The Shadow in the Cathedral review
Ian Finley and Jon Ingold are two deeply revered authors of interactive fiction, both having created multiple award-winning freeware games such as the dystopian horror piece Babel (1997, Finley) and the outstandingly realistic detective game Make It Good (2009, Ingold). As a big IF fan, imagine my delight when I discovered that in 2009, through the relatively new publisher Textfyre, they had collaborated to produce their first commercial work, a riveting steampunk adventure titled The Shadow in the Cathedral.
This is the first (and thus far only) game in the Klockwerk series, which is a planned trilogy set in an original world devised by Finley and Ingold. As you might have guessed from the franchise name, this is a world where clockwork dominates. It is used to power all technology and provide for all life; however, its influence doesn't end there. The dependency on these mechanisms has changed the world-view of the people, with their religion, careers, and even their concepts of beauty being centred on clockwork. At one point you encounter an attractive woman who's described as having 'long gleaming hair like fresh oil', an expression that would only come to the mind of someone who resides in this odd clockwork-centric world.
The level of world-building is really quite remarkable. For the first couple of hours you'll be exploring the religious premises dedicated to clockwork. Characters range from chanting monks to devious bullies inhabiting the area; they often act independently of the player, adding a great deal of vibrancy to the world. Functioning clockwork machinery oppressively surrounds you, and is constantly in operation. Whenever your actions are of religious importance you will gesture the Sign of the Winding Key – the equivalent of the Sign of the Cross. This all establishes a setting that can be imagined in tremendous detail, one that is not merely the backdrop to a story, but a living world from which emerges a story.
The game uses the standard layout for interactive fiction, which consists of a status bar at the top of the screen and a command prompt at the bottom, with the story text filling the space in between. However, there are minor cosmetic differences between the various versions of the game. I played the hobbyist version which uses 'glulx', a filetype specific to IF. If you want to run it this way you will need an interpreter (I recommend Gargoyle for Windows and Linux, or Splatterlight for Mac). The main advantage of this method is that you gain greater freedom over font customisation, text spacing, background colours and many other settings that can make reading on a computer a far more comfortable experience. (Plus, you can use the interpreter to play the thousands of freeware text adventures available, including the two authors' previous works.)
On the other hand, those looking for a way to play the game that doesn't include the hassle of an interpreter can download the Kindle, Android, or Windows application (Mac and Linux users will have to use the hobbyist version, however). The Kindle and Android versions (and possibly the Windows version, though I can't confirm this) include a single hand drawn picture for each of the twelve chapters. The interface varies very slightly between the two versions, but the actual story content is the same in all cases. In none of the versions will you find any multimedia elements apart from the select images – this game is virtually all text.
The player character, Wren, possesses a seemingly menial role in the world of Klockwerk as the 2nd Assistant Clock Polisher in the Cathedral of Time. But very soon it becomes apparent that Wren will have to play the unlikely hero in a dark, unravelling mystery that involves the potential abuses of powerful technology. This is not an exceptional plot in itself – some might even call it clichéd – nevertheless, it's a story told so well, and with such character, that it becomes a highly engrossing experience. It's also a very linear experience; you'll mostly be working on one puzzle at a time, with only a few puzzles having more than one solution. I know this can be a make-or-break factor for some people, but all in all I felt it was justified. Non-linearity, in this case, would make for clumsy gameplay in a piece with such a clearly defined narrative.
Despite this linearity, the gameplay is not always smooth. My biggest gripe with The Shadow in the Cathedral is that the map is designed with a few too many non-reciprocal paths. In one instance you head east to a warehouse door, yet heading back west won't return you to where you started; you need to go southwards instead. This kind of design was acceptable in the Infocom era, but is now long outdated. However, Textfyre do seem willing to address this problem, with the promise of a 'deluxe edition' that would include an interactive map to help with some of the obfuscated geography. But as the game currently stands, this problem alone easily knocks off half a star for me, which is a shame to do to a game with so much going for it.
In most cases though, the gameplay is superb and benefits from some of the best pacing I've ever seen in any game. Partly because of the game's linearity, you never spend too long without a new plot development or a new area to explore. I never really found myself stuck (bar the times I had to navigate the badly designed map, but such occasions were uncommon). The game often has dramatic moments that are nicely spread out, including a standout chase scene, which is surprisingly effective considering it's all done in text. I held my breath often during this scene, the relentless pacing never letting up – an example of how action sequences should be done in interactive fiction. All of this results in a game that flows astonishingly well, making the seven or eight hours of playing time feel exceptionally smooth.
As this is a text game, I'll quickly address the parser. I never encountered any guess-the-verb issues, and nearly all the commands I entered had adequate responses. It is a thoroughly well implemented game, and after quite a few updates it has been fixed to the point at which I'm happy to call it polished. Synonyms are plentiful, and user friendly features like suggesting available directions (whereby if you head north, but can only go east and west the game will say 'The only ways to go from here are east and west') are included. Convenient abbreviations like 'N' for north or 'X' for examine/look at are included, as is standard for modern parser-based games. These are all simple but unbelievably helpful additions to any large-scale piece of interactive fiction.
There are a variety of puzzles, many of which are surprisingly unique. A lot of your time will be spent manipulating clockwork devices, but there are also some traditional inventory puzzles to be solved. What makes these puzzles unique is that when presented with a machine to tinker with, it is described in precise detail, and the purpose of the machine is made perfectly clear to you. Therefore, puzzles do not always revolve around working out how to operate such contraptions, like in the Myst games, but instead are based on figuring out how to subvert the purpose of the machinery to suit your needs. If you need to somehow get up into the air, yet only have weather equipment at your disposal, how do you utilise the equipment to help you fly? Puzzles like this one are not too hard, and perhaps some might actually find them a little too easy, but the process of working them out is always fascinating and nonetheless fun.
The other common type of puzzle is the physics-based variety, usually involving pulleys and counterweights. These are used especially frequently during the chase scene, making for dramatic stunts like hoisting the player character up the outside of a cathedral. Again, these obstacles aren't hard to overcome – and those with a preference for challenging puzzlefests might want to look elsewhere – but the puzzles do suit the pace of the game and are high on creativity while being fair. Also, I must mention that even during the high-octane chase scene, you can never die, nor can you at any point put the game into an unwinnable state.
The story ends on a cliffhanger, clearly setting itself up for a sequel. Some plot points are resolved, but there are more questions and new developments at the end than there are resolutions. The finale is satisfyingly climatic though, and the questions it poses could make for interesting further developments. So altogether I felt content with the ending, and am looking forward to its upcoming sequel, The Castle by the Sea.
Available for download from the Textfyre website for just $4.95, The Shadow in the Cathedral is an extremely enjoyable, bordering on exceptional, adventure game. It's thoughtfully implemented for the most part, and the authors demonstrate deft prose through which they've crafted a rich and highly immersive world dominated by clockwork technology. The puzzles may be considered too easy by some and it is not without its flaws, but these are neither frequent nor pervasive enough to seriously damage the experience. If you at all enjoy steampunk and know your way around a text parser, you should absolutely play this game.
The Shadow in the Cathedral is an extremely enjoyable adventure through a bizarre world where clockwork is everything.