Nightfall Mysteries: Curse of the Opera

     from Vast Studios

 I forgot how much fun it is to review games. Also how much they make me ignore John and/or irritate him with 3 a.m. synthesizer music.

 

Like the slightly later Alawar Games' Night in the Opera, this is a seek-and-ye-shall-find type of game for the computer, in which the vast majority of the action revolves around searching epically cluttered screens for small, cunningly-hidden items and marveling at the ingenuity of the background artists who created them. Unlike that game, however, it has an interesting (if unreasonably convoluted) plot and a wide array of puzzles to offer, which made it an easy way to pass three nights' worth of time when I should have been writing papers instead.

As expected, the game has lovely if static graphics; it relies on detailed painted backgrounds and small pseudo-animated movements, such as light and mist, rather than any complex animation. This tends to work very well for scenes and stills, and less well when people are in the frame, but luckily the art style doesn't even approach pretending to be best friends with realism.

Those wondering about the title, wonder no longer: there are in fact several Nightfall Mysteries games, of which this is only one. The title screen of the game features a little "Sneak Peek" button, which you can click on to get a lot of very disturbing images and references to an asylum, which refer to the next game in the series, Nightfall Mysteries: Asylum Conspiracy. Opera and generally Phantom-esque themes are only mentioned in the blurb for this particular game, which is why I ignored the others until I was almost finished playing through it, but on a whim I checked the others out. Weirdly enough, each and every one of them revolves around a character named Christine, except for the one I'm actually reviewing for the Phantom Project. Trust me, I am as confused as you are. I couldn't string the entire plot together for you, since I haven't played the others, but game descriptions make it seem like Christine is the main character in two other games, one in which she attempts to save someone from a family of evil noblemen and another in which she's looking for her long-lost father.

Which is all pretty coincidental and bizarre, unless the entire game series is a giant alternate-universe take on the Phantom story in which Christine becomes an action heroine. Which actually wouldn't be a terrible thing. Now I'm left counting the pennies in my bank account and wondering if I should splurge on the others just to see if they're actually related.

But anyway, in this game, Christine is not the main character. An unnamed stagehand (i.e., me, so Anne the stagehand) is the driving force of the game, leaving me already feeling like my doom is sealed since we all know how well these stories usually turn out for poor old Buquet. When we begin the game, I've just gotten a job as a stagehand for a traveling opera troupe and am driving the caravan with all their gear out to the town where they're scheduled to perform tomorrow, only to break down about a mile or two from town. Such is my life. I already feel oppressed.

My own ineptitude aside, the game is gratifyingly creepy. A while back, I tried to review it on Halloween because I'd seen a few folks mention that it was not a play-with-the-lights-off game, and that is a pretty accurate assessment, at least if you're a wussy like me and you cry when people jump out from behind doors and frighten you. The music is pretty stock horror background - nothing that'll make you claw your eyes out from the stress, but just this side of campy so that it's still unsettling nevertheless, with heavy strings, synthesizer and high female wailing (what I would call "high-rent Halloween music" if I were feeling frisky). The sets are all, without exception, creepy and horrible, leaving me running desperately from scene to scene in the hopes of finding somewhere less awful to hang out as a character.

But alas, I can't hide in the caravan forever, so out into the world I have to go. On the way into the village, I discover a flyer for our show on the sign leading to town, which lets me know that things will probably not be okay and I should just deal with it now.
 

 Great. We've been here for like two minutes and already someone hates us. The detail's lovely, though the hilarious misspelling of the troupe's name - "Opera E'ltoies"? That's like some kind of space language - clues us in that it's possible that this game could have stood stumbling through just a wee bit more copy-editing before hitting the general public.

 

This game is more serious about legitimately succeeding at its hidden-item challenges than some others I've played in the genre. Hints are provided if you get stuck, but they reset 30 seconds after use, meaning you'll have to spend time waiting rather than being able to cheat and speed right through it. Clicking anywhere incorrect more than a couple of times in a row also automatically uses up one hint to punish you for trying to cheat by clicking at random until the item is found, so players are generally encouraged to actually do the legwork and look for the rocking horses and queens of spades and whatever else is hidden all over the place. Considering that people buy these games mostly to actually do the hidden item parts, I'm not sure how hugely necessary it is, but it does provide an incentive to participate instead of being a dick to the hard work of the game developers. (Also, mercifully, it isn't timed, so I didn't have to quit from my embarrassingly poor play skills at any point.)

