Night in the Opera
from Alawar Entertainment
I don't really know what's happening with this game, but since it entertained me, I guess that's mostly okay?
So, this isn't actually the game I meant to review. I was planning on reviewing the much less recent Nightfall Mysteries: Curse of the Opera from the same distributor, and somehow sat down to start this one instead. It's perhaps an indication that I have too many Phantom-themed games when I can't even remember which one I'm playing at a given time.
But, anyway, play through it I did, so here I am with a review. I'm not actually 100% sure whether or not this game is really meant to be Phantom-based; it does have quite a few themes in common, not to mention the setting, but a lot of the rest of it seems unrelated, and the fact that it's poorly translated and sparsely plotted didn't give me a lot of clues one way or another. Alas, in this mystery game, the greatest mystery is whether or not I should be reviewing it in the first place.
The title of the game (which of course should be Night at the Opera but instead seems to imply that we're performing an opera in which night itself plays some kind of large role) should have clued me in to the fact that it clearly wasn't written or translated by people who boasted English as their first language. It's far from the only mistake, and some of the English failures as I went through were so laughable that I giggled out loud. It's obviously not a case of an English-speaker who is poor at grammar; the weird sentence construction and odd word choices make it clear that it's rather someone who is struggling with the language itself. I tried to be charitable toward it as a result... but man, sometimes it is downright hard to follow what the characters are supposed to be saying.
Incidentally, there is a timed mode in this game, for those who like a little heat to be on when they're trying to solve this mystery. I do not like heat unless it is coming from a comforting radiator, so I played without the timers, but I doubt the experience would be much different either way.
Our story begins with a short introduction, in which a blonde opera singer (!) has a drink with a man and then expires of poison. There being a visiting opera troupe on-site that night to help perform a show, there are a bunch of outsiders as possible suspects, so the player is brought in as the inspector in charge of figuring out who the murderer is before dawn when everyone's going to leave. There are myriad holes in this plot, not the least being why there is only one inspector here and what on earth everyone is thinking leaving the dead diva just lying in her chair all night, but it seems pretty clear that this game is more concerned with looking nice than with making sense.
And look nice it does, you have to give it that. Ambiance is its biggest strength; the painted backgrounds are lovely, the atmosphere is creepy and romantic, and the musical score is evocative (if occasionally synthy). There are no voice actors and all dialogue occurs through text (which, considering the quality of voice actors in Phantom games past, might be a wise choice), and while there is also little to no animation and all movement is accomplished by judicious placement of still shots, the game makes no pretense that it's trying to compete with actually animated games. It's intended for those who want to enjoy the atmosphere and the pretty pictures, and it succeeds in having both of those on demand:
See? Lovely. I'm on board.
So, yes - here I am, an intrepid young police inspector trying to figure out what just happened, which reminds me of the 1993 Microprose game and the 1943 Lubin/Rains film, though in this current incarnation the inspector does not seem to be filling a Raoul role and has no romantic connection to the opera singer. Which I guess is a good thing. Since, you know, she's dead.
We don't have much in the way of name overlap, and our unfortunate blonde singer is named Beatrice Agnes, hardly French. Supposedly she's the in-house diva of this opera house (the facade of which we saw at the beginning; it evokes the Garnier slightly, but is much too simple to really be the same building, which I can understand since the facade of the Garnier would be a nervous breakdown to try to draw), while the less English names - the baritone Dubois, the conductor Manzoni, the other soprano Mademoiselle Ross, the director Alfonso - all appear to be foreigners. It's pretty much impossible to figure out where this opera house is located or what country we're set in, other than it's obviously Europe some time in the nineteenth century. I want to say England, which was also the setting of the 1962 Fisher/Lom film, based on the costuming of the characters, but I really can't be that confident since I don't think the game makers put that much thought into it.
The dialogue and information all being text instead of voice may be helping the game's budget and ambiance, but unfortunately it also makes the lack of accurate English all too obvious:
You can still figure out what it's trying to say, but native English speakers are going to blink now and then. There also seemed to be a sort of gradual language degradation over the course of the game - the bobbles at the beginning were obvious but slight, but by the end it was getting hard to figure out what some of them were trying to communicate at all.
Hey, look, in Agnes' room - Degas paintings! The prurient old man is just all over all our Phantom stories, it would seem!
