From Beyond: Prologue review
In the mid ‘80s, when the evolution of the genre as we know it today was still in its infancy, a group of developers at ICOM Simulations developed a series of four early graphic adventures for the Apple Macintosh home computer. Named for the operating system they were developed for, and constrained heavily by the technical and storage limitations of the times, these “MacVentures” went on to produce quite a storied legacy. In 2018, more than thirty years later, SuckerFree Games looked to these revered classics as inspiration for their own debut title From Beyond: Prologue, a Lovecraftian tale of madness and cosmic horror – or at least the beginning of one.
Anybody that has played one of the aforementioned MacVenture games will immediately know exactly what to expect here. The entire experience, brief as it is, is about as identical a carbon copy of Déjà Vu, Shadowgate and Uninvited as one could hope to find, blemishes and all. The play area is divided into four main windows, comprising a low-res graphic of the current surroundings, an inventory list, a compass used for navigating from screen to screen, and a selection of six verbs such as look and open. The compass and verb list are replaced by a text window that pops in and out to take care of the story’s narration and other written passages.
Using the mouse, players can click on action commands, collected objects, and areas of interest in the graphic display to manipulate the environment, solve puzzles, engage in combat, and progress the story. The compass includes clickable hotspots that represent paths that can be taken from your present position, which change from screen to screen.
If you’ve spent any time at all with this sort of adventure, you will feel right at home with From Beyond’s command interface, although the number of inventory items in your possession can easily become a bit overwhelming. For such a short game – two hours from start to finish; a true prologue indeed – there are a lot of objects to be found and picked up, including a number that have identical uses and can be used interchangeably, likely to alleviate the need for excessive pixel hunting to find that one elusive thing. Navigating is a little less intuitive, since the display doesn’t always provide a clear one-to-one comparison to the points of egress marked on the compass; some trial-and-error is necessary to get the lay of the land, but the limited number of locations at least makes this entirely manageable.
The plot, cursory as it is so far, does a fine job of establishing a Lovecraftian atmosphere right away, chiefly by aping several tropes commonly associated with the writer’s most famous works. Set in the early days of the 20th century, Professor Crawford Tillinghast stumbles upon mysterious accounts of an obscure village rumored to be the site of unexplained phenomena and visitors not from this plane of existence. Not unlike other Lovecraftian leading men, the professor decides to mount a one-man expedition to the village and its foreboding temple to follow the trail of whatever eldritch horrors may have been summoned from the dark abyss.
Getting to the village itself becomes the first hurdle to overcome, as bloodthirsty wolves and a sheer drop threaten to cut the professor’s exploration, and his life, short. As continues to be the case for the remainder of the game, there is more than one way to reach your destination, including both lethal and peaceful methods. Once you’ve arrived, the bulk of the remaining puzzles revolve around finding and using several tools and ingredients to power a now-dormant forge, in order to ultimately gain entrance to the onyx tower ominously dominating the landscape.
Even the combat, when circumstances leave no other alternative, takes the form of an inventory-based object puzzle rather than requiring quick reflexes. When a giant eyeball is staring you down through a hole in a wall while slimy tentacles threaten to spell your demise, it’s time to meticulously comb that inventory screen for anything you may have picked up that could be of help right now.
Although the game can be a little picky about clicking precisely the right place in order to make something happen – there were no hotspot indicators in the original MacVenture series, therefore there are no hotspot indicators in From Beyond – there is enough to see and do around the village that progression feels pretty constant from start to finish. Numerous abandoned buildings beg to be explored, some of which may contain nifty items that will be useful later on, while others may conceal a deadly trap or grisly tableau of gore to behold. The occasional note, letter, or diary tells the story of the previous inhabitants of the village, and of the horrors that befell them.
Given the low-fidelity of the graphics, it is surprisingly easy to distinguish even small details and points of interest in the display window. The developers know their craft, and fans of retro visuals will appreciate the pixel art on display here. The artists also don’t shy away from grotesquery either, with a new gruesome death – and accompanying artwork – waiting around most corners, so saving often is key.
While the nostalgic graphics succeed in overcoming their limitations, the same cannot be said for the sound design. With only the most rudimentary chiptunes to accompany the journey, turning down the sound entirely quickly becomes a very attractive proposition. The extremely repetitive MIDI loops can only be described as grating on the ears, and likely won’t be tolerated long, unless perhaps at a very low background volume. It may be thematically appropriate to have one’s sanity attacked in a Lovecraftian story such as this, but the music surely wasn’t meant to have this unfortunate side effect, and it completely ruins any immersion players may be able to achieve otherwise.
Based on an already niche retro-extreme concept, From Beyond: Prologue further limits its potential audience by being exactly what its title implies: merely a prelude to a larger, as-yet-untold story. Just as things begin to get narratively interesting, the credits roll and you’re left with nothing more than the hope of a forthcoming main entry to keep things going. For those willing to invest in the possibility of a more substantial installment to follow, this is a solid callback to the ICOM classics of old. However, even though the gameplay and graphics work well within the ‘80s-style artificial confines, atoning at least a little for the atrocious misstep of its musical score, this series introduction simply doesn’t offer enough content on its own to make it more than a novelty. Two hours is enough to offer a tantalizing glimpse of what may come next, so hopefully SuckerFree Games is able to deliver more of this promising indie MacVenture clone.
From Beyond’s designers do a formidable job recreating a nostalgic MacVenture feel while avoiding most retro pitfalls. But until we get a more substantial entry in the series, there simply isn’t enough here to be satisfied just yet, no matter how well it all works.