 

As I popped into the caravan to pick up supplies and indulge in a refreshing round of find-the-hidden-dinosaur before heading into town, I was unpleasantly surprised by the vague outline of a dark person-shaped shadow suddenly rushing past the window outside. WHAT. AUGH. I'm alone on a dark deserted road inside a storage caravan and there's a strange figure outside. CALL YE OLDE 911. This is the first appearance of the shadow, but not the last, much to the great detriment of my blood pressure.

 

Incidentally, I'm not actually sure how ye olde things are here anyway. The setting is very old-European village, with no electronics or modern computers to be seen and precious little industrialization beyond electric lights and pocket watches. I obviously had a car on my way in, but won't see any others beyond a broken-down old heap at the back of the village, and both are stylized enough that we might be looking at somewhere around the twenties or thirties. The Count, soon to be introduced, and his castle are very nineteenth-century Victorian drama, but no one really gives us specifics so your guess is as good as mine.

 

I'd like to note that there are way more animals in random places in these search screens than I expected. I mean, jumble of inanimate objects, sure, but how many butterflies/cats/penguins/birds/lizards/more cats are really going to sit still for this long? This is totally ruining my immersion, y'all.

 

Apparently, when I'm not running increasingly dangerous and illegal stagehand errands, I keep a journal, which is present to both provide the player with reminders of important clues and events in the story and to demonstrate that I have clearly missed my true calling as a scrapbooker. 

 Notes, pressed stuff, photos, text... I am a baller layout design artist, apparently. You would think I could get a better job.

 

There's more action and acquirement of items in this game than many hidden-object stories as well; in particular, screens often require you to successfully find all the items and then find a further object that will be stored in your inventory and used to overcome some obstacle later (a key that opens a door, a log used to bridge a river, a gun that for some reason I DON'T USE TO DEFEND MYSELF, and so on). This makes it a bit of a hybrid between a hidden-object game and a classic adventure game, especially when you consider the occasional complicated puzzles that serve as gateways between important areas and events.

 

Game-world logic is totally in full effect, though. Seriously, I just went in a cave and there was a dead guy's skeleton there and I just sort of calmly looted his backpack so I could get his wood-axe and use it to chop down a branch to ford the stream. No biggie. Oh, and once I used the axe to cut down the branch, it mysteriously vanished. It's okay, I'm sure this isn't a horror game and I won't have any need for a weapon to defend my own life later or anything.

 

Finally - or what felt like finally, because I had not yet embarked on the extremely long haul of the rest of the game - I manage to make it to the town proper and find my employing opera company sort of lounging about in the inn, along with their patron, the wealthy Count Vladd Vansig III. 

 Can we all just agree right now that dudes named "Vladd" are probably bad news? Previous noblemen patronizing the opera in other Phantom stories include the evil Count D'Arcy from the 1962 Fisher/Lom movie and the sinister Baron Hunyadi from the 1983 Markowitz/Schell film, and those guys weren't even named after the Impaler. I feel like there is no possible way this guy's inclusion can bode well for anyone. "Violinist Vincent" is nice to see, though - considering the Phantom's classic preference for the instrument, should I go ahead and start assuming a connection even though he seems to look perfectly normal, if slightly romantically wasted?

 

Chapter 1: A Grisly Discovery

 

I actually really love that this game is in chapters. It helps the player feel the story moving along, which it needs when so much of it relies on finding stuff in empty rooms and then wondering if it'll solve a puzzle, and gave me some nice, easily-digestible chunks to work with. Also, it allows it to perform several cliffhangers that might not otherwise have been as impactful.

 

Each chapter begins with a semi-animated cut scene, which is really just cunningly-manipulated stills that give the player the illusion of motion without any pesky animation budget having to get involved. We learn that there is a burnt-down house falling into ruin here on the edge of town, and everyone senses an ominous presence... but damn it, we have a show tomorrow! Get your shit together, everyone!

 

Everyone does, as I run through my massively stereotypical employers. The production values here are nice, with portraits and voice-overs for everyone's dialogue, and, wonder of wonders, the voice acting is actually pretty good, too. Hilda's overblown German accent is laughably bad, but the others are decent. Celebrate the decency!

