Review for 3 Cards to Midnight
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When 3 Cards to Midnight was first announced, the adventure community was thrilled. Ten years after Overseer, Chris Jones and Aaron Conners, the creative minds behind the beloved Tex Murphy saga, were finally coming back. Genre newcomers may not have completely understood this elation, but for longtime adventurers the news was an unexpected but extremely welcome surprise. With their mind-blowing stories and rich gameplay, Tex Murphy’s last three adventures are rightfully counted amongst the genre’s masterpieces, and Tex himself is such a multi-layered and identifiable character that he surely deserves his spot beside the likes of Gabriel Knight and Guybrush Threepwood. Make no mistake: 3 Cards is not a new Tex Murphy game, but with such a remarkable pedigree, the expectations surrounding Jones’ and Conners’ latest effort were sky high from the outset.
That initial anticipation took a step backward, however, when it became apparent that the new game would take a different approach than the Tex adventures of years past, featuring a substantial “hidden object” component that’s become so popular in the casual gaming market. Sensing from early feedback that the balance was not quite what they’d planned, Jones and Conners decided to redesign significant aspects of the game to increase the focus on the story even more, enhance the cinematic quality and better integrate the puzzles within the main plot. Still, the question has lingered as to whether the game would really end up being a casual title or a full-fledged adventure game.
Since this will be an important issue to some players, it’s better to answer the question right away: it’s somewhere in between. No, 3 Cards to Midnight isn’t a traditional adventure, but while it’s true that the gameplay has a lighter and rather casual feel, calling it a hidden object game would be like saying an icecube sank the Titanic, and such understatement does no justice to the label it truly deserves. Regardless of one’s gameplay definitions, the one issue that isn’t open to any interpretation is what Jones and Conners have been saying all along: 3 Cards to Midnight is a “story game”. And oh my, what a story. Never mind casual games, the story here is richer and deeper, both in presentation and scope, than the vast majority of adventures, and the characters – always believable and well-rounded – undergo serious development throughout the course of the game.
The tale begins rather abruptly, with a young woman named Jess Silloway finding herself in a dark room. Jess has no recollection of her past few days and doesn’t know where she is or why she is there. In front of her sits a mysterious man, whose face we can’t see and whose name we don’t know. Between them lays a deck of Tarot cards, which the man says can help Jess regain her memory. The Arcana, he explains, are connected to her life by means of their inscrutable magic, and if Jess concentrates on one at a time, she will be able to unveil the mystery behind her amnesia. Each of the game’s seven chapters begins with this man asking Jess to pick three different Tarots and lay them on the table, where the player can read their atmospheric descriptions and then choose in what order Jess will deal with them. When she picks one, the mystical power of the Tarot brings a picture to her mind, usually an image of a location relevant to her story. For example, the High Priestess – a card of femininity and motherhood – connects to her mother, Lila, and thus the image suggested by the card is that of Jess’ parents’ house. After hearing a brief explanation of the emotions Jess feels toward the place, the scene switches to a first-person view of a cozy living room. And then the real game begins.
In a typical hidden object game, players can expect a list of random items to find amongst all the mess, but here there’s only a certain number of blank spaces, and it’s up to you to “construct” the list in the first place. Continuing the example of the High Priestess, when asked what words popped into her mind when thinking of her mother and her childhood home, Jess answers “house”, “school” and “honey”, the name Lila used to call her. Through a word association process, the player must therefore find all the objects whose name produces another word or common expression. For example, clicking on a little statue of a boat constructs the word “houseboat”, while a tiny porcelain doll provides the word “dollhouse”. The exercise is as much a test for your brain as one for your eye, and it’s a welcome variation that forces the player to think, not just randomly click on everything. Most importantly, this process strikingly mimics what Jess herself is going through.
When the player has filled every blank space (which number as many as twelve in the later chapters) for each keyword, it’s then time to solve a standalone puzzle in order to unlock the final memory connected to that particular Tarot. These puzzles – which can be completely skipped if they prove too tough a challenge – have been cleverly written into the plot, representing the obstacles Jess must overcome to gain some vital information, like cracking a computer password, interpreting an astral chart or deciphering encrypted messages.
