It amuses me sometimes how the big video game publishers pander to the video gamer. All male protagonists are hugely built American (the only good guys on the planet) space marines (Japanese games need not apply here) with voices more gravelly than the driveway outside Buckingham Palace and all female side-kicks have been doing one million squats and sit ups every single day since birth giving them the perfect hourglass figure (Japanese games apply here at about one billion times worse). So personally I think that The Raven deserves critical acclaim and world-wide recognition for being the first game where you play a portly, balding Swiss man who is probably supposed to be in his fifties or even sixties. He even has a heart condition. That alone makes the game stand out, because I don’t think I’ve ever played a video game character without a six-pack. Naturally as one of the unwashed masses this was so far out of my comfort zone I instantly had to turn the game off, switch on Call of Duty and rock myself back and forward to the brown colour pallet muttering “No. No. Only America is good. Swiss are bad. America good. Everyone beautiful.” It was a long while, during which time I had to call several people faggots and noobs before I could even consider turning the game back on.
I’m very glad I did turn it back on because Chapter 1 The Raven was a such a genuinely engrossing and enjoyable game that I actually enjoyed almost every minute I spent playing it.
I make this sound like an achievement, as if it were a surprise, and there’s one simple reason for that. Made by The Adventure Company (Nordic Games), The Raven is actually a point and click adventure. The last time I played a point and click, namely Anna an indie horror experience, I got so utterly bored and bewildered I quit on the second level and have never once looked back. My first worry about the game was that it would end up with the standard of any point and click where the solutions to the puzzles you are presented with as utterly ridiculous, ludicrous and earth-shatteringly moronic as they possibly can be. I will always remember the time in Anna where, to progress, I had to find two hidden parts of a knife, forge them together, light the knife on fire and then stab some water. If that isn’t “gg” right there, nothing is.
Happily, I overcame my doubts and I was proven wrong almost instantly about the puzzles. The majority of them are perfectly straight-forward and simple. Door is locked, find a tool or a key to open it. Speak to everybody to find out new secrets. Use sweets on a young child to win his confidence. Straight forward stuff. I will admit to checking a guide on three separate occasions, twice of which was only because I couldn’t find the object I was supposed to click on (the tool box on the train was really bloody well hidden) and once because I was told to suddenly lock-pick a door without any tutorial and had no idea what I was doing (which I feel was perhaps because it was quite late at the time). Basically, for the vast majority of the time I was easily able to solve and get through the game and had absolutely no thoughts about rage-quitting.
There are several reasons why this game manages to keep your interest when a game like Anna didn’t. First off is the pacing, this was a game where everything was relaxed and calm for most of the time. The characters you meet are interesting and the dialogue flows, the music is soothing at times and lively at others and the very look of the game is wonderful. As a “horror” Anna tried to keep the mood tense and did so by making the music grim and boring, the environments dark and boring and making everything mysterious and boring.
The look of the game is indeed completely integral to the overall feel and charm of the game. My title gives away that I am a fan of the Tintin series of comics and this game genuinely felt like stepping into the shoes of an aged Tintin. I realise that Tintin is 1930’s and this was in the 1960’s but I believe the point stands. Everything just looked and felt authentic, it was like being pushed a period drama, a really good one.
In fact, the game which I feel is closest in style to The Raven is actually Telltale’s The Walking Dead. The simple character movement and interaction and puzzles all seem very much like the critically lauded game from last year and that is, naturally, really rather good that they can capture some of that feeling.