 

...okay, it is weird that everyone is pronouncing "Giles" with a hard G, but I guess we're not in France in this game and maybe the rules don't apply anymore. So anyway, we have the Count, patron of the performance; Hilda, the leading soprano; Tiberius, the starship-captain-turned director of the company; Carolina, Hilda's lovely young understudy; Giles, the stage manager; Leonardo, the not-nearly-green-enough lead tenor; Vincent, being romantically thin and violin-obsessed; and Charles, the local help, who is sort of my unsettling fellow stagehand when he's not twitching and muttering dire warnings under his breath. We make a lovely team. Oh, and Abigail, the makeup artist, who is hiding out at the opera house to avoid working with Hilda.

 

As soon as I go into town, I get intercepted by Charles, who informs me that there's a curse on the village and that I will not see any of its inhabitants and will regret it if I do. Man, this first day on the job just gets better and better. (He's not lying, though - we never see anyone else in the village other than the main characters. I don't know where the hell they are or what happened to them, but it's a ghost town.)

 

The center of the village boasts a creepy bony demon fountain apparently made of the souls of children and the bones of the damned, or something meant to evoke that, anyway. My little thought bubble asks, "What morose architect thought up that one?", but my real life thoughts suggest that it might be an homage to bony, bony Erik and his architectural genius. (And face.)

 

Oh, that's right, here's a time period clue - when did FM radio start getting big? 

 I concur, game-Anne - what is that weirdness about? Obviously we have a lot of creepy demon/abyss/hell stuff going on in the general vicinity. Oh, and we now have a chorus of howling wolves in the background. This job is the best.

 

The mini-puzzles in this game are challenging. And by challenging, I mean some are not too bad but take a moment of thought, and others are hour-long odysseys through probability projections and cause-and-effect experimentation. If you are into puzzles, this game has them all: spatial relationship puzzles, word/symbol cryptograms, math proportion studies, even near the end a ridiculous Rube Goldberg machine that you have to build correctly. It was too heavy for me, honestly, but they were all doable and interesting, and for those a little more puzzle-challenged, there are often clues hidden in the world around the puzzle or the journal you're carrying around everywhere you go. And if you're really puzzle-challenged, there's a beautiful Skip button in the corner of each that allows you to just move on withot having to become an expert in crytography. I didn't use it, because of Reasons of Reviewing Integrity, but man did I want to. 

 I also noticed around this time that every single search scene had a clock in it somewhere. That's not ominous or anything...

 

I am 100% certain that, as a lowly stagehand, I do not get paid enough for this. Hilda yells at me, Abigail yells at me, people treat me like dirt, Tiberius regularly requires me to take a fathoms-long journey to find an object before he talks to me... I'm just saying, either I must be really destitute or they must be paying me in solid chunks of gold to keep me around for all this. As the game progresses, they will also start just rampantly sending me off into the face of danger like a security officer on the original Star Trek. I am a human canary.

 

While the hidden-object parts of the game are pretty standard - here's a room, find this list of stuff in it - there's a second format intermittently throughout the game, where instead there are three objects and the player must find a certain number of each. It's a refreshing change of pace that still keeps the game focused on the playstyle that probably attracts most of its players. The choice for one of these to have you look for "batons", like those are even remotely findable in a reasonable timespan, was unfortunate, however.

 

GAH. The creepy shadow is back, and just ran past the upper windows of the opera house! Nooo! Stop making me go in there, you jerks!I'm posting this picture partly to give an example of what the hidden object scenes look like, but also so I can share with you the creepy dollface that is giving me the heebie-jeebies: 

 It's obviously missing half its mask and has a noose around its neck, and with the shadowy figure haunting the upstairs of the opera house, the homage is obvious. But unfortunately I didn't have time to enjoy it, because this is the end of the chapter so I opened the closet door and JESUS CHRIST THERE'S A DEAD ABIGAIL IN THE CLOSET AND SHE'S ALL CREEPY AND TWISTED AT WEIRD ANGLES AND I LEGIT SHRIEKED, Y'ALL.

 

Chapter 2: A Cry for Help

 

The cry for help was from me. John was not amused, considering that it was well after bedtime at the exact moment of my corpse discovery.

