Maestro: Dark Talent
from ERS Game Studio
I don't think this game knows what it wants to be, which contributes to me not really knowing what to say about it. I mean, I'm going to, at length, probably more than you wanted, but it's a mysterious unknown for me, too.
This game is the fourth in a series of games all themed around Spooky and Dangerous Musical Geniuses, starting with Music of Death in 2011 and continuing on through Notes of Life in 2012, Music of the Void in 2013, and finally this game in 2014. It doesn't seem to have been followed by anything, so this is the last entry in the series, and in my opinion showing its seams. Reviews seem to indicate that the series was well-received overall, so I guess this is just the slightly underwhelming end to it.
As you might expect, I've been sort of circling the entire series like a very specifically-oriented shark, but the earlier games really don't appear to have much connection to the Phantom's story. The first one involves ominous music played by a magical child that causes terrible disease and has more Erich Zann vibes than anything else, and while the second and third both involve rescuing missing kidnapped people who appear to have been lured away with music, they don't seem to line up to Leroux's story outside of that (even the one with the skeleton quintet rotting onstage, which for the record I salute as being Extremely Metal). But in a franchise about Distressing Musical Toots in the Walls, it's perhaps inevitable that one of the games would eventually be Phantom-themed, and this one gives us a kidnapping at the opera house, a singer in peril, a weirdo who cannot be chill about his emotions, and ghosts. Technically. It's a weird little story, but here we go!
The game actually starts with an extremely hardcore intro screen with skulls sprouting up out of flowers that wither and become blood pooling around someone's tomb. You can't say this game doesn't let you know where its aesthetic is up front. After that, it's on to the game's menu:
The soundtrack, which is an operatic soprano singing a haunting and wordless aria, loops continually over this screen, and it's actually very nice because it's a genuinely pleasant piece of music and long enough to seldom start over while you're hanging out there. I'm not sure who the performer is, because the credits don't list any of the voice or music talent, but they're doing a pretty bomb job, whoever they are. (So I'll forgive the hilarious portable gas-lamp floorlights because they're in the spirit of things, at least.)
As you can see, we have a variety of buttons. Achievements and Collections refer to in-game "bonus" collections and skill milestones (for example, finishing 10 puzzles without using a hint), which is fine if not especially stunning, and the More Info button is actually nicely comprehensive, offering the ability to access an in-game strategy guide (a feature I always praise because it's very nice not to have to keep flipping over to Google whenever you get stuck) and also providing a link to a forum, which is surprisingly still active five years later over at Big Fish Games.
As you can see from our Options menu, we've got a few customizable places - in particular, it's a nice touch to keep the different types of volume sliders separate to help you tailor things to your level of atmospheric background noise without having to hear every goddamn synth note at full volume so you don't risk missing dialogue. It's also nice to allow the player not to use the custom cursor, which may be harder for folks with visual issues to see or use.
As for the rest of the goodies, there's concept art and wallpapers, an entire screensaver program which is a neat feature I haven't seen before, and all of the game's music tracks playable on demand in the Extras section, which is all very nice. There's also a button labeled "Movies" with a giant digital padlock over it, so I'll assume that's probably going to be the cut scenes, which you'll be able to watch again once you've seen them for the first time.
A particularly nice note (heh) for a Phantom game: the game provides not only the music tracks but also the fully scored sheet music for them, so if you're an instrumentalist or you want to bring your Phantom dreams out of the computer and into your upcoming recital, that option is there for you.
See? That's just nice!
The Puzzles and Hidden Objects buttons you may see above are locked at the beginning of the game, but I can report that they allow you to replay any of the game's hidden object screens and minigames; you'd think this would be common practice for these sorts of games by now, but for some reason it isn't, with most games just giving you a few "extra" puzzles that are also complete once they're complete, so it's nice to see it here.
I initially thought that this game didn't have difficulty levels, as there is nowhere to choose them on any of the menus, but that turned out to be because the options pop up when you begin the game. They're gratifyingly comprehensive, with three levels to choose from - Apprentice, Performer, and Virtuoso - each of which clearly outlines the differences between them before you choose. The lower difficulty levels allow you to skip minigames, request hints, and see sparkles over areas to interact with, while the higher ones drop you in there blindfolded and wish you luck, probably sniggering all the while.
Obviously, I played on Apprentice level because I am both inconsistent and I like sparkles, so let's dive in there!
Hmm. Regret. Let's dive back out, actually.
These hideous burlap-wearing stretchy-armed figures are wraiths of some kind, and the game starts literally zooming in on them racing through a graveyard. I definitely jumped and screamed, so well done to the game's design team, but also someone please come explain to the guy who was here working on our insulation that I am a rational and normal adult and not Bertha Rochester 2: We Gave Her a Computer.
It's a testament to the design work on the wraiths that they're as creepy as they are; they are one of few fully-animated things in the game, and the 3D animation is unfortunately pretty clearly dated, making it easy to get jerked out of the flow of things by the obvious pixels and tubes on display, but they manage to be pretty terrifying nevertheless. In particular, the game's direction has them frequently stop and stare directly out at the player from their sightless eye-holes, causing me to truly regret my very large monitor in a way I had not previously.
In fact, this introductory sequence is genuinely the most frightening part of the game; I had to stop a few times to yell and/or just give myself a break from the very loud and panicked horror-movie soundtrack.
Anyway, wraiths. And they're on a mission.
The wraiths horrify me repeatedly and relentlessly until they find a pair of graves marked Marianne and Paul Selfridge; as the subtitle above notes, this particular set of graves was the goal of their search. They then proceed to RIP OPEN Marianne's grave, revealing that the coffin she was buried in has a giant demon skull on it (this will never be explained, so I'm going to just assume she was a very committed goth). Then they linger over her skeleton, whispering creepily to one another about how pleased their master will be, and resurrect her, a process that is as creepy as the art constraints allow as we watch flesh fill this long-dead woman's face gradually before our eyes.
One of this game's biggest weaknesses is that it does great with ambience - I mean, this is all deeply creepy and unsettling and horrible - but is absolutely terrible at both plot and foreshadowing. It's all but running us over with construction equipment labeled EVIL WOMAN RESURRECTED TO TERRORIZE NATION, but it's so over-the-top that it's hard to take seriously, especially when marauding wraiths resurrecting her without any apparent involvement on her part doesn't exactly scream "demoniacally evil mastermind" to me.
By the way, there is a photorealistic (for the game world) portrait of Marianne on her grave, which gives you a glimpse of her so you can recognize her later, but Paul does not get the same treatment; it's hard to tell whether his portrait has been defaced or merely hasn't been carved in yet (although the stone topper on the grave certainly suggests SOMEONE is buried under there). We'll see Marianne a LOT, but I can't swear Paul ever puts in an appearance.
Somehow, this seems incredibly sad to me. Who was Paul? He shares a surname with Marianne, so probably a family member or a loved one, but we'll never hear about him again. If he was a spouse, she's reawakened into a world that he is no longer in; even more horrifying, if he died after she did, she may not know that and is destined for terrible grief and heartache when she finds out. If he was a family member - a sibling, a parent, a child - were they especially close? Did they know one another for a long time? Is she buried beside a grandparent who brought her up, or a child she lost to an untimely illness, or a sibling who lived the same lifespan she did?
Too bad, players, you don't get answers to these questions. Paul is forgotten. Goodbye, Paul. I'm very sad about you and I can only assume Marianne is, too, even though she never mentions you or even seems to think much about her previous life for the duration of the game.
Anyway, the wraiths exultantly call upon her to "Rise, diva! We've given you back your life!" and while she does, her face looks vaguely like no one is home and I feel that this is probably the best possible reaction anyone could have to this sort of horrifying tomfoolery. I mean, it's certainly possible that Marianne isn't really in there - the wraiths could be having her corpse possessed or raised as a zombie or something similar - but if she is, I'm not sure there are too many more horrific transgressions against a person's freedom of choice and ability to make decisions than to forcibly raise them from the dead whether they like it or not and then tell them they now work for you. Marianne is the only person on earth who gets to complain about "I never asked to be brought into this world!" for TWO reasons.
Anyway, it's finally time for the plot to arrive, by which I mean I now have a character! In keeping with many games in the genre, the story is all presented in a first-person point of view so that the player character is largely invisible and therefore easy for a player to map themself onto. All we ever see of my character is a pair of leather-gloved hands; they aren't otherwise named or identified.
Anyway, I've arrived at the local opera house because my friend, Kate, sent me a letter inviting me out to see the show, which she says will be spectacular because an unnamed diva will be singing who has been phenomenally popular lately. Kate appears to be married (she signs her letter "the Halbreits" and later we'll see her husband and young son), which makes it weird that she does a lot of very flirty voice acting in this invitation, including mentioning that she "can't think of a better way to reconnect" than going to this show together. If you've noticed that this implies that they were at one point better acquainted but have been apart for a while, you're right, but you're also not going to get any cookies because the game refuses to ever explain who Kate is or why I know her. (This will be an extensive problem throughout. Kate gives me a headache.)
The game also refuses for the most part to explain who I am or what on earth I'm doing, but Kate implies in her letter that I'm some kind of detective or police officer, from her mention of me needing a break after some tough cases (I suppose I could also be a social worker or lawyer or someone else who has tough cases, but given the premise and setting I think we're supposed to assume detective). I assumed I was on the local police force for about a third of the game, but later I actively vandalize and break into the local police station, so apparently I'm a free agent who is not impressed by things like "laws".
Here's our first real set, so we can see what our game style is going to be! I'd call this middling to nice graphics - they're very pretty and competent, and there's clearly been effort put into them, but they're not the most impressive artwork I've ever seen in the genre. There's a lot of borderline lazy placement of items and interactive areas - see the glaringly-not-worked-into-the-background poster for the show on the fence to the left above - but there's still some good attention to color and detail to get the feeling of the game world across.
Now that we've been released into the world, we can see our user interface; the inventory shows all items the character has and must be hovered over at the bottom to display, which is nice for letting the player see more of the background but annoying when it times out and turns itself back off before an item has been chosen, as the game doesn't register the mouse anymore if it isn't moving. The map to the right shows locations in the game to help players get around, and the blue jar labeled HINT can be clicked on to get hints about what to do next; if there's something to interact with on your current screen, it will be circled with music notes and staves, and if there isn't, it'll put the same graphic around an exit to show you which way to go. The strategy guide is also available from here, which is nice.
I mentioned Collections at the beginning, but the button here takes you to look at them; specifically, the game has several "cursed" items placed around random environments, and finding and clicking on them places a similar item as a trophy in your collections screen. This is a fairly common element in games like this since the middle of the 2010s, as it gives players who love seeking and finding a little extra game to play along the way or complete if they're missing bits after the official game's end.
The map, though, y'all. You have got to see this map.
I think this is honest-to-god the best map I have ever seen in any adventure game, so no matter what other complaints I have about this game, it'll always have that crown. The design is whimsical and fun but also clearly drawing the same locations as the player can recognize from standing in them - for example, we've seen the front of the opera house on the left from the front, and now we can see it in a bird's-eye view from above. The map suggests a logical geographical route that aligns with the game's progression without being too restrictive, allows players to just teleport where they need to go if they're many screens away, and the "you are here" feature is already nice even before you realize that the map also labels each area you'll do things in and keeps track of whether you've finished everything there, eliminating the problem of accidentally wasting time on already-completed areas when stuck. If you haven't been to an area yet, you can't go there but can see a preview screen of what it looks like, mostly obscured by chains, when you hover over it, which can also give you minor clues about the future.
Basically, this map is fantastic and if ERS wanted to just make maps for OTHER games forever, I would applaud them and their incredible skills because this is the best part of the game by far.
Unfortunately, the plot awaits, though, so back to the main environment we go.
Here's where things get weird, or at least where I started to notice them being weird. This is the poster outside the opera house, and while it has a very "assembled in Microsoft Paint by a seventeen-year-old for the school play" graphical energy about it, that's not that that stands out to me. It's that, having seen her, we know that the woman on this poster is Marianne... but her name does not appear anywhere. She's just "Diva".
