Amber’s Blood review
It’s Carol Reed’s eighth outing as a British ex-pat sleuth in Norrkörping, Sweden, and this time around she’s contemplating a soothing rest between cases. However, in MDNA Games’ Amber’s Blood, Carol gets far more than she bargained for when she tries to help a friend learn about the macabre mystery behind her grandfather’s death. While this modest, thoroughly traditional point-and-click slideshow adventure doesn’t hold any surprises in the gameplay or presentation department, it does hold a shock or two as you investigate a fascinating mystery that slowly develops over time and provides a satisfying tale full of twists and turns.
Given Carol's typical pattern of peaceful summers shattered by mysteries that need solving, now she'd settle just for sleeping in and having a peaceful day. But even these simple pleasures prove elusive when her good friend Stina becomes intrigued by an obituary for a certain Alfons Larson while searching through her father’s attic after his death. Larson may have been her grandfather, only the date on the obituary is much later than what her family had led her to believe about his death. Unfortunately, Stina injures herself in a fall and must enlist Carol’s help to pursue the matter further. And so Carol finds her summer reverie broken by a mystery that starts out small but increasingly puts her in the line of danger.
Stina’s simple request eventually unfolds into a complex tale full of misplaced ambition and long-kept secrets. The story proceeds in a logical manner, providing straightforward clues about what you’ll need to do next. When you read about the Broxtowe Psychiatric Hospital for the Criminally Insane during your investigations, the location appears on a handy map that you carry with you, allowing you to quick travel to this and other destinations. Each location that you visit, including Carol’s apartment, an art gallery, and a rundown windmill, has several areas within it that you must explore thoroughly. Mostly you’re looking for clues, such as notes and letters, as well as picking up inventory items like ladders, screwdrivers, and all manner of regular objects a young sleuth would need to break into… that is, investigate a space.
The more places you explore, the more complicated the inventory puzzles become. Items that aren’t interactive when you first visit a scene become functional and prove very handy once you’ve explored an additional area and found that you need that particular object to help you overcome an obstacle. At times I wished that certain scenes, especially those at large locations with multiple floors to explore, allowed you to quickly travel within them, but the legwork is never overly burdensome. Some locations disappear from your map as you complete all objectives in the area, but most stay open, and there can be more than 15 main locations on the map at its fullest point. You can visit any location that’s currently accessible, but the storyline is pretty straightforward and I never found myself aimlessly backtracking through them.
There is such a wide variety of scenes to explore that you may forget what your current objective is. Fortunately, Carol keeps a handy notebook to help you out in that department. Right-click on the notebook in your inventory, and you’ll get a list your current goals. The game isn’t entirely linear, so it’s possible to have more than one objective at once, but you’ll never have more than a few going at the same time. If you’re not sure about your next step, clicking an objective in the notebook provides detailed hints about where you need to go and what to do next. Because the hints are usually so explicit, I preferred not to rely on them, and in general found that patience and some careful investigation were enough to do the trick. And you do need to be thorough; the smart cursor changes over interactive hotspots, but there is no hotspot highlighter to display all interactive elements, which can lead to occasional screen sweeping. One feature missing from the notebook is a record of what you’ve accomplished and the story so far. Because the plot becomes complicated and has a few twists, it would have been nice to have an account of what you’d discovered so far.
Gameplay in Amber’s Blood stays true to the nature of previous Carol Reed mysteries. The vast majority of your time is spent interviewing characters and exploring locations for clues and items that will help you obtain even more clues. As in previous outings, there aren’t many logic puzzles in this game, but the few provided are well-integrated, and hints are reasonable both in nature and placement. An example of one such puzzle is determining which shelves to move in a records department to find more information about Alfons. You’ll also encounter code-breaking puzzles, as the main characters behind the mystery are trying to keep their activities secret. There are no skip options for the logic puzzles, but they are never very difficult, usually just requiring that you pay close attention to the clues discovered.