 

Through character conversations in the wake of Abigail's death, we now learn that Carolina, Hilda's lovely understudy, has "all the potential to become a star". It seems obvious that Hilda is our stand-in for Carlotta, with Carolina the ingenue singer who resembles Christine (who was in two other games and thus too busy to appear in this one, apparently). Hilda's demands are obnoxious and her self-involvement almost cartoonish, while Carolina appears to be withdrawn and meek, even sad. There is plot in there somewhere, of course, but this game is a mystery - it says so in the title! - so we don't get to know what it is yet.

 

Of course, the town's one telephone is down (aha! more technology, in an antiquated phone booth), so no one can call for help. The only person who can probably fix it is the stage manager Giles... whom everyone says is alone in the opera house right now. My opera company is full of bad decision-makers.

 

Okay, while the hidden-object part of the game is good, it's not perfect, so let's talk about its flaws. Especially as you progress closer to the end of the game, you will find youself doing searches in the same areas - meaning with the same backgrounds and setting - more than once. Obviously, this was to cut down on the number of complicated paintings the game's creators had to commission and then code, but it does mean that sometimes you already know where things are because you searched this room before, and the experience isn't as satisfying as it could be. The sprites of the objects to be found themselves are also sometimes reused from room to room, which is frustrating when one room asks you for something you totally saw in the last room but can't find now, and disappointing when you already know exactly what you're looking for and can easily rule out most of the area. I tried restarting the game after finishing it to check out its replayability, and it does look like the items in a given room are semi-random; there were definitely a lot that overlapped, but enough different ones that clearly someone was trying to give the game some replay value or at least randomize the search games where they could. And several times, I ended up being asked to find the same object in the same room, which is probably a result of too much recycling leaving the designers too few options to run with.

 

We start getting a lot of puzzles using alchemical and zodiac symbols now, which will continue throughout the game. Most likely these are present to foster a sense of brooding occult mystery, the same way that a lot of incidental details in Leroux's novel were.

 

So I'm off to find Giles, alone at the opera house, so he can fix the phone and we can call for help. I trudged over wondering what the odds were that a character who so obviously paralleled Buquet was going to survive long enough for me to find him. Then I remembered that I'm Buquet, and got nervous and had to go get a warm Irish coffee.

 

Indeed, game-me! Why does Carolina look so tragic and stare at the wreckage of the burnt-down house so much? I don't know, but I bet it has to do with the plot. She tells me that she can "feel spirits" there, which makes me wonder if the game makers have been reading any Meadows novels lately.

 

GAH THE SHADOW IS IN THE COACH HOUSE NOW NO THANK YOU. Except I have to go in, because I'm the stupid stagehand and my company is totally cool with me dying a horrible death.

 

...as Giles has just done. He's been hung from the ceiling withe electrical wire, calling Buquet's fate to mind, and he looks just as creepy and awful as Abigail did. HELP.

 

Chapter 3: The Only Way Out

 

Please, do tell me the only way out. I really want to know. I am not kidding. We're going to die.

 

Leonardo the tenor, a portly gentleman with a large personality who bears more than a passing resemblance to Lloyd Webber's Piangi, decides to go vigilante and strike out into the village to find and apprehend the killer. Great plan, jackass. For once, nobody makes me go with him... because instead they want me to go break into a graveyard. Which was WAY too much work for the horrible result of actually being in a graveyard during all this. 

 The bony angel here is another probable homage to the original Phantom, combining as it does his deathly representative role as a creature of decay and demise and the fabricated role of the Angel of Music that he invented for Christine's benefit.

 

Apparently I do have at least two beans of brains to rub together because I try to find a way out of the village on the other side, only to find the bridge cut and the phones out over here, too. Vincent the violinist is also loitering suspiciously in the general area, and I'm TELLING you, his use of a violin makes him the OBVIOUS SUSPECT in my obviously skewed worldview. He does not help me decide to trust him by instead telling me a weird story about how it's cold and that probably means that there are demons in town, because "Demon blood is always 15 degrees lower than a human's." I... what? What does that even mean? Is he trying to make some kind of metaphorical connection to Erik's infernal imagery? Is he suggesting there are actual demons in town, like that creepy fountain is going to get up and come chase me? If there are demons, how many of them would have to be here to affect the ambient temperature? I don't get it. I want to go home.

