Lately I’m trying to make more time to play adventure games. I’ve joined a public adventure game club on Discord that focus on a game of the month. Here are some new ones I’ve played:
- The Excavation of Hob’s Barrow
- The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes (The Case of the Serrated Scalpel)
Roadwarden by Moral Anxiety Studio
This game is a visual novel with RPG elements in which you play the titular Roadwarden, an adventurer patrolling a remote part of a medieval Empire. You and your trusty steed ride circuit through a haunted peninsula, keep the peace in the villages, and try to negotiate trade agreements with the Empire.
It’s a structure with a lot of gameplay and storytelling potential. There’s a time limit of 40 days and all in-game actions take time. It’s quite possible to complete the game and report back at the end of your mission without figuring out what’s going on with the villages.
Combined with a fair amount of character customization (you pick between a fighter, a mage, and a “scholar”, and then can choose a church religion, paganism, or no religion at all), this allows for a plenty of replayability. I enjoyed playing the game more than once, roleplaying different wardens (a naive cleric, a benevolent ranger), and solving the overall time-management puzzle. On the second playthrough I had a good eight days towards the end with nothing to do, but it’s easy to go back and completethe mission early, so there were no issues with pacing.
The game was made in Ren’Py, but didn’t feel like a visual novel. There were plenty of options to use a parser to guess an NPC’s name or ask about free-form topics. This felt more intellectually engaging than a typical dialogue tree and allowed for a sense of mystery and exploration as you figure out which topics are worthwhile to ask about.
The only downside was that the walls of text DID get repetitive. I’d often mistakenly click through important narrative sections. The game helpfully saves a transcript, but there’s so much text that this didn’t feel all that useful. None of the characters (and there are a lot of them) had illustrations; just the towns and environments. I don’t know if adding voice acting or character art would have improved the game.
Overall– the writing is great, the design is great, and the pixel art environments are well-done and create a great deal of atmosphere. Highly recommended.
The Excavation of Hob’s Barrow by Cloak and Dagger Games
This game is a more traditional point and click adventure game than the other too. You play as Thomasina Bateman, a Victorian antiquarian, who travels to a remote village in the moors of England to try to obtain permission to excavate an ancient burial mound. She’ll soon discover that the inhabitants are not what they seem to be; she’s warned repeatedly about how dangerous her expedition is and how the barrow is best left undisturbed. Over time there’ll be flashbacks to Thomasina’s history, her comatose father, and her personal connection to the archaeological site.
It’s a folk horror game, mostly taking place in a small village, all rendered in gorgeous pixel art. The art, writing, and voice acting are the real highlights of the game. The village feels seamlessly realistic; the NPCs are distinctive and well-exeuted; and getting to know the location and uncover the plot was enjoyable. In the early part of the game, the puzzles are seamless; later on, once you’re actually inside the barrow, they delve a bit into Indian Jones-style challenges that feel more suitable to an escape room than the mood of the game. A few people commented in the chat that some of the puzzles seemed like obligatory adventure game fare and didn’t connect well with the story. However, none of them bog down the narrative, and by that point it’s easy to get to the ending, which is suitably disturbing.
All of the art and animation is done in pixel style, with evocative animated closeups. You’ll deal with nightmarish goblins, menacing cats, creepy villagers, and Thomasina’s own eyes widening as she has flashbacks. The interface is simple and intuitive; right click to examine, left click to interact, inventory objects selectable from a menu at the top of the screen. The voice direction and acting is incredibl. (Thomasina’s voice actor went on to play Karlach in Baldur’s Gate 3). The inventory-object puzzles are fair and do a good job of not being trivially easy or frustrating enough to break immersion. And the game does a good job of using art, animation, and sound to convey a sense of dread and mistrust. The end of the game has some logic puzzles that feel a bit escape-roomish and incongruous with setting, but nothing that had a real negative impact on my experience as a player.
The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes 1: The Case of the Serrated Scalpel by Mythos Software
This one was interesting. It’s an older game (1992) from a short-lived developer with a LucasArts style interface. You play as Sherlock Holmes, who is engaged by Inspector Lestrade to investigate the murder of an actress. Lestrade thinks that she’s another victim of Jack the Ripper; Holmes points out early on that the knife marks are from a serrated scalpel, not something a medical man would use. The rest of the game consists of investigating leads and discovering an increasingly wider array of locations to visit and revisit for clues.
The game’s premise is intriguing, and I enjoyed the beginning, but it definitely had cumbersome parts. Dr. Watson follows Holmes around to every location, makes obvious commentary on the plot when asked, but is rarely helpful. Every scene transition involves waiting for Watson to walk to the edge of the map and follow you out. This gets annoying quickly. Especially towards the end of the game, when you unlock dozens of locations and have to backtrack between them for clues.
Often progressing the game felt arbitrary. There are dialogue options that open up after what seem like arbitrary triggers– examining something in the room, for instance. In one place you need to pick up an object to break into a room, and it’s fairly obvious that you’ll need to do this from the minute you enter the room, but until a certain variable gets set, attempting to pick up the object does nothing.
All of the dialogue is menu-driven. I was often in the situation where I knew what to do next, but couldn’t figure out how to unlock the lead I needed. Inventory objects stay around forever and clutter up the interface. By the end of the game there are dozens of places to visit. There are a LOT of NPCs, but the game treats them more like sources of information rather than suspects or real people. In particular you can visit Inspector Lestrade in his office at any point, but except for a specific puzzle, you have nothing to say to him, even after additional murders related to the case you’re investigating take place. this led to a world that felt big, but shallow. You can explore more of London in this game than you can of New Orleans in Gabriel Knight, but the one-dimensional nature of most of the NPCs gives it much less atmosphere.
At no point in the game did I feel like I was performing super-sleuth level deductions. Towards the end it felt like discovering and working through a tedious to-do list; I admit to consulting a walkthrough because I didn’t want to waste time backtracking to locations in search of new clues.
This review sounds negative, but… this was 1992, it was made by a small studio, and it’s been fun to discover older adventure games that aren’t Sierra or LucasArts. The genre has evolved and players expect more when it comes to quality-of-life improvements. And that’s a good thing.