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The Raven hands-on archived preview

The Raven hands-on preview
The Raven hands-on preview

The Orient Express has officially been shut down for a few years now, but its legacy continues to serve adventure gamers well. From Jordan Mechner's The Last Express to AWE Production's Murder on the Orient Express, the deluxe train has established itself as a neatly self-contained environment in which to stage a character-driven mystery drama. The latest adventure to join the railroad ranks is the first of three episodes of KING Art's The Raven, though the trilogy is destined to move on to new modes of transport after this. I recently had the chance to check out a substantial portion of the debut installment, and so far it's looking like a worthy first leg of the journey.

The Raven is named after a notorious thief believed to be killed in 1958. Now five years later, someone has resumed his burgling exploits, including his trademark black feather left at the scene of the crime. But something is not quite right. While the current thief seems to have an uncanny grasp of things only the original Raven would know, he (or she) also has a new M.O. this time around, including a far more dangerous use of explosives. A London museum guard was even injured during the latest heist of a priceless ruby, one of two "Eyes of the Sphinx" that were due to be displayed soon in Cairo.

With one gem already missing, the pressure is on to prevent the other from falling into the Raven's hands. This one, a precious emerald, has been scheduled for delivery by train from Zurich to Venice. As Swiss Constable Anton Zellner, it's your task to help ensure that nothing happens en route, at least within national borders. But not everyone is pleased with your presence. Famed French Inspector Nicolas Legrand, who caught and (presumably) killed the original Raven, is also on board, waiting to set a trap. Doubtful of your abilities and wary of your interference, you'll need to prove your worth to Legrand by attempting to solve a series of lesser dilemmas first, including getting a travelling archeologist into his mysteriously-locked cabin and finding a missing purse.

After proving (or disproving) your "finely-honed powers of deduction" to the Inspector through a series of interactive dialogue topics, you're finally free to explore the train. There's an optional tutorial available, but the interface is child's play for any adventure gamer. Left-click context-sensitive hotspot icons to interact, and right-click inventory (hidden at the bottom of the screen until rolled over) for additional commentary. Collected items can be used on both environmental hotspots and each other, the cursor handily indicating which combinations are possible (if not always successful), sparing the need for repetitive failure commentary. Exhausted icons disappear, further reducing any undue guesswork.

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There is also a hotspot highlighter available, but with a twist. Simply hitting the spacebar reveals any interactive items on screen, but each use costs "adventure points". In the preview version, it wasn't exactly clear what contributed to this AP total, but like the point-scoring features of old, it seemed to increase after successfully completing required tasks. This added condition may sound restrictive, but I barely ever needed the highlighter, and always had a laughably high number of points available to me when I did.

The train itself is implausibly small, with just a single car each for dining, sleeping, bar lounging, and cargo storage. This is never rationalized, but it's a fair compromise for adventuring convenience. There's still a fair bit of back and forth (literally backwards and forwards, as the train is oriented on screen vertically instead of horizontally) between cars, but the game isn't padded with unnecessarily cumbersome travel. That's a good thing, because there are no auto-exits or means to fast travel in this episode, and while exits have their own indicators, unmarked screen changes within cars can be a hassle, as you try to maneuver Zeller towards the bottom of the screen and accidentally call up the inventory instead.

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The graphics won't dazzle you with their artistry or cutting-edge technology, but they're crisp and reasonably detailed, showing off the decorative patterns in the curtains and carpeting, and the fine wood grain lining the sides of the train interiors. At least until the lights go out, leaving you to fumble around in the shadows with makeshift light sources. More impressive is the animation, as the scenery continues to whiz by through the windows as you move about. Character models are nicely diverse, and lip synching adequately complements the standout voice acting. Every voice is suitably cast to its character, and though the various international accents might be less authentic – I couldn't quite place Zellner's, and I wouldn't have guessed Swiss – the acting is always natural and believable. I was especially impressed by the young boy, as it's a major role and children are often performed wretchedly by adults in adventures. Toss a wonderful orchestral score into the mix, and it's clear that KING Art has once again nailed its production values.

The gameplay I encountered seemed like a fairly traditional blend of inventory puzzling and dialogue. The obstacles felt organic, especially when the stakes eventually ratcheted up from menial police work to train-saving heroics. Nothing proved overly challenging, especially given the limited numbers of locations and items available at any one time. But nor did the puzzles feel insultingly easy, offering just enough interaction to keep me motivated without ever significantly interrupting the flow of the story.

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And make no mistake: story and characters are the real driving forces behind The Raven. It was a bold change by the German developer to move completely away from the fantasy genre that worked so impressively in The Book of Unwritten Tales. But while The Raven's premise seems like strictly serious fare on the surface and much more grounded in reality than its predecessor, this first episode actually retains the same undercurrent of lighthearted whimsy, with plenty of playful banter and subtle riffs on the detective genre.

As the protagonist, Zellner is a breath of fresh air. He's middle-aged, overweight, balding, and frumpy – an entirely unimpressive specimen (a point driven home by his repeated failure to earn the respect of Legrand). Unlike the superstar detectives of other adventures, Zellner's quiet, unassuming demeanor and unexceptional abilities lend themselves perfectly to player experimentation and even outright cluelessness in the face of seemingly incomprehensible mysteries when the Raven inevitably strikes. Yet the Constable also has a stubborn self-assurance and good natured sense of humour, refusing to accept "no" as an answer from his superiors and yet playfully sticking his tongue out at the red-haired, freckle-faced young Matt and humbly asking for an autograph from his favourite mystery writer.

The elderly author's name is Lady Clarissa Westmacott, one of several subtle, clever nods to Agatha Christie that permeate this episode. Even Zellner's unimposing stature and twirled mustache calls to mind Christie's (admittedly much more brilliant) Hercule Poirot. There's little chance to become too acquainted with any of the other guests in this opening installment, but you'll be introduced to the likes of a haughty British baroness, a German doctor, a brusque Scotland Yard copper, a young but suspicious musician, and of course the rambunctious young Matt, who carries a toy pistol and longs to be part of the excitement, at least until he gets his wish. Nearing what I'm told is roughly the half-way mark of the first episode, the whole gang arrives at a wharf to resume the journey to Egypt by ship, captained by an ex-WWI hero, and a wealthy "impertinent" American socialite arrives to join them. All in all, it's a promising mix of eclectic personalities that sets the stage for an old-fashioned whodunit. (Not to suggest any of them didit; that certainly isn't revealed at this point.)

Sadly, I wasn't able to finish the preview version, as a game-breaking bug prevented me from helping to smuggle Zellner onto the M.S. Lydia. This is just one of several glitches that still plague the game, including the inventory often not appearing, subtitle typos, and a rather sluggish cursor on either the medium or high graphics settings. There isn't much time to fix these issues, as the game is scheduled for release next month, but with a little more polish in the final weeks, The Raven certainly looks like it could be a worthy, albeit radically different, successor to The Book of Unwritten Tales. Its three-episode structure may not please everyone, but it would appear that the installments are intuitively divided, offering a much different locale and experience each time out, including the promise of playing the burglar him/herself at some point, so perhaps launching a month apart will just heighten the anticipation. Based on what I've seen so far, I have no reservations about climbing aboard for the full journey.


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