This is all the gameplay you’ll get in 3 Cards to Midnight, and I must admit that, after the first four chapters, the whole word association mechanic started to feel a bit repetitive. Furthermore, it requires an excellent knowledge of English. Certain associations rely on figures of speech and idiomatic expressions, or even pop-culture references, and players must know the language well enough to get through the linguistic meanders of the game. Even with an adequate language competence, the game is difficult at times, because some associations feel a little arbitrary. For example, I still can’t understand why “night owl” is a correct pair, while my repeated clicks on a statue of a horse were deemed incorrect. I expected that “mare” would be a clever solution (thus composing “nightmare”), and it didn’t seem a stretch.
Admittedly, English is not my native language, so I found myself resorting often to a good dictionary, and after the twentieth keyword, I was definitely tiring of the process. Thankfully, the story is so mesmerizing that it provides more than enough motivation to proceed, and the standalone puzzles are nicely varied and provide a refreshing diversion from the word association segments. I particularly liked deciphering an old runic document, using a ouija board to communicate with a strange entity, and examining two photographs in search of subtle differences and clues. On the other hand, I could have lived without a puzzle concerning the zodiac, which seemed far-fetched and a bit contrived.
Although players must resolve all three cards in each chapter, the freedom to choose the order means that the way the plot unfolds can vary greatly. For example, in one chapter I unlocked a memory concerning a certain man, whose name I didn’t know at that point, paying an unexpected visit to Jess. I was puzzled: who was that man, and why didn’t Jess comment on his name? It was almost like she already knew him. Later on, I discovered the memory where Jess first met this man. It may sound tortuous, but the writers were so careful that regardless of the order you choose, you can always understand the development of the story. Personally speaking, I found the game even more entertaining when I unlocked memories in an odd order, because the process of putting together the various pieces was incredibly satisfying.
At the end of each chapter, a brief synopsis of the story so far is presented in a stylish summary screen, from which the player can also rewatch any unlocked flashbacks, replay the standalone puzzles, and most importantly, access the information about your Card Rating. Each Tarot completed is given a score from one to four stars, based on the number of Hints and Misses the player has used to resolve the word association phase connected to that card. Every time you click on a wrong object, you consume one of the “misses” at your disposal. Not only does this lower the Card Rating, but if the misses reach zero, you must restart the process from the beginning of that particular Tarot, thus diminishing the score once again. This effectively discourages you from simply clicking anywhere rather than thinking through the word challenges. Each hint, on the other hand, reveals one of the useful objects on screen but equally contributes to a lower rating. The overall number of Hints and Misses available depends on the difficulty level chosen by the player at the beginning of the game, between “Easy”, “Challenge” and “Gamer”. While the easiest gives plenty of hints and misses and requires fewer objects to find, the latter is really tough, because it allows very few misses, almost no hints and, most importantly, displays a lot more unnecessary objects on screen.
To achieve a perfect four star score, players can’t use any hints or surpass four misses, and it’s necessary to solve the standalone puzzles and finish each memory without restarting. The Card Rating isn’t a simple accessory, however, because it can actually influence the final outcome of the game. Without spoiling anything, it’s enough to say that – before the epilogue – the mysterious man will ask Jess to draw strength from three cards, and the chosen Tarots must have a deep, emotional connection to her story or a significant resonance in her life. During the game, many Tarots will simply reveal minor tidbits about her background, while others will unveil extremely important portions of her memory. The higher the Card Rating of these Tarots, the more powerful they will be. A four star rating on a rather unimportant card will count less than a mediocre two stars associated with a powerful Arcana, but of course you won’t know its importance until you’ve completed each. Since the final choice of the three Tarots is totally up the player – just another sign of how rich a narrative experience 3 Cards to Midnight really is – you must recognize which cards are emotionally or psychologically significant to Jess and select the highest rated ones, thus providing Jess the strongest possible power. This choice will distinctly influence the ending of the game, and so far I’ve already experienced two different but equally astonishing finales.
