1112: Episode 03 review
Players who have been following the episodic iOS-based adventure 1112 may be hoping that this third episode is where the series really spreads its wings. In the prologue-like series debut, antique shop owner-cum-selective amnesiac protagonist Louis Everett pottered around his house and neighbourhood performing mundane domestic tasks and preparing for a meeting with a big prospective client. In the second game he blacked out and found himself lying in a hotel room in a very Gallic take on New York. After stumbling around a bit and completing a series of odd tasks, Louis took a bus back to his home in Jalonsville, New Jersey, but due to a series of convoluted circumstances, he found himself locked in a restroom cubicle at a truck stop, trying to escape the clutches of a serial killer. At the start of Episode 03, Louis suddenly finds himself transported to his neighbour John's... well, john, half a year later.
It's hard to make that summary sound particularly coherent, or even all that interesting. And that's the problem 1112 has displayed so far. A lot of vague hints and strange events – some of which are intentional, others just poorly conceived – are thrown around, but there's been no real sense of plot or direction underpinning the proceedings. The third episode takes a few steps in the right direction, as there's a definitive, sensible goal to work towards. Louis's wife Anna has gone missing and his house has been ransacked, leaving Louis to investigate the situation and find enough witnesses and evidence to make the unusually unhelpful local police force listen to him. To do that, he must explore Jalonsville, talk to the inhabitants, run errands to convince people to help out, and indulge in more than a little amateur burglary while looking for clues leading to Anna.
The characters you encounter are usually quite strange, but few of them are particularly compelling. Only the absent character, Anna, had enough depth to really pique my interest, as the clues you discover about her suggest there’s far more to her than her initial “feisty redhead” characterisation. Others like the street preacher and your fussy secretary struck me as simple stereotypes. The series' notorious poor localisation is a little tighter here than it's been before, although the characters still sometimes sound like they've only recently learned English, being prone to odd turns of phrase on occasion. A few other curiosities – “salon” instead of lounge – still slip through as well.
Another improvement is that Episode 03 introduces more variety to the gameplay this time. As well as the standard inventory-combination puzzles and visual-novel style dialogue, there are also lockpicking minigames, treasure hunts, jigsaw puzzles, riddles, safes to crack, and much more. Thankfully, there is also a complete absence of Sudoku puzzles, which helped mark a nadir in the last episode. The developers even acknowledge this: one character jokes that you must help him with his Sudoku before presenting the real challenge, a series of riddles. Unfortunately, the replacement is no better, as the riddles are ambiguously worded and often don't really work (perhaps another casualty of its translation from French).
With more puzzles and more variety than in previous episodes, it’s a greater shame that the gameplay quality has not improved. In fact, while this instalment may initially seem like a generous slice of episodic gaming, taking up to eight hours to work through completely, it is only a long game by virtue of being artificially extended, stuffed to the gills with backtracking, busywork, and pixel hunting. A scene in the dark, where your only source of illumination is a box of matches that must be laboriously dragged out of your inventory and lit every five seconds, is a particularly annoying example. At another point you are required to play hide-and-seek with a character. Imagine a game of Where's Waldo? in which Waldo's foot might be hidden anywhere across more than twenty screens. Then imagine repeating this six whole times. I was ready to throw my iPhone at the wall. That's not the only treasure hunt either: one section has a creepy psychic send you across town hunting for canisters containing a long series of clues. But at least that one is more enjoyable, because the clues are solvable rather than relying on guesswork.
To make matters worse, the game only lets you take certain key quest items after you reach a set point in the game. I spent most of the game wondering why Louis suggested I pulverise a sprig of mistletoe to make glue (this actually works, apparently) but wouldn't let me combine it with a pestle and mortar. Only after triggering a certain task later on did I discover that I could finally pick up the pestle and proceed.
Many of the assigned tasks, like playing matchmaker for the local bartender, tracking down stuffed cats and stealing a rifle for a gun nut, would feel more at home in a cartoony, comedic game or a surreal fantasy than a wannabe mystery thriller. 1112 doesn't stretch credulity so much as it attacks it with a machete. One bizarre sequence sees you breaking into the house of your creepy neighbours, hiding from one of them in the cellar before waltzing straight in to interview the other in her strange steampunk/S+M dungeon-style bedroom. This uneven tone pervades the entire game, never sure whether it's an enigmatic episodic mystery in the vein of Lost or The Prisoner, a wacky comedy with a crazy cast of characters, a Lovecraftian horror, a gritty psychological drama, or a bizarre Twin Peaks-style soap opera. Unfortunately, in trying to be some of all of them, it winds up being none of these things.
Easing the frustration somewhat is a new objective logging system that keeps notes of the tasks you are trying to achieve. It's an admirable feature, and one that I wish more adventure games would incorporate. The basic interface is also very slick and capitalises on the iPhone's strengths. Sliding your finger around the screen allows you to explore large scenes by scrolling the camera, and you can pinch and stretch between two fingers to zoom in and out. Holding your finger down allows you to scan for hotspots – of which there are hundreds – with a magnifier and releasing pulls up a verb menu that changes based on context (e.g. examine, take, smell). Many of the verbs, however, are neither useful or entertaining, resulting in a lot of the game being spent with the relentlessly charisma-free Louis denying your requests to do anything. There aren't many responses for incorrect inventory combinations either, meaning that you're rarely steered back on track if the game wants you to follow a certain line of reasoning.
In addition to the standard interface, there are a few zoom-in scenes that put the iPhone's touch screen to good use: scrubbing snow off a basement hatch, for example, or pulling nails out of a crate with a claw hammer. Unfortunately, a confusing lockpicking game is very badly executed, relying on both timing and hitting a small area at the bottom of the screen while you are required to look at the top corner. The dialogue system is a simple matter of picking from a list of topics and highlighting the odd green word to add new lines of questioning. There is a manual keyboard input for you to try your own ideas, but this is utterly redundant. I was never able to get any of the town's denizens to recognize even the most obvious topics, including the names of central characters.
While it can be plodding to play, the game is very pretty to look at, with beautiful oil painting-style backdrops, nice 3D models for the objects in your inventory, and detailed portraits and animation for even the most incidental characters. Being set during a freezing winter, there are pleasant snowy particle effects for the outside scenes and effective background animation throughout – open doors blow about in the cold, fires flicker and bar patrons nurse their drinks. Sound design is also a highlight. The musical score inspires feelings of mystery and intrigue, combining solo piano with a nice sideline in trip-hop and sprechgesang vocals. Background effects are just as good, with creepy, static-infused soundscapes providing some of the clues that Louis discovers.
Now three episodes in, here are the big questions: Does this episode actually give 1112 any sort of direction? Does the episode contain a self-contained story arc? And does Louis get any closer to finding Anna? No, no and no are the unfortunate answers. You'll receive a few veiled prods to some kind of grand conspiracy, but it's all so vague and ends so abruptly that it's impossible to tell if Agharta Studios are actually going somewhere with this, or even if they know themselves. For myself, and I suspect many other players, patience is wearing thin at this point. I still hold out a little hope, but mystery without plot, drama without compelling characters, and gameplay without much reward are not strong enticements to persist until the series finally (if ever) finds its way.