Reviewed by Mark Hasley
"T'was brillig, and the slithy toves Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;"
When I was a little boy I, like everybody else my age, read Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll. The problem was that unlike everybody else, the opening lines, which I have quoted above, scared the stuffing out of me. I had no idea what 'Slithy Toves' were, but I knew they were 'Gyring' and 'Gimbling', and that no good would come of it. I didnít know where or what 'the Wabe' was, but I knew it was not the place to be. To this day, the opening lines of that poem will raise the hairs on the back of my neck and increase my heartbeat a bit.
I bring this up because there is a growing series of games that have the same effect on me. Without exception, the opening logo and the initial scenes cause my heartbeat to increase slightly, the hair on my neck to lift a bit, and I tend to smile in anticipation. The first three games in the Last Half of Darkness series were wonderfully frightening and generally creepy. Now, with Society of the Serpent Moon, the fourth and newest of the games, WRF Studios has created what may well be the best game of a very good lot. How do they do it? I suppose that we will all have to simply assume that they are very, very, good. Anyone even slightly interested in horror/adventure games can be assured that this game will meet all his requirements. Itís a humdinger!
The interface is about as simple as an interface can be. The game is played in the third person and the player controls a character named Billy Black. Virtually every movement and action is controlled with the mouse. This greatly added to the ease of playing this mostly non-linear game. There is a simple startup page with the usual New Game, Load Game, Save, Options, Credits, and Quit. The options are fairly limited and include an option for 'faster gameplay', subtitles, and effects off or on. Thereís also a volume control. There is an Autosave system with the game, but over the years I have become so paranoid about losing game progress that I save a lot, and I never needed the autosave to help me. There seemed to be an endless amount of saves possible. If a player downloads the patch with the hint system (which is available free from the publisher), another option, a notebook of helps and hints, will appear on the startup page and must be turned on at the beginning of each gaming session.
During gameplay the cursor changes to several things, depending on what is possible in a given frame. Anything that can be looked at is delineated with a red gear symbol. Movement directions (forward, back, enter doorway, exit, etc.) are rather helpfully shown with a different red symbol. Entrances and exits are denoted with the same symbol, but words appear at the top of the screen telling what the exit is from or the entrance is to. There are several green question marks that appear in the game. Clicking on these will provide details that may help or provide background, but which are often of absolutely no value to the player. Again, there is nothing new or surprising here, but the game functions smoothly and without difficulty, while the ease of play allows a player to be immersed in the tale, not the playing process. A right-click on the mouse lets the player skip some or all of the conversations or cutscenes. Pressing the Tab button causes all available exits to light up.
There is an inventory at the bottom of the screen and it is readily accessed with a left click. Items are picked up and used or moved by clicking on and holding the item. An item can be carefully examined (or a document may be carefully read) by a simple right-click. If they are about to be used in the correct spot or they are about to be correctly combined, the item vibrates or jiggles to tell the player that he is doing the correct thing. After a short amount of game play, the player will probably find a map, which changes and grows as the game proceeds so that the gamer can click from point to point rather than having to walk back and forth a lot. This map is always a welcome addition to any game, but it is fairly important here because most players (OK, maybe only me) will tend to miss some details the first (or second, or thirdÖ) time around, and will need to do some backtracking. Without the map poor Billy would have walked a lot of extra miles. Another notable item is that immediately after the game was released, WRF studios developed and made available, for free, a patch that is supposed to repair a minor glitch (I never saw the glitch), and which also puts a notebook of hints into the inventory. This book is easily accessed and read from the inventory, and will provide lots of helpful hints for a player who is completely lost.