 

AUGH THE SHAPE THE SHAPE IS IN THE WINDOW OF THE CHURCH WHY DO PEOPLE KEEP INSISTING I GO IN THERE PLOT IMMUNITY IS NOT REPEAT IS NOT THE SAME THING AS SAFETY

 

Did I... seriously just throw a brick through a stained glass church window so I could get in the building? Maybe I'm a stagehand because no one else will hire me because I'm awful.

 

And a soon as I get in there, the church's chandelier falls (aha! a reference!) and murders the poor tenor, who could really have maybe moved out of the way to open the door for me and then everyone would be happier right now, wouldn't they?

 

Chapter 4: A Gloom of Darkness

 

The corpses in this game are seriously disturbing. The art department went out of their way to make them look horrifying in spite of the cartoony style, with pale/grey skin and limbs at awful dead angles. This is the worst.

 

At this point, everyone including me is so terrified that they decide we should all huddle together in the inn instead of wandering around singly in the creepily empty town (NO, YOU THINK?). Apparently they've decided I'm more useful as a cannon fodder body where they are than investigating dangerous locations elsewhere. Unfortunately, my arch-nemesis the CREEPY FUCKING SHADOW flashes past the inn window, and while I'm still winding up a properly terrified shriek, it breaks the window, kills the lights, and when everyone stops vocally panicking we discover that Carolina has been abducted. Obviously, while this particular Phantom is terrorizing the entire town instead of just the opera house, we're looking at another clear borrowing from the story; we don't know what relationship the mysterious shadow and Carolina have, but his kidnapping of her (and NOT killing her, like he has with everyone else) is classic Erik and Christine.

 

Because the most recent attack has left the entire town without power, the only light we have is my little lantern, because I compulsively pick things up while I run around with no direction. Does it surprise you to find that everyone agrees that I should go out into the darkness alone and try to figure out how to light all the lanterns and turn all the breakers IN TOWN back on? It would serve all of them right if I just hid in the opera house and started stalking people, too.

 

This portion of the game puts a spin on the hidden-object routine by making the scenes be "in the dark", so that only a small area around the player's cursor, where the lantern is, is illuminated enough to search for items in. This is pretty neat, and the lists of items to be found are smaller to accommodate the increased difficulty, but some players would still probably find only being able to see very small portions of the area frustrating while searching.

 

Okay, I've finally broken into the house in the center of town (why? because my friends are awful and left me all alone, that's why), where I discover Hilda's, Charles' and Tiberius' private rooms. Hilda's room is WAY WAY creepy: 

 You can't see it well in this picture, but the scratched legend I CAN'T STOP EATING appears at least twice, carved into the walls, and the place is a mess of rotting food and filth. While Hilda's gigantic bazooms and too-small clothes painted her as a caricature of the "fat lady" opera singer earlier in the game, this room puts a disturbing spin on her, painting her as suffering from a severe eating disorder and psychological distress as well as containing a portrait of her in her younger days, looking slender and toned, torn to shreds like the Prince's portrait in Disney's Beauty and the Beast. Suddenly, Hilda's overblown, ridiculous stereotype has become something poignant and sympathetic.

 

(Of course, using this or any other mental or psychological illness as a "scare" or example of "creepy and frightening" is common in horror media, and it's also pretty gross. People with illnesses are having a hard enough time without everyone else also using them as a trope for inhuman, dangerous, or broken behavior. It's not as pronounced a problem in this game as in others, but I still wish that the genre as a whole would grow out of its tendency to treat people with illnesses of any kind the same way they treat literally inhuman monsters.)

 

Hilda's portrait is the first in a series of photographs of people that will be providing the major hints about the plot from here on out; they're all black-and-white and obviously old, and depict people who look similar to several of the opera company's members, especially Carolina, Charles and Tiberius, but are not quite identical. Mystery!

 

Never mind that, though, because holy BALLS, this butcher shop is horrifying. It's full of rotten meat, eyeballs, skulls, grinder offal - it's a charnel house, and one in which I have no trouble believing that people are eaten. Oh, and there are creepy squishy background sounds. UGH. HELP.

