The much-delayed A Vampyre Story has arrived at an apt time. Vampires (or vampyres, if you wear a flouncy shirt and live in the 19th century) are big news in the entertainment world at present. The cinematic adaptation of the Twilight series has sunk its fangs into the pockets of every teenaged girl in the western world and seems intent on bleeding them dry. Or, if you prefer, seems intent on sucking. Hard.
At a time when high school vampire romance films can take $7,000,000 USD from midnight showings alone, we are in dire need of champions to prick the pomposity of the vampire mystique. A recent episode of South Park has already savaged vampire fandom. Now, A Vampyre Story can tackle the tropes of the vampire myth itself; and maybe, just maybe, push adventure gaming back into the mainstream.
It’s indicative of just how rare adventure releases for the PC have become that I feel the need to actually explain what they are. Sam & Max mini-episodes and indie developments aside, the last major release in the genre was probably the superb Grim Fandango – and that was ten years ago. In brief then, graphical adventures are the evolution of old 8-bit text adventures, placing players in control of exploring locations, finding objects and solving puzzles to advance the plot. Most things in these game worlds can be examined, used or spoken to through a simple mouse-driven interface. A cast of non-player characters will also help or hinder these efforts as best they can.
As Mona De Lafitte, it’s your task to escape the confines of Draxsylvania castle and pursue your dream of singing at the Paris opera. Aside from being trapped in a gloomy island fortress, there are one or two other issues to overcome. Mona finds herself awfully tired during the day, so only emerges at night. She also sleeps more soundly in the box-shaped bed in the cellar, rather than the four-poster upstairs. At meal times, she takes no sustenance except the ‘special wine’ provided by her captor, Baron Shrowdy Von Kiefer. As her bat companion Froderick is ever-keen to remind her, Mona is in serious denial.
With Bill Tiller as project lead (a man who’s provided artwork for Lucasarts’ Curse of Monkey Island and The Dig amongst others), it’s not a huge surprise that the visuals are strong. In fact in places they’re downright sumptuous, with stone-clad hallways, dusty libraries and snow-swept, tranquil shorelines all hand drawn in terrific detail. Combined with a quirky sense of perspective and a score which floats ghoulishly somewhere between Hammer Horror and Danny Elfman, the title looks like an animated cinematic. Indeed, it’s odd that the actual cinematics in the game don’t have quite the same quality – appearing somewhat washed-out in comparison to the game itself (a thrilling technical note here: I had to manually explore the DVD and run the DirectX package setup as an administrator before the cut-scenes would actually play.)
Of course good looks, welcome as they are, never make a game on their own. The real meat of adventure titles is in the puzzles; namely, whether they seem reasonable and fair or whether you end up having to combine a tortoise with a mug of coffee to make a hang glider, which you then use to end world poverty. Happily, A Vampyre Story does much to give the player a helping hand. Pressing tab will bring up various hot-spots in each room (if desired), saving the effort of painstakingly wiggling the mouse cursor over everything to find points of interaction. There’s also a neat idea which allows certain larger objects to be stored in Mona’s memory ‘for later use’ – although this does remove the comedy potential for whipping massive objects out from inside her cloak.
For the most part, players are confined to a maximum of ten or twelves screens at a time. This always feels natural, part of the story rather than enforced penning, and allows for tight, focused problem-solving rather than a lot of tedious tramping around with little clue how to progress. Though it’s impossible to predict how every player will deal with every puzzle, they all seem to follow a broadly logical pattern (especially once you get back in the adventuring mindset.) Certain moments will no doubt cause frustration, but this tends to be of the positive ‘can’t believe I didn’t think of that sooner’ sort, rather than ‘that only worked because I tried every single combination of objects with every hot spot.’ As with Sam & Max Hit The Road, Mona’s bat chum Froderick can be used and combined with various items, adding additional layers to certain tasks. Lengthier problems often require several steps to solve, and one thing I would find fault with here is that Mona’s verbal clues could be clearer when steps are attempted correctly but out of sequence.
As made clear by the vampire-in-denial premise, the game is more Count Duckula than Dracula. Cheesy puns and knowingly lame jokes abound, alongside pop culture references (Ratatouille, Harry Potter and The Lost Boys all appear) and references to previous Lucasarts titles like Day of the Tentacle. Inevitably, some of this can fall flat (especially if you miss the reference), and how appealing you find the banter between Mona and Froderick probably depends on how highly you rate this joke:
Q: What do short-sighted ghosts wear?
Ha ha … err, ha. Man, tough crowd. For those who prefer racier gags, there’s also a smattering of robust language and sexual innuendo (quite strange for a game rated at 7+, but I guess the under sevens are all doing heroin and knocking off banks these days anyway.)
Comic timing is occasionally a little off, but a rather more serious problem is the accents these lines are delivered in. Mona’s is somewhat dubious – she’s vaguely French, but sometimes drops into Germanic pronunciations. If we’re being charitable, I suppose we could say she’s been living in Draxsylvania long enough to pick up a weird hybrid, but her voice in general also takes a bit of getting used to. She’s somewhat ditzy and excitable, frequently slipping into a high-pitched delivery reminiscent of Miss Piggy. Worst accent award, however, must go to either the Ozzy Osbourne-inspired fountain, whose voice wanders through Birmingham via Manchester and Liverpool, or the appalling attempt at Irish by a restless Banshee.
These are far from ruinous (indeed, I found myself warming to Mona’s voice after a while), but there are a couple of bugs which can literally bring things to a halt. Without wishing to spoil too much, one occurs when emptying a vessel on a balcony, refilling it and then attempting to empty it again. This causes a complete freeze. The other takes place when access to a stadium is granted before it should be, leaving Mona stranded inside without a necessary item for escape. Though irritating, these bugs can at least be worked around and don’t prevent the game being completed.
Perhaps that should be ‘partially completed,’ however, as A Vampyre Story ends somewhat mid-narrative. A sequel has already been announced so we’ll no doubt get a conclusion, but it was disappointing to find the credits rolling at what felt like the halfway mark – even though this was after around twelve or fourteen hours of play. At the point where I was looking forward to additional vampire powers and new locations, the game was over. ‘Leave them wanting more,’ as the old saying goes. A Vampyre Story certainly does that.