I really, truly, honestly hoped that this was an outlier or mistake, but it isn't. Marianne will never be referred to by name over the course of the game - not once, even by characters who are her own family members. In fact, if we hadn't seen her name on her tombstone when the wraiths were dragging her out of it, we wouldn't know it at all. This is somehow even sadder than the Paul debacle; when the wraiths resurrected her, they seem to have literally taken her identity from her. Again, this would make sense if she was possessed or undead or something and there was a real entity taking her identity from her... but this does not turn out to be the case, later. Everyone just stops using her name, apparently forever. She ceases to be herself and becomes simply An Antagonist.
A secondary consequence of everyone refusing to use Marianne's name is that they have to call her something... so they simply call her Diva. This is possibly a translation issue; there are a few clues here and there that suggest that not everyone working on dialogue and text for this game was a native English speaker, so it's possible that a writer who is more familiar with a language - like, say, Russian, which doesn't use definitive articles as much and is also the majority language for ERS Games, which is based in Russia - might not realize that "diva" is a noun but not usually a name in English, and that "the diva" would make more sense. (Certainly the word is used like a proper name or formal title in most contexts, so it's consistent in its wrongness, anyway.)
It also might simply be confusion over what the label of diva actually means in the opera world; several previous games, including Alawar's Night in the Opera and G5's Mystery of the Opera, have treated it almost as though it's a job title, as if "diva" is what someone is hired for and puts on their business cards rather than being a superlative (or occasionally derogatory) description of someone who is very skilled or popular. We also saw an extreme version of this confusion in Pillow's 2005 erotica novel, which used "diva" as a formal title to the point that every female opera singer in the book was "Diva Jones" or "Diva Rigoletto" or whatever their names actually were.
So here's our regularly scheduled reminder: diva is just the Italian word for goddess, and as such it was considered a glowing review to call a singer one in traditional Italian opera (male singers, if you wondered, were also sometimes called divo, or god), similarly to how a modern music magazine might call Mariah Carey a diva to describe her skill, technique, or emotion (or temperament, as the diva label for opera singers is also popularly associated with being difficult, demanding, or emotional as a performer). There is no such thing as being a professional diva unless you area actually an Etruscan deity.
There is theoretically an in-text reason not to use Marianne's real name, but since it mostly has to do with not being recognized, not replacing it with another real name as an alias and instead only weirdly swanning around calling her GODDESS at the top of everyone's lungs does not line up with it. (Neither does her performing publicly to packed crowds all the time but somehow still being undercover enough that no one but you has Realized the Truth yet. This game's plot has said hello to logic, but it decided against getting too close after a few activities together.)
So, anyway: I'm going to use Marianne's name, because someone should. Sorry about your massive suitcase full of raw deals in this game, Marianne. We have not begun to examine how much Marianne's life sucks.
It was surprising to notice here that this is the first adventure game in a while to not have a journal to keep track of clues you've found or developments in the plot, so remember your information yourselves, losers. I'm personally not too bothered, as I seldom use journals in games much, but I have to wonder about the thought process behind just not having one at all given how much of a staple they are. My current theory is that the map is just so expansive and detailed that it's fulfilling a lot of the features of a journal anyway.
A policeman hanging out in front of the opera house - no, we don't know where this is set, but the officer's uniform looks like it was modeled on old-fashioned French gendarmerie uniforms, so tentatively in France - greets me as "Detective", so that both tells me the locals know me and suggests that I AM on the police force. According to him, the mayor sent him here to "keep order", because ordering single random cops out to loiter in front of opera house galas is definitely the kind of thing mayors usually do, but he isn't having any trouble because the crowd is well-behaved and just excited about the show.
Except for the backs of two people going inside, the crowd looks less substantial from here, because why art lots of people when you can art lots of cobblestones instead? The blonde in the red dress is my friend Kate, but I'm not really allowed to talk to her because as soon as she says hello and suggests we go join her family, the WIREWORK AROUND THE FRONT DOORS ANIMATES AND DRAGS HER INSIDE and then seals off the door like this is a particularly thorny (ha) adaptation of the "Beauty and the Beast" fairy tale. I regret that the animation on the wires is serviceable but a little too dated to really enjoy, and I'll also note that my brief searches of previous games in the series revealed that the same graphics are used in at least one of them, too, so this may be a re-use of existing animation.
I love the unhinged attempts at Art Noveau throughout this game and I especially enjoy the cranky and completely explanation-less statue of Poseidon off to the left, but we don't really have time to enjoy any of those things because A Handsome Man in a tailored three-piece suit just peeked out of that alley with the open doors, gave me his best Jude-Law-in-Guy-Ritchie's-Sherlock-Homes enigmatic stare, and gestured for me to follow.
Yes, in case you're wondering, we ARE supposed to trust this person. I think they were hoping the waistcoat would dazzle us.
Before we go down the dark alley with bargain Jude, though, there's a newspaper conveniently pasted to a wall for us, which is apparently just called Newspaper and bars no resemblance to any modern newspaper ever printed. (It is, in this way, a handy signpost for the general quality of this game; pretty, not boring, but what, why, explain?)
This newspaper says that Marianne calls herself only "Diva", which given that it's like walking into a place and introducing yourself as "Empress" to your coworkers certainly is "ambitious." This seems to suggest that she is intentionally trying to hide her identity... but only if you trust that this newspaper's staff writer interviewed her and she is actually in charge of anything that is happening, which I'm not sure I do given what we've seen so far. A minor spoiler: later, her own family member will also refer to her exclusively as Diva as if it is her name, well after the secret is out and there's no point in being undercover anymore, so it just doesn't ring true to me that this name change was designed to prevent others from recognizing her. (She also never refers to herself that way, although that's not quite as notable since English seldom uses names for self-referentials anyway.)
This is a frustrating topic in part because names are so important to most human beings culturally, and therefore it's not an area we can just handwave away or assume is fine. Refusing to let someone use their chosen name is a violent and oppressive act, as is aggressively attempting to refer to them by the wrong name in an attempt to humiliate them or make them conform or even just because you don't care about their identity as much as you care about what you want to call them. The fact that the game doesn't even address the situation is most likely due to simply not realizing it's a big deal, again possibly because of translation issues, but it's still glaring.
I can't decide whether to laugh or cry at the line about "how she came by her enormous talent, whether by blood or training." So... one option is training, which is what opera singers do, and the other option is... be born with the somehow instinctive magical knowledge of how to produce an operatic tone, AND the accompanying built-up muscles and muscle memory, AND the required language skills? I realize that the text is trying to evoke an idea of innate talent, but innately talented singers still have to do years of hard work to make noises like a Tebaldi or a Callas or really anyone who might legitimately carry the title of diva from time to time. "Born knowing the entire score of Turandot" is not actually a character trait any humans possess.
In case you want to be distressed by something besides this game's grasp of human behavior, it turns out that if you try to open the wirework blocking the door by hand, it BRIEFLY FORMS A CREEPY INHUMAN FACE THAT STARES AT YOU. No thanks. Never mind. Kate, we had some good times.
Absolutely unhinged fire hydrant placement. I love it.
We've also got several ravens and a dude who is definitely not at all shady as he stands next to no fewer than three possible traps you could throw an unprepared person into. I'd love to tell you that he's actually fine and no one is throwing us into traps, but I think you all deserve the truth.
This guy. This fucking guy. How much do I hate this guy? Let's count the ways together.
This dude, and the "Knowing Ones" he mentions, are our major allies for the game, which is unfortunate because they're very ineffective and also I hate them. Don't be fooled by his baby face and bizarrely wide-banded bow tie; this is a dude who will constantly be a problem and will then magnanimously tell you you're welcome for it. His most useful contribution is to refer to me as a "famous detective", further confirming my role in the story (as with many Phantom-inspired games, I'm basically playing Raoul) and allowing me to now assume that I look like David Suchet's portrayal of Agatha Christie's Poirot, which delights me.
Anyway, this guy also won't be telling us his name, because he's one of the Knowing Ones and that's supposed to be enough information for the rest of us plebes. This attitude extends to the Knowing Ones themselves; savor the explanation in the screenshot above, because it's all you're ever going to find out about them. The game is obviously trying to set up some sort of secret society of Good Mages who oppose Evil Magic Nonsense, possibly to be used for further games in the franchise, but it just literally... says "yep, we got 'em," and that's the end of it. No clue who they are, where they came from, why they do this, whether they're even human, what they've done before, why they're here dealing with this specifically... not a single thing. They're the Knowing Ones, and they do what they want and I'm turning into Fox Mulder about it because it's so incredibly poorly executed that my brain is seeking a pattern that doesn't exist just to make any of this make sense.
I will complain a lot throughout the game about the Knowing Ones, who do exactly jack shit ever and are never even seen onscreen except for this one dude above. I will also complain about him, because he may be around occasionally but he's also fundamentally useless except for being an occasional vehicle for exposition no one bothered to make particularly well-written in the first place. His main function appears to be to show up at key points in the narrative and remind me to congratulate the Knowing Ones for doing such a great job handling this situation, like sixteen things haven't tried to kill me before they all got up for their magey breakfasts.
Anyway, speaking of exposition, the guy breezily explains he's a secret mage with no name and then pulls out a magic amulet he claims to have made in order to stop Marianne from singing tonight, which he says represents a danger to the audience. More information is not forthcoming because the same horror ghosts from the introduction then POP OUT OF SOLID STONE LIKE AN ART PROJECT and grab him. Hilariously, because of adventure game rules about time, there is no limit whatsoever to how much I can randomly wander around not helping while ghosts strangle him and he makes weirdly sexual moaning noises about it.
The worst, thank you. Also, the dated graphics DO look pretty funny to us from just shy of a decade later, but keep in mind that most adventure games like this don't even attempt animation, let alone 3D animation, so we'll still give the designers some props for trying to push the envelope.
Anyway, we manage to use the amulet to get rid of the ghosts - which EXPLODES the stone they were coming out of, what the hell - and then the guy instantly goes to badly injured and mostly unconscious status, largely because this allows him to give us a big fat infodump and then go immediately back to being useless. He explains that we have to find magic gems, which he's hidden around the city in inaccessible places because I hate him, which we can put in the amulet to use it to dispel ghosts and spells, and we'll probably have to do it a few times since each time the amulet is used, the gems inside are depleted and have to be replaced.
We also get our first description of the problem with Marianne, which is apparently that she has an innate magical talent that "steals life force" from people who listen to her sing, and those who are affected permanently lose a lot of decision-making ability and therefore become easy to control. According to him, she was "banned" from many countries in Europe - banned how? can she live there but not sing in public? can she go through airspace? what about importing her music? can she travel through but not settle? THIS COULD MEAN SO MANY THINGS - and ended up living in exile somewhere, and has now returned.
Obviously, this nerd didn't see our opening cut scene because he doesn't seem to realize that she hasn't been around recently due to being dead, but the rest is confusing, too. So Marianne's voice is so powerful that it causes people permanent brain damage - how did anyone even figure this out, and how did they just decide to do a municipal code about it and call it a day instead of finding out more? Does Marianne know her voice does this, and if she does, can she avoid it or stop? Going into exile might be due to being rejected, sure, but she also might have been actively trying not to harm others. How did no one ever notice this during the aforementioned mandatory years of study and auditioning? If every audition panel she ever saw keeled over with brain damage shortly thereafter, wouldn't someone have noticed BEFORE she was blasting everyone at La Scala or whatever? If they ran her out of town on a rail in recent history, why has no one noticed the exact same woman is back causing the exact same problem? (It's not clear here, but we'll later get confirmation that THIS city definitely did kick her out in the past.)
Oh, and for you Knowing Ones out there, what were you all DOING the last however many years this was going on? You watched the entire circus which presumably included mutliple people suffering permanent brain damage and repeated city revolts to kick this lady out of town, but only now that she's shown up again where you didn't expect to see her are you DOING anything about it? And what you're doing is giving me an amulet and saying "she's evil" before disappearing again?
I really hate the Knowing Ones, y'all. This would be an extensively better game if they did not exist.
Unfortunately, I can't tell any of this to our current Knowing One representative because, having completed his court-ordered expositional duties, he has now lapsed into convenient unconsciousness, so I just treat the glowing claw wounds from the ghosts (???) in his throat and get on with things.
But that's okay because MEET LOKI.