The story of the game is similarly uncomplicated. The game opens with Billy pacing a rather grungy hotel room, seeking clues as to what has happened to his fiancťe, Wendy Sothers. Billy begins to wander and to question people and things. He eventually learns that Wendy is somehow involved with, and may well be the prisoner of, an evil witch/ghost/vampire who must be destroyed if Wendy is to be saved. Once that first phase of the game is completed (and the process is significantly more complicated than is illustrated here), the game becomes a quest to save Wendy and destroy the evil influences that have taken control of her. Billy wanders through a dilapidated town peopled with odd and eerie characters who either help or hinder him in his quest. The description of the plot sounds basic and even dull. I suppose, in this context, it is. It is the execution of that plot that makes the game so entertaining. The town where the initial action takes place, located somewhere off the beaten path in the Louisiana swamps, is quite simply a dump. Everything is old, run down, rotten and even rancid. There are rats, lots of snakes, beat-up and dilapidated buildings, and lots of abnormal people. The place is a deteriorating mess.
The various people with whom Billy interacts are a strange, sickly, frightened and generally odd lot. They speak with grotesque yet almost recognizable accents, and discuss witches and demons with about as much surprise and you and I feel toward a glass of water. Billy himself is the ultimate in stoically brave heroism. He simply wanders from dangerous place to dangerous place, and never seems concerned about his own safety. The closest he comes to an emotional outburst is when he is suddenly surrounded by three deadly, villainous, and rather vilely drooling demons. His huge reaction is "I didnít expect that". He is never rattled, never frightened, and has no doubts about his success. He is the ultimate tough-guy hero, and he simply proceeds to proceed from one task or puzzle to the next. As he and the plot move from town to the inevitable haunted mansion to some Peruvian-looking ancient tombs and temples, itís almost as if this is normal stuff for our Billy. Somehow the game has been designed and developed in such a way that if Billy can accept things, the player has no problem also accepting them. Hence the plot, no matter how absurdly astounding it sounds, works smoothly and easily in the context of the game.
If the plot is simple and the interface is average, the items which set the tone and mood for this marvelous game are far beyond normal or just good. The graphics are not photo-realistic, and make no attempt at being so. They are, instead, wonderfully stylized, and are a perfect match for eerie characters and the spooky, creepy, story line. The tale generally takes place at night, so there are lots of dank, dark corners and gloomy areas with dark shadows. In these spots wait demons, monsters, and other bad things. Of course in many cases there is nothing at all, but the player will always be surprised when the baddies do show up. The buildings and scenes are seldom the drab grays and browns of actual old places. Here they are green and yellow and purple, and the colors are brilliantly combined to be creepily scary, not blatantly brash. The scenes match the action and the plot perfectly. The people too are well, but not realistically, drawn. The street characters arenít readily believable, but they are inevitably strange and unreal anyway, so they look fine. It is only Billy that the gamer would like to see as a real, human character, but the developers of the game are smarter than we are. Billy is never seen up close or clearly. He stomps around in a long coat, what appear to be combat boots, and bloused fatigues. His face is never seen closely or well. He is simply an angry vision with bright eyes, a hostile tone, and no definable facial features. This allows the player, like the reader in a great novel, to define the character as he wishes. I really liked that feature.
A section on graphics requires three additional comments. First, I wish to note that the opening WRF Logo, which appears every time the game begins, is in no way as cool or impressive as the logo that appeared with Tomb of Zojir (the previous "Last HalfÖ" game). Iíd have used that one. Secondly, I would hope that anyone who plays this game will watch the longish opening scene at least once. It is a beautifully conceived creepshow of a cemetery, some witches and their familiars, and other bad things which occurred before Billy got there. It is wonderfully done in nasty looking greens, purples, and oranges. It has a depth and vitality that isnít seen much in hand drawn animation, and is really fun to watch. Finally, this game is one that continually asks the only never-answered question in adventure gaming. And that is "Who keeps leaving the lights on and the candles lit?" Nearly everywhere Billy goes it is dimly lit and deeply shadowed, but there is always a bulb lit or a candle burning. Am I the only gamer who wonders why the bad guys canít turn off the lights?
