I had high expectations for the second part of the intense politico-religious series Shadows on the Vatican. The introductory Act I: Greed did well to establish the main cast, the somber atmosphere, and the complex, controversial plot inspired by David Yallop's non-fiction book In God's Name, which puts a conspiratorial spin on the death of Pope John Paul I in 1978. Act II: Wrath resumes right where its predecessor left off – in ex-priest James Murphy’s apartment in Rome, with a fresh corpse on the floor and feisty mercenary Silvia in charge. The next five hours are solid entertainment, well worth the two-year wait between episodes. The simplicity of the neat, pleasant backdrops and streamlined gameplay mechanics is the perfect foil for the multilayered characters; the puzzles are well-designed and thought-provoking but not obscure; the insidious plot twists tighter as it is unraveled. Character animation is the only aspect that lacks finesse, but that’s a nitpick in a game that packs so much substance in an episode, ending once more at a crucial juncture while leaving you fully satisfied with the progress so far.
The episode starts with a quick recap of Act I, using the series’ characteristic comic book-style panels to remind players of Fr. Dellerio’s murder in 1996, which led to his protégé James cynically leaving the Church; the near-fatal assault on Fr. Cristoforo, on whose insistence James had returned to Rome; and the events culminating in the violent encounter with Silvia. The game then focuses on James and Silvia working through a web of henchmen and smokescreens to get to the heart of a conspiracy of power and corruption. The stakes are sky-high: the money laundering suspected in Act I, involving the secrecy-enshrouded IOR – aka the Vatican Bank – appears only to be the tip of the proverbial iceberg, and the question shifts from what to why and how as the case progresses. It’s not an easy subject to grasp, as much due to the financial intricacies as the extensive histories of organisations like the Vatican and the Freemasons. But the game works hard to simplify the topics for laypersons, going so far as to provide descriptive slides of important people and places. It’s also judicious about the flow of information and action, allowing you to absorb one set of developments and implications before moving on to the next – without easing up on the underlying sense of urgency.
Splattered with profanities and dead bodies, Act II tackles the entire gamut of human emotion, be it lascivious perversion or sweet romance, unrepentant selfishness or selfless devotion. Every person, irrespective of origin or profession, has generous shades of gray. Gangsters are capable of surprising tenderness; priests of equal cruelty. No one is incorruptible, and no one beyond redemption. This keeps the twists in the tale unpredictable even during the obvious good-versus-evil conflicts. The conspiracy, a compelling blend of facts and myths, is blasphemous enough to shake even the hardened sentiments of embittered James. On the surface, we experience the duality of Rome with visits to the historic Santa Brigida church and the impressive IOR in the Vatican, as well as more contemporary places like the Galleria Alberto Sordi, a fancy shopping arcade, and a beauty salon. But lest we get comfortable with the pleasant, these trips are interspersed with forays into the vicious Roman underworld, where death is usually the only exit.
One of the biggest pluses of this series is the ease of its mechanics, and barring a minor experiment at the start of Act II, they are the same here as they were previously. In the first conversation between James and Silvia, you have to correctly infer the answer to each query of the dialogue tree or get reset to the start of the chat. This exchange wasn’t long enough to frustrate, but the format might have if applied to the full game. A similar process is used in Silvia’s first solo task as well, part of which is timed. The fear of repeating a sequence of events from scratch does make you consider your moves more seriously, but getting bogged down in redoing tasks over and over is a scarier prospect. Fortunately, the trials were concluded promptly, and then it was business as usual.
Progress is linear and task-based, and though there are several distinct locations, usually only a screen or two with three or four hotspots each can be explored at a time. Some hotspots which are initially dismissed as irrelevant become useful later, so it’s vital to revisit all available hotspots (revealed by a click of the spacebar) if you are stuck. There are no hints, but conversations hold fairly clear feedback to resolve situations. James still ‘drives’ to some places using the picturesque map of Rome, but mostly the story advances itself from scene to scene. Though James does jot down important symbols in a notepad, given the volume of dense information provided, a diary to record his observations is still sorely missed.
Most quests involve matching objects in the inventory, revealed by scrolling the mouse over the top of the screen. Sometimes if more than two items are to be combined, there is a set order. Though James often carries around twenty objects, including many books and documents, most combinations are practical and are further simplified by non-matches being visually disallowed. Silvia usually carries only her weapons. Both protagonists get significant individual playtimes, but in scenes that feature them together, you can choose your protagonist according to the situation. This tandem play, especially in a life-and-death crisis towards the end, is not only entertaining but makes the unlikely allies equal stakeholders in their successes. There are also some clever ciphers to crack, a few logical deductions from documentary evidence, and a nice sound-based minigame.Continued on the next page...