World-weary policeman Peter Glebski is on a rare vacation, and he's chosen to spend his two weeks of tranquility at the titular Dead Mountaineer's Hotel, a sprawling mansion perched atop a snowy peak in an Alpine valley named Bottle Neck. Named after the man who went skiing one fateful day, never to return, there have since been bizarre goings-on in the hotel – harmless pranks presumably played by the dear departed. And indeed, things turn weird right away when Peter is inexplicably locked in his room, setting up a brief but clever quest.
Unfortunately, thereafter it's a dizzy plunge downhill for about five hours as you keep waiting for a story to start that never does. Peter roams the many floors and hallways on a handful of silly errands, guests ramble on in a medley of abysmal voice acting, and disjointed events occur without prelude, consequence or reason. There's almost no explanation of objects and tasks, while clunky controls make exploration arduous and minigames a pain. The multi-storied hotel is beautiful but creepy, with meticulously detailed interiors and a breathtaking exterior. However, the abrupt ending, which clarifies the plot in one mindboggling sentence and forces a pointless decision on a topic introduced only seconds earlier, is a relief from the remarkably tiresome excursion.
Developed by Russian studio Akella, the game is based on the sci-fi novel of the same name written by renowned authors Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. The premise pits practical detective work against supernatural phenomena, but the game fails both at adapting the story into a riveting whodunit and designing quests relevant to the plot. It starts strong and stays aligned with the book in terms of the setting and the cast of characters, but the marquee event – a murder – doesn’t happen until shortly before the end, and until then Peter is occupied with onerous tasks like fixing the call button wiring, identifying – by visiting every room – which guest is unduly occupying the communal shower, playing billiards to impress a married woman, choosing his dinner from the buffet, and fetching bottle after bottle of whiskey for a wily drunk.
Events supposedly proceed in real time, with people going about their business independent of Peter's activities, but without any idea whatsoever of their agendas, it's unclear what's being missed, or even why (until the murder happens) we should care about what they're doing. The 'ghostly pranks' are childish – inexplicably muddy shoes, wet towels scattered about, displaced items – and fail to intrigue or scare. Besides, the owner and most of the guests enthusiastically accept the oddities, which further lowers the incentive to investigate them. There are apparently four possible endings, two of which result from Peter's decision following the final revelation; the third depends on a conversation choice made shortly after the murder, and the fourth is linked to an optional side quest that you may easily miss altogether.
While the attempt at a non-linear, multi-outcome format is laudable, the total absence of a mechanism to involve the player in the process makes it irrelevant. There's no indication during the game of the real-time concept, nor any hint (except in the last scene) that you're at a crucial juncture where your actions will make a difference to the outcome – which means there's no guarantee you'll encounter the alternate events even during a replay, provided you are inclined to invest the time and effort again after a harrowing first experience.
The hotel already has five guests by the time Peter arrives: illusionist du Barnstocre and his androgynous niece/nephew Bruen; flagrantly rich, mismatched couple Mozes and Olga, and snarky physicist Simone. Olaf, a strapping Norwegian; and shady, whiskey-swilling Hinkus are added to the fray the next day, and the motley crew is rounded off with the late arrival of a one-armed stranger. There is one staff member besides the owner Snevar: the hefty housekeeper Kaisa, whose simplicity yields some quirky chats. But no one, including Peter, is interesting or likeable. Snevar, an aficionado of fine wines, multicultural literature and perpetual motion machines, is cordial but superficial; genial du Barnstocre prefers to stay in his room and listen to Mozart; swarthy Mozes is a pompous bully who refers to himself in the third-person; and Olga is a vacuous porcelain beauty in a precarious strapless dress. Peter appears to be in his late thirties, and though generally cranky, he handles the case with the professional detachment of an experienced cop. He shares little personal opinion on any matter, and spends his spare time dreaming about 'radiant Olga' and propositioning her, often despite the presence – and protests – of her husband.
The action is contained entirely within the hotel other than a quick foray outside to park Peter's car, but this isn't a deficiency. Besides the ten guestrooms, there is a library, a kitchen-pantry-dining hall setup, a game room, a greenhouse, a terrace, a basement with a wine cellar, a garage and several lounges, plus utility areas like lockers and bathrooms. The problem is, about half of these locations exist only to bloat the play time, and there are many doors which stay locked throughout. Also, the spatial arrangement of each area forces you to cross several filler screens on each trip. It takes time to get familiar with the layout due to the constantly changing camera angles, which alter the viewing perspective from screen to screen. Though floor plans are available, they are unlabelled and don't mark Peter's location, which makes them useless; expecting a teleportation option to counter the copious backtracking is, naturally, unrealistic.
Tasks are similarly designed to stretch legwork to the maximum. Most involve traversing the entire hotel, from terrace to basement, occasionally accompanied by a guest. Screens can be transitioned by double-clicking exits, but only if there are no doors in the way. There's no elevator, so you spend ages watching Peter saunter up and down the three flights of stairs. And yet for all that travelling, there are very few quests, just ordinary tasks, almost none of which are related to the murder. Some objectives, like focusing sunlight with a mirror, involve precise mouse control, and while not tough, they may require multiple attempts due to sensitive mechanics. You can play optional minigames like blackjack, darts and skiing, though these are unnecessary diversions from an already-flimsy plot. Yet these pale in comparison to an utterly rudimentary 2D billiards competition that whisks you right back to the infancy of computer gaming. No minigame has instructions, and most inventory attempts don't generate any feedback, so you have to somehow guess what's needed or why a solution isn't working.Continued on the next page...