The game’s story is also really rather excellent and well written. The Raven was the world’s most infamous thief, a daring and dashing character who crept into public view for his outrageous crimes. Supposedly shot by one of the main characters Inspector Legrand the Raven file was closed but now it seems a copy-cat has sprung up, stealing one of the world’s most precious jewels and is now after it’s partner. It is up to you, a fat, middle aged police-officer to help Legrand in protecting the jewel and uncovering the criminal. The characters are excellent, and the voice acting is absolutely superb. I believe I have seen some criticism of the erstwhile Constable Zellner, but I believe that his (I suppose fairly colourless) character is meant to be the way it is in the same way that Tintin has always been said to be a bad character. He is a tool for showing of the comics and getting the player into the game (respectively), but even with that he isn’t the bland and empty slate of the protagonists of CoD or Fable or so where the player is supposed to project onto the silent character. Instead I think Zellner is ever so slightly plain so that the player can easily associate and relate to him while he still has enough redeeming qualities to make him a great character. Essentially, excellent. The rest of the cast are fantastic as well and are all interesting to speak with and learn about.
There are issues with the game, as with any. The animation for speech and expression always seemed very fake and sometimes poorly done. In a game where everything looks great it was a real shame to see lip-syncing which looked like the opening and closing of a horizontal door. It also seemed that every character has a set repertoire of expressions. Like a robot they would think “Oh, this is a line which I am lying about. I must put on my suspicious, lying face” or “I must now look happy” and so on. Other movements like the movements of hands and so on also seem fairly poorly done and animated in comparison to the rest.
Also, I really dislike the movement system. The game is designed to be simple as possible, and I respect that decision. However, I personally would have been a lot happier with the WASD movement controls than the point and click option provided. It would save a lot of hassle, especially when trying to move out of an area by moving out the bottom of the screen, which requires clicking on the inventory which was just really frustrating.
The small environments while good for keeping the pace steady and providing a tight, polished feel to the game, also provide for a ridiculous number of loading screens as you traipse back and forth across the same barriers again and again. And on my computer, which loads these up at approximately the same speed as a speeding snail this meant a lot of time looking at loading screens, which came perilously close to ruining the immersion and completely kicking me out of the game. Especially as I am a bit clueless and often would have to completely explore every place a dozen times before finally finding the last clue I was after.
This waiting time would in most games have dissuaded me after the first couple of hours. My patience would have snapped and I would have quit to write a disparaging article on a promising game with a charming look and feel but which fell short by kicking me out of the experience. But I didn’t. I kept at it. Resolute and determined. And why? Well, of course for all the reasons I have already mentioned but also for the final piece of the puzzle. I MUST find out who the criminal is. I desperately want to know (and as only the first of three chapters is out, no I don’t know yet).
It’s that which the game does best. The careful pacing and slow gathering of evidence by the player/Zellner means that more and more is added to the puzzle with every solution you come across. Worse, instead of filling in the blanks it just seems that you have to take a step back and re-evaluate everything whenever new evidence comes to light. You start off meeting the people on the train and instantly make assumptions that one of those you meet is the Raven. Then you learn that perhaps there are other people you haven’t met who are the Raven. Then you learn that the Raven is dead and this is just a copy-cat. Then you learn that actually the leading inspector thinks that it IS the Raven and that the man he shot years ago was just an accomplice. It is absolutely fantastic. In a way I would say, again, it is like those best of crime novels or period dramas. There is someone who is obviously the villain, some evidence which will finally solve the mystery once and for all. But you won’t discover it. Not until right at the very end of the game. And until then, it keeps you guessing and thinking and considering and completely in the dark. I would be willing to bet that pretty much everyone else who plays the game will have done it very similarly to me but will have drawn completely different conclusions about who is the villain here.
And thus comes the worst part of the game. Only the first chapter is available with the second and third having some far flung and unannounced release date [update: according to an e-mail from the developers the 2nd and 3rd parts will be released on the 27th of August and the 24th of July respectively]. This means I am going to have to sit here feeling sorry for myself for bloody months now, desperately trying to figure it out, and knowing that I won’t learn who the Raven actually is for ages to come.
Damn you Nordic. Damn you and your game. I’m hooked and now I’ll remain hooked for so long that I believe I won’t have any hair yet by the time it gets to the end.
Note: This rating is not a rating of the game as a whole (and as such will not be on the “Game Ratings” page) but is merely a rating for this particular episode. For the overall rating of the game I will wait until my review of the Third Chapter.