmosphere throughout.