Loki is uniquely notable in this game. For one thing, someone fully 3D animated him; whenever Loki is onscreen, he runs around with a full range of motion, and if the screenshot makes it clear that it's still the age of less-than-stellar 3D textures, he was probably one of the bigger selling points of the game, representing more full animation in a genre that usually uses still frames instead. It's a level of care we don't often get in this sort of game. As you can see from the sign, Loki loves apples (the sign is also another translation clue: placing the quotation mark on the lower left is common in Slavic languages, but English places it on the upper left, again making it clear we're reading a lot of translation work), and tossing him one causes him to do a fully animated little dance where he catches and eats it. In other words, someone loved this ridiculous 3D ferret at least as much as the entire rest of the game, and it shows.
By the way, Loki is of course named after the Norse trickster god, which I imagine is not an uncommon name for ferrets since they tend to be inclined toward shenaniganry themselves. Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be a bit of other Norse mythology or folklore anywhere in the game, so it's probably not meant to be more than a cute throwaway reference.
It's time for our first minigame, which is a rotating game involving matching symbols to images that can be brute-forced by just trying everything until you get the right combination. This is about typical for minigames in this particular game; they'll usually be ones that, if you push buttons long enough, will probably succeed by process of elimination, but it saves a lot of time and frustration if you can just do it right instead. They're not particularly remarkable in and of themselves; the graphics are fine but not that interesting and the mechanics are nothing aficionados of the genre haven't encountered before.
Since we just evaluated minigames, now is a good time to mention that we haven't evaluated the hidden object searches, and that is because... we haven't had any yet. Not a one. Granted, this is technically early in the game, but I bring it up because while we will have some later, it's very few compared to how much of the game is devoted to running around, picking up items, and solving puzzles, and those we do get are serviceable but not especially notable as well as all being repeated a minimum of twice. It's really and truly an adventure game with a few hidden object searches in it, rather than a true hidden object search game; it's closer to something like Syberia than it is to Night in the Opera.
All of which is to say we haven't actually reviewed a game like that since Syberia, so bear with me as I wander, exhausted, from genre oasis to genre oasis. It's fascinating to wonder if this is a case of a studio who wants to make adventure games but knows they're unfashionable sneaking their game sideways into a different genre to help sales, or if the designers just didn't particularly care about that because they had a ferret to animate and couldn't be bothered.
A weird interlude happens here where Kate pops back out the front door to yell at me to hurry up and rescue her before the wirework sucks her back inside again. This is... well, like I said, it's weird. Like, how did she get back outside even temporarily? Is Kate also a wizard? How come she was able to break through this spell partially and why did it stop working suddenly? If the power holding her LET her yell at me, why would it want to do that?
As fun as guesses like "maybe the ghosts think people yelling is funny" or "maybe this is live performance art" are, they're probably incorrect, which leaves us desperately scrabbling to get our hands on Occam's Razor. It seems most likely that Kate being allowed OUT to yell at me to haul my ass IN is some kind of trap; there's no real benefit to letting her almost escape for no reason, but there might be if the powers in charge want me lured in as well and figure they can use her to do it. Also, though I hate to say it, Kate looks HELLA suspicious herself; she's the one who invited me here, gushing about Marianne all the while, and she's the one who got conveniently kidnapped in front of me, and I even suspect the flirty tone of her letter might have been on purpose to get me to show up. The entire situation looks a whole lot like Kate is working for Marianne or even IS Marianne in disguise, and she wants me here for some as-yet unknown reason.
But my mission remains SAVE KATE, so back to work we go. It's now time for cosmological updates via convenient notes left in a locked suitcase, for which I assume we have the Knowing Ones to thank because them just fucking telling me relevant information when they first showed up and talked to me would have been too much. Anyway, the wraiths we've been seeing can resurrect the dead and are specifically a kind of ghost summoned up by necromancers to serve them, and also they can possess items and structures to perform shenanigans. It's the clunkiest possible way to work this exposition in, but that's the way it's going to be in this game, so we might as well all sigh and gird up now.
Speaking of Knowing Ones, we get to talk to the injured alley man one more time. His drama level remains unstoppable, as the first thing he does upon regaining consciousness is to start panicking because Marianne is warming up, and then EVERY WINDOW IN THE OPERA HOUSE SHATTERS and then THERE IS AN EARTHQUAKE THAT SPLITS THE OPERA HOUSE COURTYARD IN TWAIN and it is very hard to take this dude seriously when he's earnestly telling me I have to stop her before the performance. Bro, the building just exploded. The performance is already canceled. (Of course it isn't because this game hates logic but y'all, no opera singer anywhere is going to sing as scheduled in a house full of shattered glass dust. There is a reason contracts have escape clauses that cover things like "the theater fell down.")
Also, this is exactly what I was talking about when I said that there is no frigging way Marianne would get to the level of performing grand opera in national opera houses without someone noticing that she's a nuke. THIS EXACT THING RIGHT HERE. THIS IS THE PROBLEM.
Because adventure games are all about bad decisions regarding the structural integrity of damaged or abandoned buildings, I put a lot of energy into getting the cellar door open so I can go underneath this building that was just hit by an earthquake. It collapsing on me would have made more sense than what is actually down there:
Why am I watching one mannequin hit on another, disinterested mannequin while both of them ignore the giant Cheshire Cat on the floor next to the absolutely bonkers placement of this armor niche in the wall and also a moose is there? (Also, if you want to get REALLY mad, the sheet-covered item on the right? Not a plot point. Never opened. A mystery you will never know the solution to. I assume they ran out of time to code it and decided there was enough going on in this room.)
But hey, zany as it is, we've got a hidden object search. It's a simplistic one - you find items that match the black silhouettes below - but the game does a reasonable job of keeping it interesting by having several things do small animations when correctly poked at (for example, the magnet is used to drag a nail from the botton of that tall tube on the table to the top so that it can be removed). It's an interesting hybrid version of a traditional search game in which you find items and then USE those items within the same scene to find DIFFERENT items, sometimes in a multi-step logic chain. There was also a minigame INSIDE the hidden object scene, which I don't think I've seen before, so there's some interesting layering going on here to try to shore up the weakest part of the game's mechanics. I get the impression that the designers either don't like or were worried their players wouldn't like traditional search games, so there aren't very many of them and those that do exist have been reworked to make them more similar to the adventure game mechanics present everywhere else.
In case you wondered, my favorite part was that you figure out how to get that red paint so you can paint the rest of the stripes onto the Cheshire Cat, which just watches you. This is the weirdest hidden-object search I've ever played and that's really saying something.
Upon returning to the street, I arrive just in time to see the cop from earlier locking up the gates to the alley, indicating I can't go over there anymore and will have to get in the front door. However, that lasts about six seconds because of all things little Loki pops back up, steals the cop's keys, and then giggles behind a lamppost until I can go retrieve them by playing ball with him. Winning adventure games by being kind to animals is a timeless convention of the genre, most likely due to so many early adventure games being based on folklore and fairytales in which hospitality and kindness toward animals and strangers are paramount, but there's something extra special delightful about a Chaotic Good Ferret Companion named Loki who specifically targets the local cops. Love you, little buddy.
This game caused me a lot of what I call, very scientifically, Jumpscare Dread: the continual uncomfortable knowledge that while you are holding it together now, these assholes ARE going to use a jumpscare to force you to feel adrenaline-based fear no matter how good a job they actually do at their spooky ambience. In case you wondered, I'm not a fan. Plenty of people love jumpscares, but I'm not one of them, and more to the point I especially don't love them when they're used in lieu of actually creating a successful atmosphere of fear and dread in a piece of media. There's nothing wrong with them as a tool in your Horror Vibes Toolkit, but there's a reason jumpscares are so often described as lazy: they're a cheap way to frighten someone that is independent of the actual scariness of events, and can be used by hacks to scare the audience without actually bothering to write something that would, you know, scare the audience.
Anyway, the wraiths are extremely jumpscare-centric, and I am lodging a formal complaint about it. Thank you.
Now that I've finally got a powered up amulet, I do manage to go get in the front door, which is more dramatic than it needs to be because it turns out that using the amulet doesn't break the spell and return the wirework to normal but rather causes it to EXPLODE IN A SHOWER OF LETHAL METAL SHARDS ALL OVER ME. Was this necessary? I'm going to have to go buy a balaclava just to get through this adventure with my skin mostly intact.
Hey, it's Kate! She breathlessly explains that she was dragged inside but somehow managed to break free, and that she can't find her family and needs help.
I really genuinely wish I believed Kate, but I don't! This is ridiculous! She called me out with a letter, "somehow" broke free of these supernatural wraiths not only once, to get out the front door for a second and yell at me, but a SECOND time now to stand here having a calm conversation about it, and now she's invoking her missing family, a powerful emotional trigger to encourage me to keep doing what she asks and going where she goes with just enough urgency that she can get out of explaining inconsistencies due to the time pressure. And because I have absolutely NO BACKGROUND WHATSOEVER about who Kate is or why and how we became friends, I can't even look back on time spent with her to reassure myself that she probably isn't trying to lead me into a wraithy trap.
Also, she gets to make her full entreaty, but as soon as she stops and I try to do anything else, THEN the wraiths crawl out of the woodwork, break the entire building, and scare the shit out of me.
And now Kate is trapped, visible and emotionally stirring but unable to move, on the inaccessible stairs, crying out for me to rescue her repeatedly. This does not damage my theory. If anything, it smacks of the game, and therefore the in-game mastermind, yelling, "here's some more immediate motivation so would you MOVE YOUR ASS?"
It'd be interesting if this presaged some sort of role reversal in this version of the story; Kate is fairly obviously in the Christine role (or is she? stay tuned!), so her taking on parts of the narrative that traditionally belong to the Phantom, such as actively luring her rescuers into traps, could be an interesting way to reframe the character (we saw a little bit of this in Liu's 2006 novel, but few adaptations go wholesale into Evil Christine or even Shenanigans Christine unless they're just doing it to demote her from romantic lead status). Of course, it doesn't, but it's nice to think of a better world that could be.
It is, however, entertaining that if you try to poke at the wraiths, they wave their arms angrily at you from an impotent distance. Why don't they crush me? My amulet is worthless; I have no gems right now. There are about seventeen thousand places in this game where a ghost could simply have gotten rid of my meddling ass and no one would have had any further problems with their plan, and they just... don't do that, for no apparent reason that I can see.
In case this room weren't permanently nerve-wracking enough, there's something banging on the other side of the closed stairs at the bottom right, and we know it isn't Kate because she's right there. My character's only comment is that I'd like "that infernal knocking" to stop so I'll have to let out whatever's in there, which illuminates that my character is the least genre-savvy supernatural detective ever conceived.
This is another variety of hidden object search; in this case, you're just finding a lot of the SAME item hidden throughout the scene, in this case the very obvious chain links above. As you might note from the picture, this sort of search is usually a lot more fanciful and makes less logical sense when you start wondering who put this stuff here and why, but they're also a nice bit of variety for a mechanic that can feel repetitive after a while. (And yes, this game reuses its search screens, and no, it isn't very crafty about camouflaging that it's going to do that, as you can tell from the search ALSO being weirdly full of metallic roses for no reason.)
The chains are at least thematic, since completing the search gets us a chain to use to go backstage, where...
Oh, dear. You know, I don't think we want anything to do with anything going on back here, actually.
The sound effects in this game, by the way, are a success. There isn't much background music (surprising in this genre); it exists, but it's fairly low-key and mostly just used for ambience, so it's pretty forgettable. But there's an excellent selection of creaks and cracks, knocking, whispering, wind, and other natural-sounding but also deeply unsettling noises that assail the player at random intervals. It definitely contributes to an aura of haunted menace, which is definitely what the game is going for.
Since there appears to be no option after prodding everything except trying that ominously sillhouetted door, of course I did, and of course it instantly made it clear that the giant billowing figure on the right is another wraith (physicists, your new Everest: explain what this ghost is made of and how it casts a shadow) and that it is subordinate to the silhouette on the left, which it calls "Master". Said figure on the left starts angrily ranting about how the people of this city will "pay for what they did" and has a very low voice that is not Marianne's, so we've got a secondary antagonist, team! With an angry backstory! Let's hear it!
Alas, we don't get to hear it, because eveyone runs off to do whatever nefarious things they've been yelling about, and I remain chewing my nails as more TERRIBLE SHAPES shoot past the door and I valiantly hope they don't know I have exactly zero magic gems to do anything about it right now.