 

It's about to be the end of a chapter, though, so guess what? That's right, someone dies, and for the first time it's baffling but not horrifying. I arrive on the scene at the edge of a cliff just in time to see Carolina jump off it screaming, which just makes me full of questions - did she escape? Did he bring her here? Is she killing herself in parallel to Christine's attempts to do so in Leroux's novel? Did he push her and I just didn't see him? OH GOD IS HE BEHIND ME RIGHT NOW HE IS ISN'T HE

 

Chapter 5: An Echo from the Past

 

AUGH HELP HE'S RIGHT OUTSIDE THE BUILDING I'M IN

 

Seriously, I need more places to flee to. Defensible places. And that axe back from the beginning of the game.

 

Unfortunately, my attempt to flee to the safety of the inn resulted in discovering that NO ONE is there anymore. What the hell? Where did you guys go? Did you all get picked off while I was gone? Did you scatter like ninnies and hide all over town? Are you all hiding together with an axe in a defensible place without me? I hate you people.

 

While running around town trying to figure out where the hell everyone is, I happen to hear Hilda screaming for help from inside a building that I've never been able to get into because its door is frozen shut, because THAT'S not super sketchy and weird or anything. It takes a lot of ingenuity and work to get in there, and I immediately wished I hadn't and quit playing for a while, because inside that building is a giant freezer in which the contorted, frozen bodies of everyone who has died so far had been shoved. Seriously, even in cartoon style, it was gruesome. I refuse to post a screenshot, because I don't want to look at it anymore. Hilda did not survive, and to add insult to injury, I will have to tip-toe around all these bodies multiple times as puzzles force me to KEEP GOING IN THERE and looking for clues and items IN AMONG ALL THE DEAD PEOPLE.

 

I feel like I've seen this horror movie before. Doesn't someone just come and shut me in with them as soon as I turn my back? HELP. I DON'T WANT TO KNOW THE TRUTH ANYMORE, JUST LET ME LEAVE.

 

But instead, I decide to use my excellent critical thinking skills to go back to the graveyard instead, because apparently they hired me as a stagehand because of my severe and advanced lack of consideration for my own survival. And aha, Sherlock, a clue!: upon getting way too up close and personal with the resting places of dead people, I discover a tombstone that reads Christine Strauss: Weep not, she is not dead but sleepeth.

 

So... that's happening. I have so many questions! We found Christine, but what is she doing already dead? Is she actually dead, and if so, why is the Phantom terrorizing other people like Carolina (who has a very similar last name, von Strauss, suggesting that maybe she's her daughter)? Did the Phantom story already happen, and we're in a weird and creepy sequel tale, possibly one with daughter-stalking? Is giving her the specific last name Strauss meant to signify anything other than connecting her to a famous composer? Is this the same Christine going on wacky adventures in the other Nightfall Mysteries games? Help!

 

Because I am a problem-solver, I go ahead and break her grave open to retrieve a hidden puzzle box instead of getting too bogged down in the details. You gotta do what you gotta do, am I right? Apparently I am seriously just as ghoulish as the rest of the game, because later I also start just digging around looking for corpses in case they have clues. The game direction is "Dig around. You never know who or what is buried in this town." Truer words, game... truer words.

 

Chapter 6: The Plot Thickens

 

Hey, it's another living human! Hi, Charles, fellow creepy servant theatre drudge! Oh, you were just here to lurch across the screen and warn me that the Count is "evil". Well, all right, then.

 

There's yet another mention of demons and their low body temperature, this time credited to "research" by the Count. Why he's posting it on his walls I don't know, unless he wanted to charitably help out anyone who broke into his castle with figuring out what was going on.

 

Violin-playing Vincent turns up here in the castle as well, apparently the only other still-living member of the opera troupe besides myself and the missing Tiberius. THEORY STILL GOING STRONG, I'M JUST SAYING. I am ridiculously glad to see him, of course, because at this point, wouldn't anyone be? Then he abandons me again, because everyone in this game is the worst.

 

The Count, in spite of everyone's warnings about his evil, is actually apparently the best friend I have. He also leaves, but he has the decency to warn me that he's bailing out now, and he gives me a gun and suggests I just go ahead and shoot everyone that comes near me, which is pretty good advice at this point.