The presentation is displayed using the standard slideshow technique, moving from node to node and turning in four directions. Using real photographs allows players, like myself, who have never visited Sweden to really get a feel for the places Carol visits. It also allowed the designers to nicely flesh out characters by letting you into their homes in various states of disarray. When you first wake up in Carol’s apartment, you’ll see evidence of a woman who needs her sleep, with ear plugs tucked next to her alarm clock and lotions. If you’re new to the Carol Reed series, as I was before this game, you’ll discover that she is a HUGE fan of adventure games. Floor to ceiling bookshelves are filled with authentic classic adventure game boxes, like Zork and The Last Express. In fact, this love of adventures even explains why she still has a computer that reads 3.5-inch floppy diskettes.
The music and sound effects also do a good job of adding to the tone of the game. The soundtrack is somber at times, with sad violins and contemplative piano melodies, but it occasionally deepens, adding an even more sinister feeling as you explore decrepit locations. Ambient noises such as a door that creaks open, birds chirping as you wander a woody area, and the quiet sound of water lapping as you investigate a half-sunken ship, inject some much-needed life to scenes that are entirely lacking in background animations.
One area where the static slides aren’t nearly as effective is in the photos of the folks you meet and talk to. All of the characters are fully voiced, from Stina to a flirty tattooed biker to a shady physician, and the voice work is fine, if somewhat slow and at times unemotional. However, as they speak, facial expressions change only with a transition between still images, which makes for a bit of an odd effect. While the characters are quite adult, ranging from an (ahem) “escort” wearing a little black dress two sizes too small to a roommate who can only write notes to you as she’s lost a bet at the pub and now can’t speak for a week, they can also be very funny in a rather understated way. Listening to Carol try to tip-toe around the biker’s vague licentious hints is pretty entertaining. There isn’t any trick to the dialogues, as you’ll just need to click through all text options, but make sure to revisit characters if you’re stuck, as speaking to people again will often give you clues as to where to go next.
Exploring is a large part of the fun in this game. You can zoom in for a closer look in many places, but you won’t always find relevant items in these close-ups. You’ll get to stop and smell the flowers, so to speak, as you explore Carol’s allotment, finding necessary objects in some areas and just admiring how her garden is doing in others. This is a game that you’ll want to take your time to investigate; if you speed through each location, you’ll definitely miss clues or items, not because they are difficult to see but because there is so much to look at, whether it’s a gorgeous seashore at the foot of towering cliffs or standing stones looming against emerald green grass that meets a cerulean sky at the horizon. The asylum that holds the key to so much of the story greets you with floors filled with peeling paint, strange rust-colored splashes on the walls and old lockers that beckon to you.
The more clues that you gather, the more the strange tale of Stina’s grandfather unfurls, and this is where the game really shines. I never found the twists and turns in this tale of madness, ambition, and regret to be predictable. Amber’s Blood slowly reveals hints of a deeper story with questions that you encounter along the way. Why did Alfons have his doctor’s license revoked? How is Julian Milius, an insane painter who was an asylum mate with Alfons, involved in the plot? Who is Amber and who is leaving strange messages on Carol’s phone? This is no simple spooky campfire tale for children either. The details are macabre and gory: “killed his wife in the spring of 1935 by planting an axe in her head while she was asleep, and then set her bed on fire,” reads one newspaper clipping you discover.
Taking your time to explore this intricate and thoroughly intriguing story can easily take about five hours, followed by a rewarding conclusion with a wrap-up for each of the major characters that at times can be quite funny. The finale arrived with many “ah ha!” moments for me, never relying on easy clichés. There may not be much new blood in the gameplay or visual department, but rather than detracting from the experience, this simple presentation allows the focus to shine fully on its compelling mystery involving murder, insanity, ancestry, and friendship. Sure, it may feel fairly dated, but if you can look past that, Amber’s Blood is a worthy addition to the Carol Reed library, and an enjoyable adventure in its own right.
For fans of traditional slideshow adventures who like a good old-fashioned yarn that will keep you guessing until the end, Amber’s Blood is an engrossing detective mystery.