No time for angst - Loki's back! The ferret is just playing with a marble this time, but he's really helping steady my nerves, and I cannot be mad about the fact that you solve this puzzle and get past this door by playing with Loki and his marble until in his ferret enthusiasm he accidentally punctures a snare drum with secret prizes in it. Once again, the ferret saves the day. He is literally the living embodiment of that one video of the ferret losing its absolute mind because BALLS that are on STAIRS.
Well, there are no ghosts back here, but the dying guy on the floor is new. Unfortunately, from what I can tell, that's the opera house's manager and he's definitely dead, so apologies to literally both sets of original Phantom managers for this ignoble end. He appears to be clutching a letter someone sent which urges him not to let Marianne sing, but the signature's been burnt away, I assume on purpose so the Knowing Ones can keep being coy in pursuit of being as ineffective at fighting evil magic as possible.
My narration states that this guy must have died in a state of "extreme fear", but since there are wraiths everywhere and they're certainly causing me extreme fear, I'll allow it. A little. The fact that we never find out this guy's name, backstory, or importance is annoying - he's just a broken doll laid on the floor to illustrate that People Are Dying - but at least he makes sense as part of his environment. Fine. I MAY STILL BE A LITTLE UPSET ABOUT SOME THINGS THAT HAPPENED IN THE MACABRE MYSTERIES GAME.
Mark your calendars - we've finally reached a "traditional" hidden object screen! Just a classic haphazard pile of junk for you to search for nouns in... or at least, it looks like it, but this is actually another hybrid search, where you use items, similar to how you solve puzzles in the main game, to "create" the item you're looking for (one example is to take the little statue of a guy from his corner and put him on this other statue of a horse under the ladder, at which point they become the combined object "Horseman" that you need).
This isn't especially interesting, at least for those of us who have wandered long in the hidden object desert, but what is interesting is that teeny sign in the upper left-hand corner that reads "Switch to Match-2 Mode". If we click on that, we get this:
This is a simple match game, with each little mask flipping over to reveal a design and the player trying to match them to get them off the board. It's not especially interesting, either, except that it's provided here as an alternative to the game's hidden object searches and minigames; if you're not feeling one or an't figure it out, you can go to match-2 mode instead and get the same reward at the end. The item list from the hidden scene remains at the bottom, and when you find and match two tiles, an item gets crossed off; you can actually even do a hybrid version, because if you complete half the items in the hidden object search, they remain crossed off in match-2 mode and vice versa, so you can leave and come back and do whichever bits of the puzzle you feel like either way.
This is a really great feature because it directly lets players play whichever style of game they actually enjoy most, and it lets them have variety if they enjoy it without ever losing the game's core ideas and mechanics. I'd love to see it in more games of this style, although the only ones before this to date have been A Night in the Opera and Dark Romance.
This minigame a bit later is actually very endearing in a sort of "someone on the team did some kinda blah art but we love them so it's going in" kind of a way, and the conceit of seeing a bit of backstory through a puppet show is always a charming one. This particular scene has the player move items around to make the scene make more sense - for example, taking a hat from the floor and putting it on someone's head - and each time you do, a new opportunity or item is revealed for the next move. It's very similar to the progress adventure-style hidden object searches later; this game is more successful in hybridizing its hidden object searches into its adventure game skeleton than possibly any other so far.
Anyway, through the course of this game, the player plays the piano, a creepy guy pops out of the balcony box and throws a bouquet of flowers to a woman who appears to be Marianne, an audience member opens a bottle of champagne but the cork hits the chandelier, breaking it and showering pieces down on the pianist. That's all pretty Phantom-flavored, but once Marianne begins to sing, the audience members all begin to light on fire and burn to ashes while she drinks in what appear to be ghostly white auras from them.
My main question here is what this part of the game is for. We've already gotten all this information from our Knowing One friend, and while watching puppets spontaneously catch fire is always somewhat distressing and creepy, it's not new. It's also figurative, because we're going to see this scene literally play out in front of us in a second and peope will not actually catch fire, so the most interesting part is sort of pointless. And like I said, we're about to watch Marianne do this live in a few minutes, and there isn't enough time between this and that to do any buildup for the player to wonder if what they saw in the puppet preview was realistic, local history, etc. Just bam, and now we do the thing you just saw, but with people instead of puppets.
I guess I'm just saying that it's weird. It feels like the chapters of the game got shuffled around at some point and no one bothered to smooth things over to make them flow logically afterward.
But we are DEEP in the backstory weeds, so there's more to come! Pouring ink on this old flyer causes it to animate and narrate more of the past to me, and while it's a little weird in the game's context, it's a triumph for its visuals, with stunning, fluid and stylized animation that looks much better than the attempts at more photorealistic 3D elsewhere. The suggestive black-and-white silhouette images are creepy and flow across the paper as if alive, and are by far my favorite visual in the game.
The backstory offered explains that Marianne was banished by the people of "the city" (so still no clues now or ever about where we are, sorry!) for her crimes, which certainly makes it sound like she might be looking to settle an old grudge by coming back here specifically now that she's alive again; but then again, the wraiths answer to a master who is not Marianne, and we know that said master sent them to go get her, so Marianne has a conspirator at best, a necromancer controlling her at worst.
The backstory also claims that while she was living in exile, her house was mysteriously burnt to the ground and she died in the flames. I can see that happening, but it just circles back around to other questions we already had: who burned her house down, and why? Old enemies or victims from her reign of terror? If not, who's seeking out this woman's isolated cabin just to murder her? Was it the Knowing Ones? If it WAS the Knowing Ones, does this imply the existence of a more pragmatic version of their sect existing at some point? What was her banishment even like - get out of our city, get out of our country, never speak again, etc? Not to mention that we saw her grave - who buried her? Who lovingly carved that perfect portrait of her on her headstone? That seems like a very, very weird thing for her assassin to do. And once again, what about Paul?! Who was he? Did he live there with her? Did he die in the fire as well, and if not, who is he and what happened to him? How can "no one have ever heard from" her again if she was formally buried under her own name with a personalized plinth headstone? To add to all these questions, the final sequence shows Marianne standing triumphantly amongst the flames, which almost seems to imply that she burned down her own house, which could possibly make sense related to all this death magic and whatnot but desperately needs explanation to work.
Again, the plot doesn't make any sense, and as far as I can tell that's because it simply wasn't a priority for the game's designers, who were more interested in pushing the animation envelope and doing progressive search puzzles - which are neat! - than they were in writing a compelling story.
Upstairs, it appears that our friend the benevolent superpowerful mage whose world I can only imagine is having a normal day again. Again, he makes a lot of noises that are supposed to be him trying to cry out for help beyond the muffling curtains but end up sounding distressingly sexual.
Speaking of the moaning, I would probably make less fun of it if the voice acting throughout the game weren't pretty lacking overall. Most of it is pretty mediocre, which is honestly a quality threshold for adventure games; no one sounds actively bad, and no one mispronounces words in any significant way. But it also sounds intensely insincere, as if all the characters are boredly reciting something they hate because otherwise their moms in the audience will be disappointed, and it's hard to try to believe characters who don't sound especially committed to their own lines when they tell you boredly about all the time-sensitive mortal peril.
Either this game's designers have absolutely no faith in their audience, or every character is in on some weird grift with Kate, because I can't come up with any other explanations for why EVERY SINGLE PLOT POINT is explained to the player a minimum of THREE TIMES, usually by three different characters in INEXPLICABLE CLOSE SUCCESSION. Yes! I know the person who summoned Marianne back from death wants to use her talent for some sort of nebulous revenge, because the wraiths said so in the introductory cinematic and then the person in question said it out lout behind the door backstage and I GOT IT, THANK YOU, O KNOWING ONE. This is another reason I hate him. He always shows up just to tell me things I already know, and then he sweeps back out like a less hot and mysterious Tuxedo Mask and I'm no better off than I started.
Anyway, once I free him from his predicament which definitely is not identical to what any rando bystander would need help with, he explains to me that Marianne seems to need Kate for something and that I should go help Kate because that probably means she's in danger. Conspiracy theories about Kate's secret evil schemes aside, YEAH, MAN, I KIND OF GOT THAT FROM HER REPEATED KIDNAPPINGS. (As if to further make me suspect her, in a bit Kate will scream in the distance to light a fire under me, but why will remain a mystery forever because she's straight up just like... sitting in a chair next time we see her.)
RIP to this amazing statue of one of the Greek mythological muses (Aoide or Euterpe, the muses of music, probably? but then again, Melpomine, muse of tragedy, is right there...), which I am currently pulling down and destroying because my asshole mage friend put gems in her head. I'm sorry, ma'am. Please direct smitings to the gentlemen who looks like Jude Law but more useless in the next room.
I do like this room, however, for the silhouetted shapes that sometimes rush unsettlingly past the opaque doors, which are not openable. They add a nice creepy touch without eating up a lot of animation resources.
This minigame is a ton of fun, though. Look at all these Phantomesque little details! An automaton orchestra featuring performers who are all wearing different masks while playing and conducting in a concert hall!
Predictably, by the time I get enough gems to get rid of these wraiths holding onto Kate, she vanishes along with them. I realize I sound absolutely unhinged at this point but I need you all to understand that Kate is UP TO SOMETHING, OKAY, and I can FEEL IT IN MY BONES.
Anyway, it's time to finally see Marianne in action! In defiance of all possible logic regarding performing in an exploded opera house (yes, I'm sure Marianne is probably used to that since she caused it, but the audience and orchestra shouldn't fucking be) that is actively haunted, she finally performs for a still fully-sold out audience.
Props where props are due; the animation here is simple, but pretty attractive and smooth given its time period. As you can see above, Marianne emerges from a coffin in a puff of smoke with dead white eyes onstage (again, there is no way she was not a goth queen when alive) and sings (the song from the title screen!), the audience is locked in a rapt spell, and a whole bunch of white glowing smoke is drawn out of them and into Marianne. The audience is left staring catatonically forward as Marianne disappears, but not before she reaches out very noticeably toward Kate in the audience.
YEAH, KATE. WHO IS CALMLY SITTING IN THE FRONT ROW NEXT TO HER HUSBAND AND SON LIKE SHE'S HAVING A DAY AT THE FUCKING CHILLEST THEATER IN TOWN INSTEAD OF HAVING BEEN DRAGGED SCREAMING IN HERE BY WRAITHS FROM HELL. I had to take some calming breaths. I can't even really claim Kate is a criminal mastermind, because none of this is subtle at all! I am the WORST detective in history!
Unfortunately, Kate is also in a catatonic trance (OR SO SHE WOULD HAVE US BELIEVE), so she's immune to my impulse to shake her by the shoulders while yeling things like what are you doing and seriously you didn't warn your spouse and child?! Fine, she may have nothing to do with anything, but the frustration is mounting for the player, who is getting spoonfed half the plot six times in a row while the rest of it is completely unexplained and makes zero sense even once it is.
Anyway, Kate vanishes along with Marianne anyway, so my only option is to poke around her unmoving family members and steal things out of their pockets. Which is just the best. Feels great, game. I love looting innocent bystanders who have just been traumatically attacked by magic and probably have permanent brain damage as a result. I literally stole letters out of Kate's husband's inner suit pocket, and then CUT HIS BAG OPEN to steal his keys. Excellent heroism vibe.
Oh, by the way, it takes a while for the game to explain that the audience is all in an unbreakable trance, which is extremely confusing for the player, who ends up hanging around trying to figure out why on earth no one moves or reacts or does anything when Marianne and Kate vanish. On a meta level, crowds are tricky in games that don't have much animation, because the longer they stand around unmoving in the background, the more obvious it is to the player that they are Art and not Interactive, so this is a clever way of doing a packed house without either having to animate and script sixty extra characters or face catapulting your players out of their immersion. On a plot level, it's contrived and serves no purpose except to prevent the player from learning anything useful too early, which is not a great game design corner to be in. Players enjoy puzzles that give them a sense of accomplishment and affect the narrative; they tend not to enjoy ones that might as well say THIS PUZZLE IS HERE TO FORCE YOU TO SPEND TIME ON IT INSTEAD OF GETTING MORE STORY.
Anyway, one of the letters Kate's husband had was from Kate's father, so I'm now also reading everyone's personal correspondence in this time of crisis. Her father warns her that Marianne isn't "what she seems to be" and tells her that he is coming to visit before begging her not to go to this event.