Visually, the game is somewhat of a mixed bag. The interface is stylish and effective, the Tarots’ design is stunningly beautiful, the screens introducing each memory nicely blend photographic realism with small, surreal touches, and the animated cutscenes – although presented in a very small format, almost 1/3 of the screen – sport a top-notch cinematic direction and captivating atmosphere. Nevertheless, some items in the searchable locations are occasionally a bit muddled, making it pretty hard to recognize them. For instance, when I clicked – pretty randomly, I must admit – on a round, pale object, I was astounded to see that it was an onion. The locations themselves, including a decrepit old mansion, a mental facility and an ultra-modern hi-tech tower in Las Vegas, to name just a few, are a bit pixellated and suffer from a lack of high resolution, but they are nicely designed and full of little details capable of sending a shiver down your spine, like strange shadows looming outside the windows or car flashes suddenly illuminating a dark, deserted house.
The musical score is even more powerful and magnetic: subtle during the playing phases, it explodes eerily and menacingly during the cutscenes. The main theme is appropriately dark, and the occasional clashing notes confer a really disturbing mood on the noir-inspired orchestation, full of trumpets and ominous drums. The voice acting is equally well done: every character is perfectly voiced, and particular praise is owed the actors portraying Jess, the mysterious man and Merryman, a P.I. played by none other than Chris Jones himself. I really missed a subtitle option, though, because some voices are intentionally muffled or whispered and sometimes the words are quite unclear, especially during a key cinematic near the end of the game.
Speaking of Chris Jones (and Aaron Conners, of course), I’m happy to say that the two of them met even the highest of expectations for the writing, once again delivering a totally engaging script. The dialogues are believable, always interesting and often imbued with dark humor, while Jess’ slowly unfolding story has a dramatic quality that really speaks to the mastery of the two developers. The many labyrinths of the mind – repressed memories and deceitful imaginations, psychological blocks and painful truths – are vividly portrayed, and the writing can be so heartfelt and moving that I developed a real attachment to the characters, particularly Jess and her boyfriend Daniel. Furthermore, the script addresses some delicate themes like child abuse and mental illness, and it does so with rare subtlety and grace.
I’m trying hard not to spoil the plot of the game, because it is without a doubt the strongest point of 3 Cards to Midnight, but a few basics won’t ruin any surprises. When she is about to turn thirty, Jess starts to feel herself changing. She suddenly quits her job and becomes – without any apparent reason – nervous and anxious, much to her parents’ and Daniel’s chagrin. Then, on the night of her birthday, her parents disappear and leave her alone on her father’s yacht. What happened in between this moment and the moment she regains consciousness at the beginning of the game is for the player to discover, and the enthralling beauty of the plot is in this slow process of reconstruction, which is also a quest for identity and an enchanting coming-of-age tale. As Jess slowly discovers her lost memories, the plot, which starts rather simply, grows in scope and becomes a mesmerizing, spellbinding tale of death and power, identity and love, change and loss. It may occasionally feel too entangled and convoluted, but when every piece falls into place, the whole story is revealed in its full glory. The subtle hints here and there at an even wider, overarching narrative are just the perfect icing on the cake that succeeded in whetting my appetite for the sequel.
All in all, it took me almost seven hours to reach the epilogue, and it was a wonderful journey aside from a little repetitiveness during the word association phases. In this regard, there is certainly room for improvement: with just a little more variety these segments would be even more entertaining, and as the planned series progresses, I really hope to see a wider assortment of mechanics used. Some players will surely be driven away by the casual feel of the game, while others will lament the lack of classic inventory puzzles and freedom of exploration, but many more will stay riveted in front of their computer screens to enjoy the masterful story Chris Jones and Aaron Conners have created. Like others, I would have preferred a full-fledged adventure like the old Tex Murphy games and I approached the game a bit skeptically, but before long I was literally blown away by the plot, to the point of being unable to quit playing. If your curiosity is appropriately piqued, it's available now as a download directly from the game's official website. Call it adventure, call it casual, the fact remains that 3 Cards to Midnight is a must-play for fans of story-driven adventures, noir movies and psychological mysteries.
Chris Jones, Aaron Conners: welcome back!