The Shadow in the Cathedral review

Shadow in the Cathedral
Shadow in the Cathedral
The Good:
  • Excellent interactive fiction world-building in a unique clockwork setting
  • Near-perfect pacing
  • Inventive puzzles
  • Skilful prose
  • Clever action sequences
The Bad:
  • Some less-than-stellar map design
  • Perhaps too easy and too linear for some
Our Verdict:

The Shadow in the Cathedral is an extremely enjoyable adventure through a bizarre world where clockwork is everything.

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.

Continued on the next page...

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Adventure games by Textfyre

The Shadow in the Cathedral  2009

The first episode in the planned Klockwerk Series, Shadow begins a steampunk adventure in a world of clocks, gears and ornithopters.