So... not only did she ignore him, she actively invited me to go to the event as well. Either Kate is definitely in on the whole thing or else she is a person determined not to let one person on this planet prevent harm from coming to her in any way and she is prepared to take me down with her. The address on the letter from Kate's father matches the one helpfully etched onto this key. Tip: do not write your address on your housekey unless you are the sort of person who likes inviting random strangers who might find it unannounced into your home. You know, like me. Because obviously I have to go break into this guy's house now.
Before I do that, however, I need to get up onstage myself and start rooting around behind the curtain (annoyingly, I cannot interact with Marianne's stage coffin, which seems ridiculous. If you put a stage coffin there, you need to let players into the stage coffin). Since I only have some of the tools necessary for wantonly ripping apart all the furniture in the place in search of clues (it's fine! we'll blame the convenient earthquake!), I have to pause here and do a few more search games and a minigame involving putting a bas-relief back together before I can finally move on. For a fun note before we leave, I note that the balcony box nearest the stage in this fully packed sold-out audience is the only box we can see, and also is completely empty - the only empty seats in the entire place, in fact, evoking the Phantom's perpetually reserved Box 5.
A design problem: if you open a minigame, which appears in a smaller overlay on top of the game's environment, and then look at something from your inventory that also has a pop-up overlay, the two overlays duel and it is annoying to realize that you have to close them individually in the right order. It's not unnavigable, but it's haphazard and easy for the player to end up being frustrated more often than they need to be.
A neat feature of the hidden object screens here, however, is that they have their own memory rather than "resetting" after completion; once completed, they stay completed, so when they are inevitably reused you can see the signs of your past activities or find items more quickly if you remember where they were the last time. For those that involve doing adventure-esque activities that change the search screen itself, these also carry over; for example, in one search, a drawer was left open because I had to open it the first time it was used, and I had to figure out that I needed to close it in the second one to find things. It gives the world a little more continuity, which it can really use.
Pause for celebration: we made it outside! Hooray!
Out here, things are taking a turn for the more obviously whimsical, and they won't really return. The piano fountain did give me a chuckle, but alas, it's missing keys and now I'm digging around in the dirt looking for them. At least it's satisfying to literally beat the bricks off the ground to find things underneath them.
In the next street...
...it's Loki! Welcome back, buddy! This ferret was absolutely intended to be the star of this game.
Loki is in this scene only to jump up on that flowerpot, then knock it over before wiggling off somewhere, leaving me to discover the machine gears that were hidden inside it. Once again, making friends with small animals is the only winning strategy and I like a game that recognizes this fundamental human opinion.
Obviously, we're going to have to get past the gate to the right, which has visible ridiculous puzzle locks on it and is therefore an Objective, but the game's narrative is beginning to break down. Why do we want to go in there? What is even over there? How does it have anything to do with the plot? The game has forgotten to tell us, which is funny but also somewhat disorienting when trying to follow the storyline.
So off into town we go, suffering attacks of predestination along the way.
Please enjoy the top-tier comedy of this street sign that apparently exists solely for people who want to find the specific exact house I am looking for, and which is in no way useful to anyone else on the planet as a street sign. Amazing. Flawless. I'm not even mad.
So, this is a confusing tableau to walk in on, and the game will, as we are now beginning to fatalistically recognize, never help us by actually explaining anything. There's Marianne, looking ominously at us, and the implication is... what? Did she somehow cause this cart crash? Why? Whether she did or not, why is she just loitering next to it like a weird Gothic horror movie extra? Wht is no one helping this very alive and probably extremely panicked horse?
There's no way to find out except for bothering her, but interestingly when I do so, she predictably doesn't tell me. Instead, she rants about how she will be world-famous, and mentions that Kate will make "the dreams that were once stolen" from her come true, along with referring somehow to Kate giving her "new life".
This is a pretty clear signpost that some sort of metaphysical plot involving Marianne's resurrection and whether or not it's permanent is coming toward us at bullet train speeds, but the really interesting part is at the end of this whole pretty boilerplate speech, when Marianne says in a moment of unexpected poignance, "I didn't want it to be like this, but... It's too late now." It's a little glimpse into Marianne herself, which we haven't had yet as she has been moved around and talked about but never actually been someone we could interact with, and it evokes sympathy fo her, implying that she may not have much control over her resurrection. I know I've been saying this from the beginning, but #TeamRescueMarianne.
But Marianne doesn't want to be rescued today, so she uses the same slightly grungy 3D-animated wirework to have the gates lock behind her, leaving me in the square with the horse. Oh, and this time she put GIANT CLAWED HANDS on them, so thanks for that extra statement of your opinion, ma'am. For extra points, if you click on the hands, they slash at the screen and give you a little bonus jumpscare.
All right, I was mad before but now I'm super extra double mad: I want a word with whomever LEFT THIS HORSE HITCHED TO A CART THAT IS ACTIVELY FALLING INTO THE RIVER. What the FUCK, y'all. The horse is alive and is in fact a separate living creature, not a built-in part of the cart apparatus. The absolute BEST-case scenario here is that the horse panics and hurts itself as it tries to escape; horses are not stupid when it comes to "something is trying to drag me into the water where I will drown". Worse options include the horse hurting itself so badly it has to be put down, hurting others as it lashes out and panics, more extensive property damage to the public road and gates, and the horse being dragged into the river when the cart finally goes down, where it inevitably drowns horribly.
I'd assume its owner is somewhere trying to get help and has left the horse hitched in the desperate and incredibly ill-advised hope that the horse will keep the cart out of the river until they get back and then both can be saved, but this is just a really bad assessment of what this person stands to lose. You know what costs a fuckton more to replace than an already broken cart? A HORSE.
The game is not at all helpful when it comes to my angry descent into horse-related vigilantism, instead forcing me to fix the wheel on the cart first (I don't WANT to fix the CART, I WANT to rescue the HORSE), then to go find the horse's bridle (I'm not RIDING it you assholes, I'm RESCUING it), which it turns out is not actually a bridle but half of the harness for the cart which has broken off, meaning that the game is forcing me to MAKE THIS HORSE'S SURVIVAL CHANCES ESCALATINGLY WORSE until it finally makes me go search another area just to even do THAT MUCH. I AM NOW SOMEWHERE ELSE TRYING TO REASSEMBLE A PIANO WHILE THIS HORSE TRIES NOT TO DROWN. THIS IS STRESSFUL IN THE NOT FUN WAY, DEVELOPERS.
I am, however, delighted to announce that this squirrel has to be heavily bribed to feth us things out of the tree and I wholeheartedly support it as a small business owner. It also sits up there on a branch and smugly eats the nuts you give it in full view, which I love to see.
Once I HAVE managed to put the horse's harness back together, the game continues to force us into the bizarre priority of making the horse drag the cart up out of the river first, like this notoriously stressed animal has not already had a near-death-experience enough kind of a day. Yes, obviously the developers did this as a way of having a creatively hard to reach goal - you need something in this cart so you have to get it out of the river - but it's another case of the developers forgetting the players can't just read the game's roadmap and know what's happening. The player doesn't know they need something out of the cart, so it's not a fun challenge to figure out how to hitch this horse up and bring it back out of the water; it's just a frustrating journey through the character doing a bunch of things that only make sense for one of the many possible things they COULD be trying to achieve.
I'M JUST SAYING, IF I WROTE THIS GAME, WE WOULD HAVE FREED THE HORSE. Ahem.
A few minigames, including one encountered here, provide both a "CASUAL" and a "HARD" mode, a nice touch for players for whom the math and spatial logic puzzles aren't the main draw. It's also just a good overall choice for gameplay; each player can tailor their experience based on what they enjoy and what they're good at.
I think I've already mentioned this in this review, but it's worth mentioning again: a lot of adventure and hidden-object games suffer from having puzzles that don't make any in-world sense - that is, there is no earthly reason for the cemetary gate to be locked with a complex Victorian chess puzzle, but things like that happen because the developers have to put stuff for the player to do SOMEWHERE and it's a lot harder to come up with backstory for everything instead of just slapping it in and calling it a day. This might be the game that is actually worst about doing this out of all the others I've reviewed so far; at least in some of them, you get the vague justification that the Phantom has placed these as part of his master of traps and riddles role, but this game not only doesn't bother attempting an explanation, it doesn't bother leaving any clues that would help the player come up with one, either.
It is funny, however, that whereas last time I used the amulet, the wirework face just subsided, this time I use it and the wirework hands EXPLODE the entire gate. Public Works is going to be leading the Re-Banish Marianne charge.
When I arrive here, I see figures moving slowly in the fog... only to disappear without a trace a few seconds later when it clears. Like a lot of other supernatural things in this game, I don't understand what it's trying to do beyond providing creepy ambience that doesn't actually make a whole lot of sense. Like, do we have a bunch of ghosts running around now who look humanoid and not like the terror wraiths? Are they haunting the area for a reason? Are these past victims of Marianne's performances? THE GAME WILL NOT TELL YOU.
It will, however, have your character say in voiceover, "Diva uses her voice to put people into a trace of obedience," but that... is the opposite of helpful. Trances of obedience are not the same thing as VANISHMENT, game!
I do love that the "workshop" sign on the right looks like something that escaped from a 2002 game that was very proud of it. It reminds me of the same goofy all-lowercase fonts used for the factories in Syberia.
Obviously, we're going to have to go inside the workshop because this is not the kind of game that bothers to put signs over any doors that it DOESN'T want you to go into, but first we get to briefly rescue a treed cat from danger. The game may not seem to understand why there are so many helpful random animals in games like this, but it certainly lets us have them, which I appreciate. I gave her a bottle of milk and she gets to sit there on a window ledge peacefully sipping it for the rest of the game, so at least someone gets out of this mess ahead.
Hilarious that this shop's title is just "Shop". You can't say the game is likely to accidentally send anyone toward a dead end. It clearly signposts that all ends are dead for you.
And speaking of dead ends and being the world's worst detective, I am deeply blasé about all the supernatural nonsense going on in the town square, but I am not blasé about this carriage being in the way, so my solution is... to blow it up with dynamite. There is no way I should ever be allowed on any police force, or any other position involving important or dangerous substances and decisions.
"How many ways are there to love your lever?" the game asks me. I don't know, game. I'm not convinced you aren't having a translation problem because:
A) I don't HAVE a lever in my possession;
B) There is no lever anywhere on the screen;
C) This question makes no sense and all the options I can think of for alternative readings are dirty.
Alas, this mystery will have to wait for me to go break into an old man's house.
The old man with his goofy spats is a fun encounter... for about twenty seconds, until the player realizes that now that they've entered the house, they can't leave again. I'm serious. There's no actual way to walk out until you've finished stuff in here. This would be a neat way to build dread and suspense in a horror game, but unfortunately here it's just poor game design - there's no reason to end up locked in here except that the designers didn't want to deal with scripting the ability for the player to leave and come back while still working on the area's puzzles.
ANYWAY, talking to the old man, who is theoretically my friend Kate's grandfather but who has never met or heard of me before and is being very sanguine about my invasion tactics, is not very illuminating. He assumes that Kate never received his letter since she went to the performance anyway; this would make sense, but it then begs the question of why she never got the letter. It wasn't a post office mistake, because the letter was delivered to them; her husband had it. The only way that makes sense for her not to receive it is if her husband intentionally hid it from her, and I can't come up with any reason he would, especially now that I've finished the game and can confirm that he never appears again and has nothing whatsoever to do with the plot.
WHATEVER. The old man goes on to tell me that during his "research", which is not explained so good luck guessing where he found these bizarre bits of information that we now have to trust will keep us from dying horribly, he found an "ancient flask" which he thinks will "work against" Marianne somehow.
This game's worldbuilding is just... nonexistent. These kinds of games are often sort of dreamlike and fictiony, which I actually think is a neat feature of the genre; they give you a way to "do" things but are at their base more like surreal novels that you can read in which you take on the role of the protagonist, going from plot point to plot point along a predetermined storyline. That means that they usually aren't realistic, which also isn't a problem when that is embraced and treated respectfully. But it's easy for that kind of genre to bleed over into going, "eh, we can skip a bunch of stuff, it's not like we're trying to do Realism™", and that ends up with a final product like this, where nothing makes sense and even players willing to suspend their disbelief end up confused and following their own self-created red herrings because of the poor construction of the world they have to navigate.
