Game: The Lost Crown: a ghost-hunting adventure
Developer: Darkling Room
Publisher: Mamba Games
Game Version: Unpatched (1.2)
It’s nothing new to attempt to make a scary game in the adventure genre. In fact, it happens all the time, especially in recent years. More unusual are the times when the creators actually succeed in their aims, and I’m quite pleased to find that this is one of those games. I picked The Lost Crown up in the shops without ever having heard of it, and bought it on a whim as it sounded promising, fully aware that many games that sound interesting on the box end up being dreadful.
The Lost Crown, subtitled “a ghost-hunting adventure”, is a game by Jonathan Boakes, previously responsible for popular adventure games such as Dark Fall and its sequel. It makes it all the more impressive that one of the most atmospheric adventure games in recent years has been created almost entirely by a single man. The game takes place in the fictional town of Saxton, opening as the lead character, Nigel Danvers, arrives there. The plot takes its time getting going, but eventually turns into a combination of hunting for treasure and for ghosts. It seems Nigel has decided to hide in Saxton to escape a couple of sinister agent types sent after him by his former employer. He’d stolen some documents from him or something, which never makes you popular with the boss. He then decides to try to find a lost Anglo-Saxon crown, hence the game’s title, and does a spot of ghost hunting along the way, hence the game’s sub-title.
I had conflicting opinions at various point throughout the game. For the early part of the game, I was mostly glad to have found the game, and was thoroughly enjoying it. However, as the game progressed, I started to find it irritated me more and more. It wasn’t that the story or gameplay got any worse, but all of the little flaws and annoyances build up the more you play and start to ruin the enjoyment. And the saddest part about it is that most of the flaws really are rather minor and should be easily fixable, creating a much better game.
The game does do most of the important stuff right. The atmosphere is fantastic and the storyline is often interesting. Pacing is also very good as long as you’re not an impatient gamer. This isn’t a fast moving game. Everything builds up gradually, with ghost hunting scenes interspersing the exploration of the town and the uncovering of its mysteries. It’s a good choice. The ghost hunting scenes are far more effective for being spread apart in the game, where they could have ended up becoming repetitive and dull if overused.
The graphic style of the game is superb too, despite the slight let down of the character models, which are quite low quality and stiffly animated. The location artwork itself is brilliant though. The backgrounds are based on actual photographs that have been edited and with added moving elements to put some life to them. The designer made the unusual decision to have the game almost entirely in black and white, with occasional splashes of vivid colour to strikingly emphasise certain items. It works very well. It’s a lot more interesting to see a game designed in black and white for style and atmosphere, rather than simply being almost colourless through bland design such as we get with many modern action games.
The sound effects are similarly atmospheric. The soundtrack for the game as a whole is of a high quality in fact. Until you get to the voice acting, which is one of the main failings of the game. None of the voice acting is especially good, but the lead character is the chief problem. Voiced by Jonathan Boakes himself, Nigel Danvers voice never seems to change tone. Whether he’s confronting a terrifying force or chatting to someone in the pub, he sounds exactly the same. Dreadful. The dialogue is full… of random… pauses, and I can’t even imagine why he put them there when reading his lines. It makes even the most simple line sound weird, as he asks things like “Did you see… anybody else… board the train… in London?” It’s like he’s decided to voice the entire game while doing a bad William Shatner impression. No matter how well the rest of the game builds up the atmosphere, you can’t help but be pulled out of it again whenever he opens his mouth.
The puzzles in the game are mostly quite fair, but nothing spectacular. The game focuses more on the exploration of the town and uncovering the plot than on more traditional adventure game puzzles, although they still appear at times. There aren’t too many time wasting filler segments in the game, which is surprising given that this is really quite long by both adventure game standards and by modern game standards in general. It should take well over 20 hours at least. That isn’t to say there isn’t any filler material in at all. There was a rather baffling section where some woman sends you off to find ingredients for her cooking, and you can’t speak to someone until you’ve done it, and you get the impression that it was just put there to pad the game out, which wasn’t really needed. But for the most part it works.