Each door to a performer's room is marked with a large letter; hilariously, they seem to be B for Baritone, S for Soprano, D for Diva and I for Impresario, something that it took me a while to figure out as I was wondering what the heck Agnes was doing in Dubois' dressing room. You start out able to go into the deceased star's room but no others; trying to enter other rooms gets you a message that you don't have enough evidence yet to accuse that person, because apparently police in this game don't get to search the premises unless they have hard evidence first. You also can't go check out the impresario's room at all, since he was the only person who wasn't in the building at the time of the murder and is therefore alibi'd beyond your reach. I feel like I'd be getting more law enforcement done if I were allowed to talk to people even if they have alibis, but, as will shortly become apparent, I am clearly the most inept inspector on the force anyway.
(By the way, Dubois was Christine's last name in the 1943 film... but I don't think there's any connection. Which is something I spent a lot of this game saying.)
This is a hidden object game, which means that a lot of the player's time is spent staring at improbably cluttered screens full of ridiculously-placed items, trying to make sense of it all. It reminded me a lot of reading Graeme Base books as a child, though to be honest Base's work is a lot more inventive and fun (seriously, if you haven't read him, go do, he's a complete badass). The clutter factor makes it challenging to find items, even though you've been given a list of what you're looking for, and the challenge is further compounded by the fact that the language barrier makes for a few hilarious misfires. John and I spent about twenty minutes trying to figure out what a "spin" was and how to find it in the picture; we finally figured out that they meant a safety pin. We giggled.
However, the game's not entirely about deciphering bad translations in order to find random objects; it's also about matching masks! Yes, players may be surprised to discover that they're also going to be playing a matching game, cunningly differentiated from others like it by small touches such as providing more super items to change the game's outcome and making all the pieces little masks. Unfortunately, it's only tangentially related to the game's plot - one of the things you can do by playing is brew yourself a pot of hot chocolate (not coffee; guess the inspector isn't into strong caffeine) in order to stay awake the whole night and solve this crime - but it's still a fun diversion when you're tired of looking for seahorses in a sea of discarded closet-droppings.
See? Masks. It's so Phantom-legit it hurts.
The matching game portion is especially hilarious because it suffers from total musical discombobulation. Sometimes it plays a soothing instrumental track while you play, sometimes a more generic "computer game mystery" song, and sometimes a bizarrely offbeat lounge-lizard piece of music that loops on endlessly while you match masks and wonder if this is some kind of comment on the inspector's personal life. You'll get one of these three options whenever you play the matching portion of the game, and there's no way to predict which; just sit back and accept that sometimes, when you're trying to solve a mystery involving dying opera singers, there will be a guy with an electric piano smooth jamming away behind you.
There is an overall pattern to the game, however, and it goes like this:
1) Go to someone's room. Snoop around for clues. Find clue.
2) Play matching game. Gain piece of music from an opera.
3) Go to someone's room. Steal all their shit.
4) Play matching game. Gain item for use in someone's room.
5) Rinse and repeat.
Hardly responsible detective behavior, but then again, the inspector is the worst detective on the force. Speaking of, he keeps a diary over the course of the game, which you can access and read entries from. He's fond of not speaking English very well and of wildly leaping to conclusions about who did it from the slightest circumstantial evidence, none of which makes me have much faith in him. Help! I'm playing a really stupid character and I can't get out!
You might notice, however, that option 2 above involves gaining a piece of operatic music, and this is actually one of the really cool things the game does. Every alternate time you do a round of the matching game, you receive a piece of music from an opera instead of a clue for the game; you can go to a separate room in the opera house, the music library, in order to listen to it. In essence, the game is giving you some free opera MP3s that you can play at your leisure; over the course of the game, I unlocked arias from Carmen, Orfeo ed Eurydice, Faust, Don Giovanni,Prince Igor, The Barber of Seville, Rigoletto and so on. Check it out:
You usually only get the most famous piece from that opera - Carmen got me the habanera aria, for example, and Don Giovanni got me the champagne aria - but it's still a really neat little touch to give players something to continue enjoying even after they've beaten the game. You can detour off to the music library any time you want to hear one of those; my only complaint is that you can't play them while you're doing anything else in the game, so unfortunately I was not able to bury the lounge lizard stylings under an avalanche of Borodin.
Of course, if you're not into opera, this is actually going to be very frustrating for you, since every other time you do a round of matching you'll just end up with a useless opera recording instead of anything useful to the game. But then again, if you're not into opera, I'm not sure what you bought this game for in the first place. You've made mistakes.
And now comes the portion of the game in which I realize that my totally legitimate police inspector is a wild kleptomaniac. Lots of games, particularly in the hidden object or adventure genres, depend on picking up items that may or may not belong to you to solve puzzles, but this game is out of control. It needs to be locked up. Theft is one of this game's core mechanics, and I can't say I didn't feel kind of weird rifling mercilessly through this poor dead woman's shit and just running off with half of it. Most of it doesn't even have a use - what is he going to do with pointe shoes or three different bottles of ladies' spray?! - but he's taking it anyway. If it's not tied down, it's getting janked. I imagine the inspector going home to a massive warren-like home full of stolen goods from previous cases, like the most bizarre episode of Hoarders. The creepiest form of bachelor pad decoration.