Blitzing past the lingering questions of what the hell he is talking about and what on earth he thinks are authoritative research sources for this sort of thing, Kate's grandpa explains that the flask basically lets you bottle "good feelings", which can be deployed to counteract Marianne's magic and "send her back where she belongs". This is literally all the explanation we're going to get, so... what are we get out of this? So does Marianne's voice specifically target emotions somehow? I was assuming it was either magic (so do whatever you want y'all) or something vaguely related to vibrations and noise affecting peoples' brains, which isn't that much of a stress for a more psionic/science option. But "good emotions stop brain damage" is... well, it's a choice, but I can't really figure out what it's trying to say. (In case you're wondering, good emotions and positivity absolutely do NOT stop brain damage, and this argument is often used to tell disabled people that they just aren't trying hard enough to stop being disabled, so it's not a comfortable zone whatever we're trying to do here.)
Oh, and the Knowing Ones apparently gave this guy the flask, and I remain tired of them and everything they stand for. Like, do y'all actually want me to stop Marianne, or are you busy playing sixteenth-dimensional chess with the non-magical normies and you're actually just enjoying watching my desperate struggles, Saw franchise-style? WHY ARE THESE THINGS ALL HIDDEN IN CHESTS AND THE SECRET STASHES OF RANDOM PEOPLE. I AM RIGHT HERE AND YOU COULD JUST TELL ME OR GIVE ME THE TOOLS.
Hysterically, the guy then tells me to go to his closet, where I can get pages he hid there from his diary for additional guidance. No, fuck you, he will NOT get up, give us things, or talk to us further, because he is trying to rescue his granddaughter but like, not if it involves EFFORT. I realize that this is just the development team not wanting to or not having time to animate him, but it's still extremely funny, especially when a few seconds later it becomes clear that there is no closet and he is actually talking about a SECRET DOOR IN HIS BOOKCASE which I CAN'T EVEN GET OPEN. He just watches me struggle like some sort of ancient hazing ritual of the be-bearded.
And because it's objectively the funniest place possible to do this if you want to actively troll your players, the bookcase puzzle is also the most annoying and difficult one of the game, at least for me. It features interconnected parts that move in unintuitive ways, and I had to resort to a walkthrough just to get past it with my pride intact. (Such as it is or ever was.)
I will, however, give the game some props for the following chest-of-drawers minigame, a fun and inventive one involving moving pieces from some drawers to others in sequence in order to create new composite ones, along with some nice musical symbol and composer painting displays to keep us connected to our theme.
Never mind all that, though, because I have finally escaped the House That Time Forgot and now I get to go BLOW UP A CARRIAGE WITH DYNAMITE. I think Marianne is still the greater danger here due to her having broken the opera house in half and turned a bunch of audience members into zombies, but I'm gaining on her fast.
The first time we get to interact with the flask, it brings with it a new (or slightly polished, anyway) mechanic: when you find something that "contains happiness" (my god y'all this could be a TERRIFYING worldbuilding feature if literally any more of it was comprehensible), you actually take it apart and stuff it INTO the vial, where it is somehow magically constituted into Liquid Joy. The example we get here is a child's drawing of a happy day, and the mechanic of finding each part of the drawing and placing it separately in the jar actually gets the whole idea across well; I do genuinely see a nice link between the mechanics and the idea they're modeling.
But also, like, I can think of a lot of things that "contain happiness" in the sense that they make people happy, and the vast majority of them are things that are HORROR MOVIES if ripped up, smashed flat, or otherwise ground into little pieces to fit in a tiny bottle. Once again, the Knowing Ones actually sound like they might be Very Very Bad and I am just screaming into the void alone about it.
A very neat little touch is that when the player passes their mouse over the front doors of buildings the character can enter, the door will pop open invitingly, only to close again after the mouse moves away. It's a cute and fun way of signposting that the player can and should Go in Here and Do Things, but it's also got a bit of a vibe of someone very nervous being inside, who keeps checking for danger and slamming the door shut when they think they can.
All right, I have a scythe and a coil of rope now, HERE I COME, MAGICAL NERDS.
I know I sound confident, but it's because I have no idea what I'm doing. I've just broken into this place; why? The game didn't tell me, it was just the only thing I could interact with. (It turns out later this is actually a hotel so breaking into it instead of showing up during open hours is even weirder. Marianne already performed; the time pressure is officially off unless we think she's going to do it again tonight, and no one has suggested any such thing!)
This is what I mean by the world AND plot of this game being just... sloppy. It didn't tell me what the building is, who lives here, why I'm breaking in, or even give me visual or audio clues to give me SOME guess about what the point of coming here is. The developers either forgot or didn't care to include this detective actually detecting anything, so here we are, not one connective clue to our names, just breaking into a hotel because it is the only place in the game left with anything you can click on.
I sympathize. I've made adventure games. It's exhausting to make sure every little thing is telegraphed in advance, that players won't come at it from a different angle or at a different time in the game when it doesn't make sense anymore, that items don't reference plot points before those plot points, and everything else that goes along with those. It genuinely IS easier to say "maybe this thing doesn't NEED text or explanation" to take a lot of that work off the development plate, and it's even a smart strategy when it's something that doesn't strictly need to be there, could cause other confusion, or you're just down to the deadline on needing to ship it out soon.
But, unfortunately, the solution is never to say, "look, the game mechanics will railroad them to the end, so we don't have to explain anything". The whole point of this kind of graphics- and story-rich game is for the player to feel that they are witnessing and involved in a story; without the parts that make it a story, it's just a game that asks you to Insert Item A into Slot B until it tells you that you won, and that's the least interesting version of that game we could possibly have.
All of this is to say that I don't think it shows a lot of care and craft for us to end up breaking into this hotel for absolutely no reason, and I REALLY don't think it shows a lot of care and craft for my character, after trying a locked drawer, to remark, "I should check room 22 for the key." I see we're just beaming plot information directly into the characters' heads from alien gods, because not only do I have no reason to suspect a specific room or person of having the key to this specific drawer and it is ZANY to act like I do, I DON'T EVEN KNOW HOW MANY ROOMS THERE ARE IN THIS HOTEL OR IF 22 IS ONE OF THEM. WHAT.
I just assembled a grappling hook, though, so I feel somewhat confident that we are at least approaching the finale.
Not before these assholes just pop out of the ceiling to make my life harder, though. Like every other version of these wraiths, which were so viscerally terrifying at the beginning of the game, they just hang there hissing, can't seem to reach me, and remain politely impotent while I walk around them until such time as I can get enough gems to shoot them in the face. (Yes, obviously that's room 22 on the left that they are preventing me from getting to, although the only way you can know that is the hilariously ineptly placed room number above the molding and apparently inset THROUGH the decorative fluting. Architecture in this place is wild.) In fact, a very weird thing to note here is that the game apparently recognized that the wraiths are useless as a deterrent, because their real narrative job here was to knock down that ceiling beam to block the door, which I'll have to chop in half later in order to get inside. The game knows the wraiths aren't actually doing their stated function, but keeps having them do it because... ambience? We already paid for these animations and by God we're going to use them?
I know I'm supposed to be shaking in my boots, but I'm distracted by the painting, on the left-hand wall, of a young woman. Who is she? The game doesn't tell us - she's uninteractive - but it's got a visual look that suggests it was based on or borrowed from real period paintings, and I wonder who and why the artists chose them. One has to wonder if it's a picture of a young Marianne, and if this hotel was somewhere she lived before her powers matured, or somewhere she remembers from before she was banished.
Downstairs, I just straight up smash the nightstand in the lobby to get at its contents, so I guess I will never be staying personally at this particular hotel. And then upstairs I chop a load-bearing ceiling beam fully in half, so I would not be shocked if the hotel wanted me personally prosecuted for crimes against it.
My crimes, however, are not the issue (are they ever?):
No, that isn't the giant leprechaun from Finian's Rainbow - it's a hilarious eleventh-hour reveal of our second antagonist! This dashing fellow in the fashionable green waistcoat is dramatically revealed to be Marianne's brother as well as definitely the same guy who was ranting at the wraiths and being called "Master" by them earlier. He is our Phantom character, and explains that he resurrected his sister in order to get revenge on the people who ran them both out of town; where her power is over her voice and the living, his is over ghosts and the dead.
This is honestly pretty tragic. As the story unfolds, it's clear that Marianne and her brother here were ostracized by their community for having magical powers, and it's hard to tell whether they wanted to hurt people, hurt people by accident or couldn't help it, or were doing their best not to cause problems but were hated by the locals anyway. Let's pause and look at the implications:
First of all, is this Paul, the mysterious unrecognized name on the grave beside Marianne's? It seems like it would make sense if he was; he seems to imply here that he was run out of town along with her, so the two of them could have been living in that little house in the woods together before it burned down. He and Marianne are siblings, and as unhinged as he's being here, he seems to care about her, given that his main motivation is revenge for how both of them were treated (although, as we'll see, he's actually a lot more selfish about it than he'd like us to believe). It would make sense if they lived and died there together and then were buried together.
But that would require them to BOTH be dead, and this dude here is alive and apparently has been the whole time, so I think we have to decide that he can't be Paul. (The fact that we NEVER GET A NAME FOR HIM is not helping all this speculation. Just like Marianne, he's an Antagonist; he doesn't get to have an identity.) Paul's grave was still there beside Marianne's when she was resurrected in the opening cinematic, and the wraiths chuckling about "he told us" and "she's here" and "the Master will be so pleased" are fairly obviously referring to the fact that he sent them to get her, so presumably he wasn't lying next to her at the time. We could perhaps argue that it's a decoy grave he set up to prevent people from realizing he didn't die with his sister, or that Brother Dearest here resurrected himself first and then his sister later if he has a lot of necromancy-related powers, but we have to make that up out of whole cloth because there will be absolutely no explanation in the game itself.
So, alas, I think we must return to the theory that Paul is some lover or child or other family member of Marianne's, and that they were not resurrected along with her, like she wasn't already starring in a three-ring Shit Circus.
It's interesting that Brother Dearest, who is so clearly a Phantom figure, is the one responsible for most of what Marianne is doing; in essence, Marianne is Christine in a much more meaningful and interesting way than Kate, the non-entity who may or may not be plotting my demise right now. Kate got kidnapped, but that's the extent of it; she's not important, no one even knows her as a person (certainly not the player!), she has no musical talents, she isn't related to any of these people even by acquaintance... she's a bystander, basically. But Marianne, who sings with magical powers that entrance everyone, who is being protected but also perhaps controlled by a powerful magician in the shadows, who is an opera singer of fabled skill... that is a spot-on Christine.
Kate was just a decoy, which feels like it was obvious in retrospect because NOTHING ABOUT HER MAKES SENSE. The writers didn't bother to make her make sense, because she's an unimportant side character, the MacGuffin that makes the protagonist have to go embark on the story in the first place but certainly not a part of it herself. I preferred evil mastermind Kate; sidelined-by-misogyny Kate is just a regular old sad trope.
But yes, I think the Phantom being Christine's brother may be a new approach in the annals of Phantom adaptations. We've seen Phantom-as-father or Christine-as-mother a few times and we've got Freudian versions out there messing with those ideas both literally and figuratively, but a pair of siblings trying to protect (or use, or avenge, whatever) each other is new. I wish it had been explored in a work better than this, because this game won't even bother to tell me why my own character is doing things, let alone why the antagonists are.
I feel bad laughing at Brother Dearest here as he finishes his speech, but I can't help it. He orders the wraiths to get me, and one lunges straight at the screen, blacking it out in a genuinely frightening moment, and then... the screen comes back, everyone is gone, and my character says, "Wow, that was close. The ghost almost had me!"
It's just SO bad. Like that is the worst writing of all time. I can't not laugh at it.
Unfortunately, it is not a relief to not be about to die of wraiths, because Brother Dearest may be gone, but my true nemesis, Knowing Ones Guy, is here now instead. Brother Dearest had previously mentioned the Knowing Ones in a fairly normal "they don't have the power to stop me!" villain monologue way, and they are here to confirm that by cheerfully explaining to me that hey, that guy you just met, he's the one behind everything! I GOT THAT WHEN HE TOLD ME SO THIRTY SECONDS AGO, AND ALSO FROM ALL THE CLUES, THANK YOU.
