Publisher: The Adventure Company
Developer: Streko Graphics
Release Date: July 3, 2007
Consider the enchanting island of Dead Reefs for your next romantic getaway. Located miles away from civilization in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic Ocean, Dead Reefs is named for the razor-sharp rocks ringing the island. You might consider the following itinerary:
Day 1: After breakfast with the suspicious taciturn locals, take a short walk through the damp-infested deserted streets to the shore to peer at the persistent banks of thick fog and shiver in the clammy damp weather. If you're lucky, you might see the silhouettes of ancient shipwrecks, victims of pirates who centuries ago would light false signal fires to deliberately lure unsuspecting ships onto the dangerous rocks. The holds would be plundered and looted for treasure before the sailors were wantonly slaughtered. Legend has it that one such unfortunate ship held monks transporting an ancient relic. They met the same fate as ships before them but soon after the relic was acquired, residents of the island started dying in mysterious ways, once every nine years.
Day 2: Let's face it, who would want to stay more than one day on Dead Reefs? If you're Sir Amadeo Finvinerro, you don't really have a choice. As a brilliant and dashing detective, you are sent by order of His Majesty from the mainland to investigate the death of Patrick Wyndham, son of a wealthy estate owner on the island. Amadeo is armed with a cane, a serious manner and a healthy skepticism for the locals and their deluded talk of ghosts, curses and mysterious goings on.
The Adventure Company's Dead Reefs is a third-person perspective adventure game that comes with a great background story and perhaps the best melding of genres since romance met comedy — the pirate/horror adventure. When I am king, all games will be of the pirate/horror adventure genre with a healthy dose of zombies thrown in for good measure. With such a great start, it's a shame that things start to trundle downhill shortly after.
One of the key weaknesses is the convoluted control system which is based entirely around the keyboard. You navigate your character using the WASD keys and interact with the world using the arrow keys based on various hotspots. This is awkward at best and takes some getting used to, but even by the end of the game, I was still tripping over keys, running into walls and making useless gestures with my mouse. Even worse is the needlessly complex way of combining items for which I had to commit a blasphemous act unheard of since 1998 and consult the game manual for help.
In the game's favor, the graphics hold up fairly well. The well-drawn scenery is bathed in various hues of gray and brown perfectly capturing the damp, drab environment of an 18th-century costal village. The third-person view works well mostly without the usual complaints of stuck cameras, or obscure angles that can plague this perspective. If you really get stuck, you can hit X and the view will switch to a fixed first-person perspective with the added bonus that in-game interactive hotspots are highlighted with a big creepy eye, meaning you can altogether avoid playing hunt-the-hotspot. Despite the good in-game art, the animation is sparse with a few seagulls, or leaves falling from a tree such that you feel like you're running through a cardboard cut-out set instead of an immersive living and breathing world.
The atmosphere doesn't provoke as much tingling of your spine as you suspect the designers wanted to. It doesn't get much grimmer than waltzing around graveyards in the middle of the night, or exploring crypts, yet you never end up feeling particularly frightened, even with the added help from playing alone with headphones and the lights off at night. Part of the problem is that the game recycles so many of the classic conventions from the horror genre that it starts to feel less terrifying and more campy than it probably ought to. There are the superstitious agitated villagers and their distrust and ominous warnings, a haunted mansion with askew paintings and a butler who knows more than he lets on, and even a crooked-nosed witch who lurks in graveyards handing out real magic potions like a stranger dispensing candy. The game is loaded with such clichés that dampen the sense of horror and unintentionally create a kind of subdued comedy. The only thing missing are pirate clichés, which is a shame because I like my pirates to be shamelessly over-the-top "yo-ho-ho" types swigging grog and doing jigs atop of dead men's chests.
Unfortunately, the voice acting does little to make up for the absence of shanty-singing sea dogs. While other characters are at least passable, the protagonist, Amadeo, is voiced in a fashion that is drier than the sands of the Kalahari and veers between sounding bored, to sounding as if he's poking fun at the entire enterprise. Rather better is the melancholy and subdued orchestral soundtrack that does a great job at making the mood as damp as the salty sea air.
Dead Reefs unfortunately progresses in an overly linear fashion, leading you from scene to scene without much latitude to color outside of the lines so that you end up feeling like you're turning the pages of a book instead of taking part in an interactive fiction. There is one point in the game where your choice will affect the outcome but instead of a fork in the plot, it is merely a lead to an alternative ending. In other places, the game relies on triggers so you must complete certain events before you can progress with others; this tightly scripted manner of gameplay is highly artificial in nature and can be very frustrating.
The puzzles are largely fairly simple, especially for seasoned adventure game fans who will find little here that is very challenging and will probably be finished with it in a little under 10 hours. A few of the riddles are refreshingly original to the point of truly bizarre, such as the one involving an electric eel and a corpse. On the other hand, some puzzles are more familiar than Billy Crystal Oscar appearances, requiring you to obtain a certain amount of liquid from three other differently sized containers. Rather stupidly, the containers are marked with measurements so you wouldn't actually need to sit around all day pouring liquids from one beaker to the other.
Nagging aside, this really is one puzzle that needs to be retired to prevent chronic déjà vu in adventure gamers. Dead Reefs also suffers from an acute case of repetitive locked-door-it is, which while helping to keep the game on track and preventing you from chasing red herrings, also leaves you feeling claustrophobic and more like a monkey in a cage, stuck until you push the right combination of buttons to satisfy your trainer.
The delivery of Dead Reefs fails to live up to the promise of its strong background story and intriguingly themed premise. While the crisp graphics hold up their end, the story deflates through a series of recycled clichés and a gradually diminishing sense of drama and excitement to a rather unsatisfying short — and somewhat hysterical — conclusion that leaves you feeling your time could have been better spent watching folk dance. Hardcore fans of the genre already subsist on such a meager diet of releases that they will mostly take anything that comes along anyway, but others would be advised to take a visit to Dead Reefs off their list of vacation hotspots.
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