I’ve mentioned the voice acting, but conversations in The Lost Crown can be annoying in other ways. While the dialogue might have something interesting to say at times, you can end up hearing it a bit too often. When you talk to someone, you get various dialogue options in the usual adventure game style. The trouble is, there’s no way to skip lines of dialogue. This problem is added to by the fact that once you’ve used a dialogue option, it just stays there. It isn’t removed from the list, or greyed out. There’s no indication that you’ve already asked it at all. You could accidentally click it again and be forced to go through an entire (possibly lengthy) piece of dialogue again. Then there are the times when you might not be sure what to do, and have to resort to talking to everyone to see if they have anything new to say, only to get stuck in the same conversation all over again. It can get extremely frustrating, especially when you take the stilted speaking into consideration.
Added to this is the slow walking speed. Danvers walks around at a leisurely pace at all times, no matter the situation. Double clicking on an exit does automatically move you to the next location most of the time, but often there is an exit or entry animation which has to play out and can’t be skipped. It gets annoying when you have to see the same animation and hear the same line of dialogue every single time he enters the house over the course of the game. The game does do a good job of keeping you focused on where you need to be for the majority of the time, opening new areas as you need them. But towards the end of the game you can end up having to travel across a dozen screens just to get where you want to go, or worse, to just randomly wander through to try and find out what you need to do next.
The ghost hunting scenes themselves are handled very well. As mentioned before, they aren’t overused so they don’t become too repetitive. You have various items of ghost hunting equipment to use on various objects and places in your current location, which can reveal different types of spectral activity. Taking photographs can reveal some rather strange images over the scene you actually see, and when you start up the tape recorder, the creepy voices and sounds you can hear on playback are very well done. The scariest is the night vision camera, as you never know quite what it is going to reveal as you watch the viewing screen.
The game did so much well and genuinely had the potential to be one of the best adventure games of recent years, and it makes the flaws all the more annoying. Even worse is that most of them would be simple to fix. Getting decent voice actors may be more of a monetary concern than anything else, but most of the irritations the game causes could be removed simply with a dialogue skip button. That one simple addition, surely a simple thing to add to the program, would hugely increase the quality of the game. But every time you have to hear the same bits of conversation over and over again, it drags you out of the games otherwise masterfully created atmosphere that can genuinely be scary at times. It never goes for the shocks that most horror games do, instead creating an unsettling feeling to the whole game. When you get into the flow of it you can find yourself totally immersed. It’s just a shame that the annoyances make it harder to recommend than it should be.
Save System Review: You can save anywhere as usual for an adventure game. You only get 8 save slots though. I don’t think you can get into an unwinnable situation, so it’s not much of a problem, but it would be nice to have some more slots.
Graphics: A bit of a mixture. The character models aren’t great and are often poorly animated. On the other hand, and more importantly, the actual environments look fantastic and atmospheric with the black and white photography contrasted with splashes of vivid colour.
Sound: Again, a mixture. The atmospheric sound effects and ghost recordings are very well done and suitably spooky. The voice acting is very much a mixed bag, and is mostly rather disappointing.
Bugs: I didn’t find anything much in the way of bugs, but I’m knocking off a couple of points for the lack of skippable dialogue. I’m counting that as a bug since it’s just plain bad game design.
Gameplay: The adventure game mechanics all work well, and almost everything fits well into the story other than the occasional bit that seems to have been inserted as padding. The ghost hunting works well. But the lack of dialogue skipping and hearing the same lines of dialogue repeating often ruins the experience.
Storyline: The storyline is quite good although there are quite a few loose ends that never get resolved. The game is more about atmosphere though, and it does that perfectly.
Arbitrary Final Score:
If you like this, you might also like: Dark Fall, Project Zero / Fatal Frame, hanging around graveyards at midnight.
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