After enjoying a juvenile chuckle about the fact that the "interact with me!" sparkles in the game's interface appear directly over this dude's crotch, I at least finally get him to embark on his final overwraught infodump, in which he explains that Brother Dearest has a crystal (sure) that controls ghosts including Marianne's (okay) and that Kate is a "host body" (uh) and that's what they want her for so Marianne can possess her body and be fully alive again (I guess?) and it HAS to be her specifically and not any other random woman because LOOK OVER THERE. In other words, we're not going to get any better at the plot than we already were, THERE'S NO TIME!
If I were allowed to talk to the Knowing One and his stupid bow tie instead of just standing around being exposited at, I would like to ask him what happened with the siblings when they were both alive before, because if I already thought things didn't line up, now they're even WORSE. It looks like the Knowing Ones intentionally omitted information or straight up lied to me about the situation - so they KNEW Marianne's brother was a necromancer, but they either didn't realize he'd resurrected her (while ominously telling me that she was BACK FOR EVIL REASONS) or didn't care to tell me there was a second person to watch out for? That'd be enough to make me want to kick this guy in both his ankles until he falls down even without the sympathy from Brother Dear's recent conversation; yes, he's definitely doing things that are Extremely Capital-W Wrong, but he was also driven to do so by being ostracized and mistreated (and, depending on what you think happened to Marianne and her house, even killed) by the rest of society, and the Knowing Ones again seem to either not know or not care.
It's a very neat modern superhero kind of setting: we gave the villain a compelling backstory because we recognize that audiences don't like or care about boring one-note villains who just exist to be evil for no reason, but we still don't want you to LIKE the villain and want to treat him like innately evil scum that doesn't deserve to live just like we would have the one-note villain, and the end effect is that the story seems to be telling the audience, "if society harms or ostracizes you unfairly, it's wrong to complain or do anything about it", which is of course a timeless tool of people who want to be allowed to go on being assholes without anyone complaining or doing anything about it. It's a bad look for both story and writer, in other words. If your villain kind of has a point that the heroes fucking suck, you probably need to either address that in the story itself, change the villian's motivation/backstory, or take a good long look at what kind of story you're even trying to tell here.
For example, this guy sends me off with urgent instructions to Stop Them At All Costs, but while he does, he tells me that they're probably at the city's outdoor amphitheatre, because Marianne always wanted to perform there but never could because she was driven out of town. That's sad, and sympathetic, even if the people driving her out were right to protect themselves. Presumably none of you assholes ever helped with any of this. I'm going to find Knowing Ones Headquarters and I'm going to fill literally every surface with shaving cream.
I assume that sensing this is what caused the Knowing One in this room with me to vanish like the useless punk he is, leaving me standing here with another dead guy who will never be identified or, this time, even noticed, because he's just another broken mannequin provided to show that the antagonist is Bad and Evil and you Should Not Feel Sympathy for Him. (It's not wrong to say "hey, that guy murders people, I don't find him sympathetic", but it is pretty lazy writing to say "hey, I don't want you to find that guy sympathetic so I'm going to say he murders people but with the least possible detail because I don't actually want to write him being less sympathetic, which would take more work".) I assume this poor dude is supposed to be the hotel manager - the keys for the whole building are in here, although why his office is randomly in one of the hotel rooms I do not know - and I suppose the developers were hoping we'd slot him vaguely into that role based on evidence and not think about it too much.
It is now time for the final piece of the puzzle, which is the confirmation that Marianne has been the Christine character in need of rescue all along. We discover, through random notes and references because of course it would have been TOO MUCH for any of these assholes who were expositing at me to mention, that Marianne did live in her cottage exile for many years, and that it was actually Brother Dearest who set the fire that burned down her house and killed her. (It's still impossible to tell whether or not he also lived there with her, but given that this seems to be a crisis that occurred after quite a few years had passed and the continuing mystery of Paul, I'm guessing not. The game doesn't provide us with any information one way or the other.) Brother Dearest did this because he wanted to get revenge on the townsfolk, but when he asked Marianne to help with her powers, she refused, leading to him intentionally killing her because, as a necromancer, he knew that she couldn't say no once she was dead and that he could just resurrect her later.
Obviously, this is horrifying, and it wasn't very well-hidden - I've been saying from the beginning that starting with the resurrection cut scene made it very clear that Marianne was not the one in charge of the situation. Brother Dearest is the worst and hopefully we'll get to cram his waistcoat down his throat later, but I'm still struck by how the narrative is trying to have its cake and eat it, too. Okay, so he's a murdering bastard who killed his own sister, but he (and she!) still has a point that they were mistreated, and more importantly, if I'd just taken the game's "here's the villain" assertion blithely at face value the same way, I'd have been trying my level best to kill this poor woman who is as much a victim as everyone else. (This is another reason to pour one million metric tons of clipped human hair on Knowing Ones Headquarters. I don't blame them for not necessarily knowing everything EVEN THOUGH THAT IS THEIR LITERAL NAME, but I do blame them for instantly going on the attack against Marianne without having any idea what was going on. I doubt very much, for example, any of them ever tried talking to her.)
It's hard to articulate how this part of the plot is just as poorly constructed as the rest, but it is. It approaches and gestures at emotional beats, but doesn't put in the work to actually pull them off meaningfully. It wants you to have certain emotions about the characters, but refuses to do anything beyond lazy bare-minimum signalling to tell you so, and often ends up communicating the exact opposite by accident. It wants you to just insert bits and pieces of stories you've read or seen before so it doesn't have to provide its own. It's bare and sad.
And to that end, let me just grip that I cannot beLIEVE this game made me solve a puzzle to open a chest to get a sheet of paper to type at the typewriter, despite the fact that there are UNCOUNTABLE NUMBERS of pages of blank paper strewn all over this office in plain view.
So... like... I don't want to be cruel to developers who worked relaly hard on this, but... that's Tengwar, Tolkien's Elvish alphabet, right? That's literally Tengwar. I don't think I'm hallucinating it. I don't know if the creators needed a symbolic alphabet and just grabbed the first one they found that looked like it was probably in the public domain, but it's very hard to take the Elvish Typewriter seriously. (And also it's not in public domain, as the Tolkien estate loudly reminds everyone whenever possible.)
(For those nerds in the audience, yes, I did check to see what we are typing here, but it seems to be gibberish in both English and Elvish, and from my limited grasp of Russian it isn't that, either.)
This game is even funnier once you start playing it and realize that the letter combinations it asks you to type are not the same letter combinations that appear on the page. I guess we already weren't making a lot of sense, so we might as well go whole hog with it.
I leave via the back door, but alas, the game is not over and there are even more things I have to go poke at now:
Even more deranged on the fire hydrant placement this time, though. I can't be mad, I sort of love the ridiculousness of the hidden hydrants all over the city. The Fire Department and I are both playing a game designed by a cruel and unfeeling god.
Inside the door set into the wall of that unassuming little alley is this incredibly sumptuous workshop with some fabulous windows that apparently only exist from the inside. It's actually a nice scene, with extensive attention to detail and more interactive parts than a lot of the rest of the game (for example, you can zoom in and look at the difference between the painting and the still life objects it's based on).
The puzzles in here are truly bananas, by which I mean they only vaguely resemble anything a normal, rational human being trying to head off a necromantic ritual would do. First, the narration informs me that the artist doing the still life "took liberties" and therefore I need to get a paintbrush and "fix" the painting, which is a truly mind-boggling approach to the idea of art, art studies, and expression. Then, it has me put a broken statue together by slathering it in glue EXTERNALLY LIKE SPACKLE. I am an art terrorist and I'm very sorry to whomever owns this workshop for ruining their everything. (Oh, you'd like to know who owns the place, speculate that maybe it's Kate? TOO BAD, IT'S LITERALLY A RANDOM PERSON'S WORKSHOP WE BROKE INTO, IT HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH ANYTHING.)
Finally, this all gets me the option to crawl through a hole into a cellar, so I assume it's do or die time!
Curses, apparently it's only "lurk in a cellar" time. Sigh.
Like the workshop, this cellar is a random set; it doesn't belong to anyone in the story or have any connection to what's going on, and is just an area you're passing through and searching for clues. While I've definitely padded out some environments in games in the past, it's wild to me to consider adding environments that just have nothing to do with anything. It could be for any number of invisible reasons - it was supposed belong to a character but we cut that character, or we cut the backstory explaining it! we needed more sets and we already had this art in a matching style! - but the player just ends up drifting, disconnected and even bored, until they find things that seem to be part of the story again.
I mean, I guess we could all entertain ourselves by speculating about whether these barrels are supposed to evoke either Erik's theoretical wine cellar in the original novel, or Erik's very much not theoretical explosion gunpowder cellar in the original novel, but we'd just be telling ourselves campfire stories.
All right, this one gave me a nice chuckle. These two statues wake up and put down their spears to bar the way when the player arrives, which is already cute, but it also owes a debt to a number of other adventure games in the genre that use the same convention. In particular, Sierra's King's Quest VI: To Heir Is Human featured both a pair of statue guardians who wouldn't necessarily kill you, and a pair who definitely would. I do have to ask, though, what they are and how they're doing that; they don't match the rest of the game's supernatural happenings. Is the idea that the two statues are possessed by wraiths that are moving them around? But then why is this the only time EVER we don't see them?
If you've noticed that this review appears to be losing steam, it's mostly because the game also is, at this point. Like a lot of other parts of the game, this one feels weirdly disconnected from the story, as though it weren't originally part of it or the development team ran out of time to mesh it in. The puzzles are similarly more of the same.
Forcing me to EXPLODE the statues is, I suppose, also more of the same, but I am saddened by the loss of one of the few spots in this game of real whimsical delight and I'm sulking my way to the final confrontation.
So, of course Brother Dearest is here, and of course the place is absolutely full of ghosts, so this will be a tense race to the finish (at least, as much as an adventure game that isn't likely to do a real countdown clock can be). As is par for the course in this game, the player isn't allowed to talk to or hear from either Marianne or Kate, but we have plenty of time to stand around being speeched at by Brother Dearest, who explains that the ritual is now beginning, act now or Kate will be lost forever, and so forth.
I'd like to praise the artwork and ambience of this scene, because it really is lovely and its unfortunate that it's attached to such a lackluster actual play experience. My little detective has to run around looking for more gems to power up the amulet before doing anything, and the crowd of wraiths in the theater... just sort of lets me do that, and Brother Dearest and mind-controlled Marianne just stand on the stage and sort of... watch me do that. It's surreal and, after the first few seconds when it becomes clear that there is no actual pressure on this scene, somewhat disappointing.
In the middle of the proceedings here, I got an achievement called Kill All Ghosts, so I guess the ghost portion of the game is over now! This is an example of an achievement system getting in the way of the actual game experience.
The finale is as underwhelming as everything else: I throw my potion of happiness at the stage and Brother Dearest is somehow disintegrated on impact (because... he was made of pure sadness? he's also a ghost and this dispelled him, something that would have been very good to get mentioned in the plot earlier? I actually made antimatter napalm? WHAT), after which Kate and Marianne both instantly snap out of their trances no worse for the wear. Marianne explains that she didn't want to hurt anyone and went into exile voluntarily back when all this started, but that Brother Dearest forced her with his necromancy, after which she also vaporizes back into the ether from whence she came. (If you like, join me in imagining her finding the shade of her brother and slapping the shit out of him. What the fuck, bro.)
Kate breathlessly tells me that I saved her and everyone in the whole city! And then... that's the end. No falling action, just a cut to black and a final sigh of release for the rest of us.
There is a bonus game, but before we go on to it, let's look at this whole weird setup again from the beginning. In spite of the various supernatural shenanigans afoot, it still has a pretty clear connection to the Phantom story: Marianne, an opera singer of superlative skill, is forced to sing by a sinister magician mentor who loves her and is angrily protective of her and who she loves in return even though he's doing bad things, and the drama this situation causes eventually leads to the local authorities getting involved and ends in tragedy.