There is very little music in this game, and what there is, completely non-memorable. What is there, however, is the creepiest collection of creaks, groans, buzzes, and pops that any gamer could imagine. What we used to refer to as 'ambient sounds' are, in this game, an absolutely perfect collection of noises that set the mood and tone for each scene. There is, as in all three other games in the series, that thoroughly grotesque, high-pitched laugh, which has been consistently effective in all of these games. There are constantly bumps and cracks in the night, and they set the playerís mood to great effect. The sounds here simply work.
The voice acting is difficult to comment on because, while it seldom intends to sound normal, none of the characters are normal anyway. It would take a reviewer with a lot of nerve to suggest that blind, paralyzed albino witch doesnít sound correct. How would he know? Suffice it to say that Billy has this excellent tough-guy voice that sounds as though heís been gargling with ground glass for the last six months. All the other people in the game are effectively strange. Most importantly, no matter how odd the person, if I needed to understand him or her, I could. That makes the voice acting well done indeed.
The final consideration in any adventure game must be the puzzles, and in this category Society of the Serpent Moon is really impressive. There are, first of all, a lot of puzzles. This is not a game where Billy wanders all over trying to learn how to simply open a window. Here there are all kinds of items to pick up, place in the inventory, and utilize at some future point. However, there are sometimes special non-inventory puzzles that must be solved in order to find items that are needed in a future inventory problem. That sounds complicated, and frankly it should be, but itís really not because all of the puzzles are so well designed.
There are also many different types of puzzles. There are lots of inventory puzzles, but there are also ripped up notes to reorganize. There are codes to find and solve. There are secret systems, processes, and formulae to discover. There are several 'somethings' for everybody.
It should be noted that these problems range in difficulty from extremely simple to 'bang-your-forehead-on-the-desktop-for-an-hour' hard. Even the difficulty level is hard to describe, because the game is so well designed that there was one ridiculously easy computer password that I couldnít find for two days. When I did finally find it, the answer was so obvious, and should have been so blatantly simple, that I spent another hour whacking my forehead simply to punish myself for missing it. By the time the player is finished with the game he may well have a very flat forehead, but he will never feel heís been cheated or asked to do something far off the wall. The only exception to these statements is one particular puzzle, which is apparently very difficult. While I was lucky enough to solve it, the gameís developers have anticipated the difficulty, and have seen to it that if the player canít, or simply doesnít wish to, figure this problem out, then if itís left alone for 45 minutes, it will solve itself. I found this to be a very clever approach to that particular puzzle. The player can simply reset everything by touching the mouse, or he can go get a cup of coffee and the game solves the problem. Some may find this offensive, but I considered it, and all the other puzzles, reasonable and rather clever.
I must make one final and very important comment. I believe I saw that we are still at the point where a vast majority of adventure gamers are using Windows XP. The same article stated that this situation will continue for some time. I wonder how many gamers have the problem that I do. At this moment, I have seven new adventure games on my shelves that either will not load or will not play. Many of the new games are simply too big for my computer, even though it was considered a behemoth four years ago. In that context, Last Half of Darkness: Society of the Serpent Moon installed with absolutely no problem, and played from the beginning without a crash or a glitch. Again, WRF Studios have done their job well.
At the end, the evaluation is simple. This is a game with a solid, simple plot. It is constructed with care and taste, and all of the gameís elements, sights, sounds, and puzzles, contribute to the overall, pleasantly eerie package. It has solid characters, good voice acting, and operates perfectly. The puzzles are exactly what they should be and are exactly where they should be. This series seems to simply get better and better as it proceeds. Itís a new game that I found to be more than worth my time, my effort, and my money. It took me back to the 'Slithy Toves' of my youth, and I liked it a lot!
© June 2011 Mark Hasley
Developed (2011) and published by William Fisher and WRF Studios.
Rated: T for Teen 13+ (alcohol and tobacco reference, blood, mild violence)
Minimum System Requirements:
PC: 1.6 GHz Processor; Windows XP / Vista / 7; 2 GB RAM; DVD-ROM Drive; 256 MB 3D Video Card; DirectX 9.0 Compatible Sound Card; 5 GB of Free Hard Drive Space; DirectX 9.0 or Higher; Mouse
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