 

Then I tried going in another room and GAH TIBERIUS HE'S ALSO FROZEN AND DEAD HELP WHY AND SOMEONE IS ATTACKING ME WHEN I FIND HIM AND WHERE IS THAT STUPID GUN

 

Chapter 7: Closing the Curtains

 

This chapter is so ominously named. Help.

 

I awaken from my kidnapping in a dank underground dungeon (full of weird shit, but that's how hidden-object games go). Why am I alive? Wait, am I Christine now? That would be interesting, since I'm in the role of lowly stagehand instead of being any level of performer, and it would also be very neat since the game's main character has no gender markers and we would therefore have a Christine of whatever gender the player was. (Okay, none of this turned out to be true, but it would have been cool if it had, right?)

 

As I worked on yet another creepy and difficult puzzle in an attempt to escape my fate, I noted the scrawled messages around it, saying things like "Give up" and "There is no escape", and wondered if the game was suggesting that the Phantom makes all these puzzles himself. There is precedent for him doing neat stuff with clockworks/optical illusions/trap doors and so on, and it would be neat if he had spent that much time booby-trapping the entire town for his own nefarious aims.

 

Escaping unfortunately just lands me in a creepy sewer, reminiscent of the 1962 movie, but luckily I make it up through a manhole... just in time to see the terrifying shadow run past the upper windows of the Count's castle. And because I still have NO survival instincts whatsoever, I march RIGHT BACK IN THERE, find Tiberius' frozen horrible corpse, and loot it so I can get the key to break into his room back in town.

 

Getting into the Count's safe is one of the last and hardest puzzles of the game, and the resulting note is a super neat convention. It's entirely in Greek, for starters, which is very cool for those who might be able to read it: 

 Of course, the little boxes where that character didn't translate into the Greek font they were using are sad technical flaws that disrupt the fun, but it's still pretty neat. Even more neat is the fact that those of us who are not Greek-readers get to read the letter by peering at it through a magic monocle, which transforms the letters directly beneath it into English ones! It's a very cool device, and I loved it even though it was clearly someone wanting to use the cool engine they developed for the lantern searches earlier one more time. In fact, it was way cooler than the lantern searches. You go, unsung coding hero who put this together.

 

And hard on its heels, a much more unintentionally hilarious clue, in which a newspaper article is found with an important headline... but the text is the mangled remains of Cicero's De finibus bonorum et malorum, better known to internet and typography aficionados as "That Latin text we insert in things we're not done with to show where the words go." Probably the developers thought the text was small enough that no one would notice, so they didn't need to write any copy to go in the fictional paper.

 

And now, finally, at the end of all things, we have come to discover the great secret, which is that the Phantom is... TOTALLY VINCENT THE VIOLIN PLAYER, I FUCKING CALLED IT, Y'ALL. The fun twist is that Carolina has actually been working with him the whole time, and that the two of them are getting revenge for the sins perpetrated on them by the opera company in the past. Carolina's parents were the previous owner and prima donna of the company, but died in a house fire set by Hilda, who wanted the star position, and Tiberius, who wanted to take over ownership, making her a classic Christine-esque orphan with a shocking revenge twist; and Vincent is actually the Count's estranged son, who he kept locked in a dungeon during childhood because he was the child of a servant and therefore could never be acknowledged, before selling him to a traveling band of Romani, a backstory that obviously draws from various versions of the Phantom story, starting with Kay's 1990 novel and encompassing at least the 2004 Schumacher/Butler film and its progeny (and, sadly, their anti-Romani racism as well).

 

Christine and Erik as vengeance-mad people in cahoots to commit murder reminds me strongly of the 2001 Liu novel, and was super fun and unexpected, although of course the many red herrings throughout the game are annoying in retrospect.

 

And, for the parting shot, they're not particularly interested in murdering me (HOORAY!), so instead Vincent mentions that he learned hypnotism from the Romani (who are once again reduced to magical plot device), uses it to erase my memory, and the credits roll as I fall into blissful unconsciousness. And I bet nobody ever pays me, either.

 

As ridiculous as the twists and turns of the plot are and as many liberties as it takes with the Phantom story (including the totally un-deformed title character!), this game is obviously a retelling of the venerable old saw, and well worth a play through, especially if you're into either hidden object games or unnecessary creepiness. 

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