The biggest missing piece, for me, is that Brother Dearest doesn't have any real musical connection to Marianne. He isn't her teacher or mentor, not even a fellow performer (or if he is, we never hear about it, which I now realize is weird: what was this dude doing in his previous life that wasn't necromancy because it had to be SOMETHING?), so the opportunity to link Marianne's supernatural singing to Christine's running theme of her voice being a foreign magical power placed inside her by her mentor is lost. Instead, the siblings are linked by their superpowers, which are apparently genetic; this definitely makes sense as a bond between lonely children who are misunderstood by the world around them and eventually even violently rejected (heck, Stan Lee's X-Men has been mining the possibilities there for decades), but is a different vibe from the original Phantom story, where they didn't meet until adulthood and therefore had very little in common outside of music. If we view the superpowers as an expression OF music - not a stretch for Marianne, a lot harder for Brother Dearest but technically possible - then we have more of a glimmer of the theme of Erik as representative of death and decay as opposed to Christine's blooming life and youth.
Alas, poor Raoul, always the protagonist and therefore usually just an empty suit with no real characterization or opinions! This is the case again here with the nameless detective, who clearly functions as Raoul, becoming the character who responds to the triggering event of kidnapping first and refuses to stop until the situation is resolved; this is all very noble for the player, but hard to hook into emotionally, since our character has no REASON to be risking death this much and we have to fill it in on our own. In fact, the game goes out of its way to try to avoid giving any possible additional motivations; even Kate (who I still maintain was probably the main character's girlfriend in an earlier draft based on the weird flirt vibes at the beginning) is just a "friend", no further information, and while most of us would like to rescue our friends from danger, I think the "just fill it in with your personal experience!" approach to storytelling is not a particularly strong one here. It allows the player to imagine being a brave rescuer, true, but also doesn't give them any way in which it actually feels brave.
The Knowing Ones are still the worst, but our main Knowing One is definitely in the role of the daroga from Leroux's text. He's a mysterious messenger from an unknown culture full of magic and secrets who has already been tracking the Phantom's movements and crimes and knows that he Must Be Stopped and hey, there's a young person here who's also determined to help, so let's deputize them right on in! I now wonder in retrospect if much of my frustration with the Knowing Ones, aside from them being an extremely clumsy device for giving the player worldbuilding information, is that they are clearly meant to function as the daroga but then refuse to actually do things. The daroga prowled the building, found the hidden tunnels, learned the traps, guided himself and Raoul through them, and negotiated with the Phantom while trying to survive a lethal torture chamber. He was a dude who was constantly doing things, and they were integral things without which the entire rescue would have collapsed. He was so motivated to handle this nonsense that he literally followed the Phantom across a continent to keep tabs on him and eventually stop his reign of terror. So seeing the Knowing Ones take that character and reduce him to a boring stereotype who dispenses advice but vanishes as soon as he could be helpful may have slightly colored my reaction.
Speculating about what happened during development is of course almost always useless, but it really feels like this was two different plots or two different games that ended up smashed together - one about an evil diva who sucks life out of people with her voice and must be defeated by a plucky ferret and a secret cabal of magicians, and the other about a necromancer kidnapping Kate to use her body as a vessel for the resurrection of his sister, and the grafting of the two together was not entirely successful. Kate's story is just in the way most of the time, and the game's lack of background writing and character work means that it fails to add more immediate, personal stakes in contrast to the large-scale ones going on with Marianne. Marianne's story, on the other hand, gets only a fraction of the time it would need to even basically explore its weightier themes of personal determination, responsibility for superpowers, and family loyalties, leaving it confusing and unsatisfying.
There are pieces of a good game in here, but the overall result is sort of... it's not that it isn't fun to play, but that's all it is, and it's the kind of fun that wears off long before the end of the game itself.
Having reached the end of the game, however, we can now go back and look at all that locked bonus content from the menu! This game offers full replayability of all the minigames AND all the hidden object searches throughout, which is an excellent feature that I don't know why more studios don't include. This slightly helps make up for the fact that I couldn't find the bonus game I knew had to exist from the publisher's copy for a full ten minutes, because it's buried in the Extras menu and explains nothing besides a button that says "Play".
But find it I did, so on we go! The bonus game brings us back to Kate, whose father has been suddenly and violently kidnapped by mysterious dark shapes. Obviously, she comes to me, because I at least won't have to be brought up to speed on the fact that weird shit happens to her. She also says "Unfortunately there's no one here I can trust," about... her own house? Whatever.
See, this is what happens when you put a bunch of secret doors in your bookcases: naturally, secret door finders are drawn to your home. Nature abhors a hidden catch.
There are only a few screenshots in this part of the review, because there are only a handful of new environments; the player runs around a significantly larger space, but it's mostly composed of reused screens from the main game. (I don't have a problem with this, to be clear; I actually prefer reuse of the existing sets to shoving in a bunch of new art that clearly doesn't go with the game proper, not that I am naming any game studio names.)
The minute you walk in here, Kate tells you someone is coming and bolts, and that will be the last time we see her. Kate, why are you like this? (I guess I also would bolt if I had been the previous supernatural kidnapping victim, actually. I can see Kate being especially nervous about this very specific situation.)
When looking at the mirror in the room, we can be startled to see a shadow briefly running through it (inside the mirror? behind it? behind US? it's a nice bit of suspense), which leads to pondering who our antagonist is in this bonus bit since our woefully inadequate Phantom was disintegrated by joy at the end of the previous game. We unfortunately will not be given any clues right now, but there is a neat little puzzle where you use a toy cannon to shoot out the mirror, revealing that there is a key hidden behind it. This begs another unanswered question: did grandfather put it back there, and if so did he know he was being targeted by someone? Why did he hide it? If the Phantom, whomever they now are, put it back there, how long have they been haunting this family?
Speaking of art that doesn't match the preceding game, this Little Red Riding Hood workshop is a place you can go into and do things, but it doesn't match the rest of the game and no attempt is made to encourage it to.
One of the locks the player has to get past here, specifically on a large gate, is a little image of two lovers embracing. One of them has wings, and the positioning suggests that they may be intended to represent the Greek mythological lovers Eros and Psyche. There are bits of classical mythology all over the Phantom story, but Eros and Psyche is one of the more on-the-nose stories and always nice to see in a Phantom adaptation: it's not hard to see why the story of a man who visits his lover only in darkness and warns her never to look at his face, only for her later to unmask him in fear that he is a monster and kick off a dramatic rejection and reunion cycle, would line up with many of the story's themes.
Of course, oddly enough, it doesn't line up particularly well here, since this version of the story sets the Phantom and Christine characters as siblings instead of lovers and has removed the Phantom's condition entirely, making most of that very hard to pull off and still make sense. But it's nice to see it, still!
After quite a lot of running around, we manage to get into an antiques and curios shop of high end items, which we of course promptly loot because the next shot needs to be maximum irony.
Well, we just won't tell them about the looting. I'm sure it'll be fine.
Once again, though, as I gaze through the broken back window of a store I'm burglarizing and see the police station across the square... do I work for them or not? This minigame actually seems to suggest that I do not, because there's some interaction with the cops coming up that doesn't go well for me, but then they also turn out to be corrupt cops so... I honestly don't know why I'm expecting plot coherency at this point, so that's on me.
When we go back and investigate the hotel from earlier, we find that it's been cleaned up and everything we broke has been repaired, but also that the back door is boarded up and there are cobwebs everywhere, which implies that it's been quite some time since it was last used, let alone since I was last here. This is fascinating for five seconds, before the realization hits that, like everything else, the game will not explain it. Create your own favorite headcanon for this - a Rip Van Winkle situation? time travel? the main character actually got killed by that ghost attack that they inexplicably survived earlier and has been trying to solve the crime in death without realizing it? - and cherish it.
Oh, and you also can't go upstairs in the hotel anymore, but no explanation is given as to why, not even a graphic like the boarded-up door; you just can't click there anymore. (Obviously the answer is that the bonus game has no content up there, but you have to do something in-game to match that answer or you end up looking slapdash.)
There's a red scarf hanging in the police office, which is possibly a nice little nod to Raoul's and Christine's original backstory of him rescuing her scarf from the sea. The scarf is not actually identified as red in the text, but adaptations have almost universally decided to use that color for visibility and symbolism.
I can now report, as my character climbs through the broken shop window instead of walking through normal streets like some sort of glass shard enthusiast and then plans to vandalize the police station's front grate, that I am probably not on the police force. This character is the sort of private investigator police hate, actually, but I don't see them being useful when the world is threatened by demonic arias.
Hmm. Things appear to be somewhat bleak, wherever and whenever we are (I still wish I had more clues about the time period - 1920s or 1930s maybe, with electric lights but not modern furniture?). I can't decide whether the wanted poster on the left, which is clearly showing the famous face of American gangster Al "Scarface" Capone, is supposed to be a time period clue - Capone was arrested in 1930 and sentenced in 1931 - or is just someone being cute, since Capone was very much not international and I'd be shocked if this game was supposed to be set in the Americas. (I'd also bet the other two wanted posters, which I don't recognize, are probably real people, too, so that might shed more light on it.)
And if you were thinking, "Gosh, I wish we had gotten to see Loki one last time," this scene is here to provide our ferrety friend, albeit within a CAGE on the guard's desk and I want to see a WARRANT, how dare you.
You may also notice a cute rat to the left of the image above, and if so you are correct in assuming that this is our next animal friend to be made! Unfortunately, she appears to live in the holding cell. I know this because I broke INTO the jail cell in the first half of every single cops-and-robbers jail joke ever written, and then an officer instantly caught and scolded me, locking me inside. I have helpfully arrested myself. This would be much funnier if the game doesn't immediately go out of its way to make it clear that no no, this is a bad evil VILLAIN cop, which it does by having him accuse me of following him recently and remark that he might let me out later if I stay quiet in there. (Of course, this is funny in a whole other gallows direction: obvious villain signposting, or literally just normal police behavior? No one wins at this game.)
Anyway, I'm able to fashion a makeshift bolas and use it to break Loki's cage, and then Loki filches the key to my cell and brings it in to me, so the lesson here is to always work together on your prison breaks, kids. And have bread on hand for your ferret and rat friends.
After escaping and looting the police station (look, I didn't start this game making good decisions and I'm not about to change that now that it's almost over), I decide to go down a well. I wish I could tell you why, but the only answer we have is "that's the only place the game will let me click".
Ah, the underground, where all Phantom bonus games inevitably tread. This area struggles with more translation issues than the main game, which is probably another sign that it was a rush job thrown together at the end; the player is asked to find "pincers" when the item they're looking for is actually forceps, and then hilariously asked to find "forceps" which turn out to actually be barbecue tongs.
Bask in this nicely creepy and atmospheric underground screenshot, because to my great disappointment it is the only one; the very next screen takes us back up into some fairytale cottage. The cottage is idyllic aside for a very grumpy Rottweiler (who is CORRECT that I do not belong in its parents' house) that I have to shoo away with a dog whistle, which seems like the opposite of what dog whistles do but I am not an expert and I have been playing this game for six thousand years at this point. It's nice to see more hidden object searches here, which folks might have been missing in the main game, but they're really not connected to anything anymore and thus hard to care about.
If you ever played Popcap Games' Zuma, please know that one of the minigames in here is literally just that.
Inside the fairytale cottage is the missing grandfather, handcuffed and very mad about it (as would most of us be), surrounded by so many gears and machine bits that it seems clear we're looking at some kind of engineer's workshop. When I free him, he tells me that "that maniac cop" kidnapped him and made him put together some sort of a machine, but he can't say anything more because said cop has just arrived and has a gun to Kate's head.
I have a lot of questions, starting with how this old dude is a famous machinist worth kidnapping when this has never come up before, what the cop wanted the machine for, why this is related in any way to Kate and her previous adventure, what the machine even DOES... but let us be realistic. There are no answers to these questions. The game's developers probably don't know the answers to these questions, because they were probably never written. This is just the plot of Disney's 1986 film The Great Mouse Detective stapled onto the end of the Phantom story, and while it's funny to ask if this means it counts as one of the Phantom/Sherlock crossovers, it doesn't actually end up anywhere meaningful.
And as if to underscore the point, the cop then opens the music box that the old man made for him, and it magically sucks him inside, vanishing without a trace, and then Kate says "yay, I'm so glad that's over" and the credits roll because that's the ABRUPT AND POORLY WRITTEN END.
This game is just... a mess. It's a wreck with some nice art and fun moments and interesting animation, for which I think it deserves some recognition, but a mess it remains.