Quarantine Diary review
Sweden is in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak as Carol Reed, a private investigator in Norrköping, receives a call from Jonna Brand to launch her sixteenth adventure. Jonna, whose sister was involved in one of Carol’s previous cases, texts Carol because her teenage son has disappeared. She is afraid to contact the police because Alvin has had brushes with the law before – mostly due to the graffiti he sprays onto his favorite skateboard parks. Jonna’s dashing young son is an avid skateboarder (the popularity of this sport has accelerated wildly during the pandemic) and has been seeking membership in the Rolling Zones, an elite club for those who like risk, sass, puzzle quests, and soaring through the air on a slice of plywood. Soon Carol is sleuthing through Quarantine Diary’s plush countryside, finding clues and daunting secrets in one of her quirkier, livelier missions to reveal what really happened to the missing young man.
To track Alvin down, Carol follows the initiation tasks strewn about by the Rolling Zones, hoping that some of the more bizarre deeds won’t land her in jail. She also does extra investigating for background context on local properties. All this involves breaking into locked rooms, discovering passwords, identifying locations from sneaky hints, interpreting colorful patterns, finding and using inventory items, and eventually assembling a skateboard. She will also volunteer for jobs if they help with the case: replacing fallen botanical signs, applying to be a housekeeper, and spicing up her homemade wine.
To accomplish these tasks, challenges range from fairly easy in the beginning to fairly difficult near the end. The pacing is just right, keeping you moving and discovering new sites and enigmas to study and ponder. Some locales contain multiple objectives, and you will return to them when you’ve found the correct inventory item or password from a different area. Although the puzzles are not multilayered in the sense that many steps must be taken to solve each one individually, often overcoming one obstacle will open up a new location or give new information to help you solve another conundrum. Some back-and-forthing is involved, but the process is linear enough that traipsing about isn’t excessive.
As in the fifteen previous Carol Reed adventures by MDNA Games – all of which I’ve played – half the fun is exploring the intricate environs. These have once again been photographed and merged into slideshow-like locales by developer Mikael Nyqvist, who also writes the scripts and music. This time I noticed a particular emphasis on the landscape scenery’s luster and shadow. A hiking trail called The Owl Stroll reveals sun-dappled meadows, mossy stones and stumps, pines and white birches; light glimmers in the leaves and burnishes the streaky clouds. The Garden of Remembrance next to the Crematorium features paths edged by dangling, weeping trees and vibrant flowers around a dark, rocky pool. In contrast to all this rustic beauty, at the Crystal Bridge metal struts tower over ridged piers and scattered debris – shattered blocks, old tarps, an abandoned pizza carton – while sunlight brightens the weeds along the upper deck.
This latest entry in the Carol Reed series has fewer quaint Scandinavian interiors than in previous adventures, but there are still some intriguing examples to snoop, including a nostalgic train museum and new private dwellings. These reveal contrasts – for instance, an immaculate, colorful and impeccably traditional home is vastly different than one that has been left purposely derelict, where ceilings sag and weird punctures decorate the walls. Of course, there are also plenty of spaces to skate filled with ramps, pyramids, circles, ridges, bumps, and slopes. Many of these smooth expanses are made from concrete, and concrete here begs for graffiti almost as much as skin does for tattoos. Until local law enforcement cleans them off, you’ll see colorful scripts, odd patterns, and a giant geeky head with sunglasses.
Familiar faces crop up: Carol’s friend Stina comes out from behind the library’s plexiglass to help with case-related research; dexterous Jonas flaunts his image-editing skills and remarks that protective masks have all sold out; and tatted Bigge freshens up the great outdoors with a lofty attitude and a push broom while refusing to move around much due to the risk of infection. Still photos of the characters depict them assuming various poses as they respond to Carol’s questions and requests. Anyone unfamiliar with the series may be surprised that these interviews aren’t animated, but Carol Reed aficionados already know to expect it. New additions include the missing Alvin, his mother Jonna and her fiancé August. Details of their lives are gradually revealed through interviews, scouring their homes, and breaking into their closets, drawers and electronic devices. None of the newcomers are quite what they seem at first, and it’s rewarding to watch their secrets unfold. A theme emerges – perhaps appropriately for these unusual times – that when there’s change and disruption of ordinary life, it’s more important than ever to keep a firm grip on reality.
As in previous games, Carol’s remarks about the environment, characters, and plot are voiced, though her interview questions aren’t. Her speech reveals a down-to-earth positivity in her familiar British accent. The people she interviews often have Swedish brogues, but the entire game is in English. Ambient sounds include the creaking of ancient stairs, the metallic plinking of puzzle parts, a rustling page, and the clanking of a hand sanitizer dispenser. Outdoor audio is less varied, consisting mostly of different bird calls.
Background music adds greatly to the atmosphere. Examples include shimmering electronic tones, a syncopated beat with wacky percussive knocks, and orchestral strings with an almost mystical yearning. The familiar introductory music in Carol’s apartment no longer chimes in clear tones, but wheezes in droll fashion from an accordion-like instrument. Players who have encountered the Carol Reed games before will notice small details like this that bring back memories of previous games, further enriching the experience. Newbies, however, need no prior knowledge in order to savor this sixteenth offering in the series.
Like its predecessors, Quarantine Diary has a simple point-and-click interface and uses a first-person perspective. The easy-to-use inventory appears when the cursor is moved to the top of the screen, and different locations are accessed through a handy full-screen map. Hitting the spacebar reveals all hotspots, though sometimes there is a pause before the pulsing blue indicator appears. Occasionally there’s so much detail in a scene that I missed a hotspot even while holding down the spacebar. Fortunately the Carol Reed games have one of the best hint systems in the business, obtainable via a notebook in the inventory. The first stage lets you know generally what you need to accomplish, so you have a good idea if you have (perhaps temporarily) finished with a specific location. The second stage gives you a much more detailed explanation for solving the next puzzle. Progress is continually recorded upon exiting, but there are also unlimited manual save slots available.
The latest set of locales in Norrköping are often luminous and gorgeous and soothing to explore, and the overall excellence of the photography in this game places it visually among the best of the Carol Reed offerings. The puzzles and tasks are stimulating and rewarding, and the dialogs contain hints of humor and a wink at life’s absurdities – there’s even an amusing ending credits sequence. The comedic sparks contrast with a darker-than-usual undertone, however. Near the denouement, where the plot thickens at about the eight-hour mark, disturbing revelations surface and the story packs a gripping, emotionally charged punch. Along with providing yet another entertaining Carol Reed mystery to solve, Quarantine Diary delicately poses a dilemma that seems even more relevant now than ever: when are so-called “safe” actions actually risky? And how far do you go until dangers outweigh potential rewards?
Stay safe out there, everybody.