While the majority of the game follows the five-step order above, now and then there will be smaller other minigames, such as one involving mixing chemicals to try to identify the poison used to kill Agnes or one involving getting a safe open. It's not complicated nor is it really all that much fun - it's basically a try it until you get it right sort of thing, not something involving strategy or clues - but this game uses its repetitive formula a lot, so anything that breaks it up to avoid monotony is helpful.
But hang on a second, because I need to go run into somebody's room and steal a frog, a spoon and a tuning fork. For law enforcement!
Unfortunately, the game's pace starts dragging about halfway through, despite the best efforts of the development team to mix its elements up enough to keep things interesting. I particular, only getting to search one screen for a plot-relevant item before spending the next twenty minutes playing match games is incredibly frustrating if you just want to find out what's going on in the story. The division of labor in this game is approximately 10% crime-solving, 30% random theft and 60% the inspector brewing himself more hot chocolate to make it through the night. I think he might not actually be a police inspector; he might just be a really well-dressed drifter who convinced the opera director to let him in.
Various plot elements are also annoying in that they don't make much sense - there are several pieces of paper with writing on them that I can't read, usually just with a brush-off by the inspector to the tune of, "Oh, I'll have to take a closer look to read that," without any explanation why he doesn't just do that. I have to spend some more time in match-game hell in order to get a magnifying glass to read these things, which makes me wonder if all the burglary I'm always indulging in has made me hard of sight. Also, at one point I gained a safe combination and then CLEARLY put an entirely different number into the safe and still got in. Dude, numbers don't suffer from translation issues!
And seriously, guys, a clarinet is not a flute. Let's at least be honest about all this shit I'm stealing, okay?
There are no punches pulled in the items you're looking for, so the hidden object screens can also sometimes be something of a vocabulary test. You'd better know what an astrolabe, gladiolus and camomile look like, because if you don't you're probably going to have a pretty hard time finding them in the mess.
The translation is getting worse by the time I discover a torn-up contract implicating the theatre's director:
Ouch. But I don't have time to worry about the implications of said contract, because I need to go to his office now and steal a cactus, a button and a pirate hat.
Things continue in basically this same vein for quite a while, and the plot is so thinly stretched over yards and yards of match games that it's hard to hold onto. The director is cleared because he's on medication that makes drinking alcohol impossible, therefore proving he wasn't drinking with Agnes (yes... yes, I know, but I am not a good inspector, seriously). The baritone is then implicated because we discover some of his torn coat near Agnes' window, but then cleared again when he explains that he was having a secret affair with her and bailed out when the real killer arrived to avoid being seen (I know, I'm a terrible policeman!). Then the other soprano is implicated when it's discovered that she's in love with the baritone but has been routinely spurned in favor of Agnes... and in my detectiving notes I've apparently decided now that it must be a conspiracy between her and the baritone, even though I have almost no proof whatsoever. I am the worst at my job, y'all.
But, finally, I discover a secret room (hey, something Phantom-esque, it's been a little while!) hidden in the back of Agnes' closet, full of chemistry nonsense and ominous music, so clearly we are about to figure everything out. This is where the most aggravating minigame of the entire shebang occurs - it requires you to be able to read music in order to play a virtual piano (not a problem for me, but probably intensely annoying for those who don't read music), but the interface is oversensitive and generalized, meaning that it occasionally can't tell what key you pressed and just makes a (usually wrong) guess at it. To add further insult to injury, it insists on playing the piece of music before every time you try to complete the puzzle, meaning that every time it misfires on you, you're sitting through it doing its introduction again before you can retry. I'm not sure, but having to sit through it six times - when I not only read music but knew it had only failed because of the clumsy interface - may be what popped the blood vessel in my left eye last week.
Disappointingly, once you've gotten all nine opera arias as rewards for your endless match-gaming, there are no more rewards for the opera-lovers amongst us. This sucks if you were looking forward to a second music library shelf, but it sucks even more when you realize that the game's algorithm order doesn't change, so now half the time you're playing the match game for no reward whatsoever. If you buy this game, you should probably really, really love match games. Seriously.
Aha! And, finally, we have discovered the killer... sort of, anyway. We discover his nefarious plot as a serial killer of opera singers in order to capture their "last breaths" to make "the unequalled music", though what the fuck that means or who he is remains unexplained. We know this because, of course, of the good old Convenient Diary trick:
Oh, well, that was totally obvious. Unfortunately, while I totally enjoy the Suskind-esque plot twist here, it's just riddled with inconsistencies. When did we suddenly switch to science fiction here, and why does everyone, including the incompetent inspector, take this completely at face value? Not only do we accept that this is a person killing singers to "take their voices" (also, shades of the 1944 Waggner/Karloff film, eh?), which is fine, but we also accept that he can do this THROUGH THE POWER OF SCIENCE, which is significantly less fine because wtf, everyone. It's the sort of thing that would definitely be at home in a penny-dreadful of Leroux's era, but since the game has done such a terrible job of its setting and style, it sort of comes out of left field and leaves the player bewildered.
However, this is where a lot of the good, possibly Phantom-related imagery comes from in this game. Both the diary and the inspector make pointed reference to the resulting alchemical wizardry as his music, drawing a parallel between Erik's supernatural creation of Christine's voice and this guy's alchemical version of the same. And, of course, this happens:
Yes, he's synthesized all those stolen voices into individual notes of a grand operatic organ, allowing him to play them as the sole director of their talent. It's in a way a strongly Phantom-like thing to do - both creating this music and being the only one who can play it, taking the power of the artistic voice from the person who owned it in a much more literal way than he does with Christine in the original novel. I love that final idea more than anything else in the game - it's an awesome direction to take with a more supernatural Phantom, and I'd love to see it in something a little less messy.
Alas, there many of the similarities end, though. The Phantom figure is not disfigured (unless you count being very gaunt, but that's meant to be more of an artistic impresario trait, I think) and is, in fact, the impresario of the traveling opera company. If you're wondering when we find that out, the answer is that we freaking don't - we've never seen the character before this last scene, there is no dialogue, and only those who remember that the impresario is the one member of the troupe who was never investigated will realize who it was. There's no denouement, which sucks a lot after how long this game takes to get to the end of the plot; it's just over, bye, see ya.
By the way, a pan down to the impresario's ankle as he plays the voice-organ shows that he's manacled to it, which is also totally unexplained and random but which is probably meant to illustrate that I, the inspector of ridiculous failure, have already caught him. The inspector, who apparently admires this dude's genius, earlier mentioned that he might allow him to perform the incredible music once before carting him off to jail, so I can only assume that's what he did. Folks, this inspector is a weird dude. I was rubbed the wrong way by the total disregard for, you know, the murder victims in favor of being impressed by the man's twisted genius; he's being rewarded for his misbehavior rather than punished (because I guarantee not letting him play that music would be a way better punishment than jail). Of course, there was little to no visceral feeling connected to the murders in this game, all but one of which happened offstage and some time ago anyway, but seriously, inspector, stop sucking so hard all the time.
It was also disappointing to me that the musical track wasn't up to snuff. Someone obviously made an effort - when he's playing the organ, there are ghostly voices at various pitches happening - but the music is mostly atonal and uninteresting and the synthesized voices are uninspiring and pale. The choice to have only the seven whole notes of the scale represented was an overly simplistic one, hamstringing what kind of music could realistically be written with them, and the fact that he has only one octave to work with to boot is epically sad. Oh, that organ obviously has more keys on it, but we've been in his lab! We know how many voices he has! This organ is a sham! Especially after treating us to excellent operatic arias and scores in the game itself, the simplistic and uninteresting "ultimate music" at the end was a serious disappointment.
And, speaking of disappointment, the crowning insult: I had assumed that, at the end of the game, you'd be able to play the matching masks game whenever you wanted, since you would be out of rooms to search. It seemed like the only logical choice to me if you wanted the game to really have any replay value aside from listening to arias. Unfortunately, though, this was not the case; when the game is over, it is over, full stop. If you want to play more matching, you're going to have to start over from the beginning - which also means constantly pausing to search for clues and steal things, thus preventing it from really being a fun and viable way to keep playing the game. If only you were able to just play the matching, this game would have done everything right in its attempts to make it worthwhile to own after the first play through - but you aren't and it isn't. It's pretty much worthless until the next time you feel like reading badly-written, poorly-scripted detective dramas with your Bejeweled.
I sill can't really tell if it's actually related to the Phantom story all that much. Certainly the company it comes from has made other games that definitely are Phantom-based, and if this project has taught me anything it's that Phantom reintepreters are often serial in nature, but I really couldn't make a good call one way or the other. There's definitely some theme confluence, but not much in the way of the plot, so in the end I had to come down on the side of "maybe, but maybe not, probably unrelated?" and let it go at that.And one more annoyance, a coda, if you will, to the ultimate music: that lounge-lizard music is an earworm. It's not the Carmen aria you're going to be hearing when you're trying to fall asleep.