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PC Preview - 'Overclocked'

by Alan Butterworth on March 11, 2008 @ 4:45 a.m. PDT

Overclocked, developed by House of Tales team, known for The Moment of Silence, is a psychological thriller which uses many technical innovations and a surprising narrative approach to form an eerily real gaming experience.

Genre: Adventure
Publisher: Lighthouse Interactive
Developer: House of Tales
Release Date: March 31, 2008

Despite its title, which suggests it might be a game aimed at PC hobbyists where you push up the front side bus of your high-performance computer trying to squeeze every last megahertz out of your CPU, Overclocked is actually a psychological adventure game from the same developers who brought us the point-and-click techno-thriller, The Moment of Silence.

On a gray day in New York, the rain is falling in sheets as a semi-naked woman strides through the busy crowds holding a gun. At an intersection, she starts screaming and firing the weapon into the air. She is one of five deeply troubled teenagers who have suddenly turned up out of nowhere without identities or stories to explain why. These individuals, all apparently one sandwich short of a picnic, are bought to a mental hospital on Staten Island, where they sit around completely catatonic, oblivious to the world around them.

You play as David McNamara, a former army psychologist who is recruited to try to discover what events conspired to make them so intensely traumatized. David's psychological specialty is a sort of regressive memory reconstruction where therapy comes about through encouraging the patients to relive their distressing experiences. And in case all that sounds way too academic, he also dangles pendulums in front of people's faces. In this way, Overclocked gradually retells the story of what happened to the five teenagers in reverse, starting with their most recent memories and working back toward the revelation. It's an interesting narrative technique that is a bit like putting together a jigsaw puzzle without knowing what the original picture looks like.

Fans of the TV series "Lost" will recognize the way that these flashbacks work to fill in the gaps in the storyline, and as if in homage to the series, the game uses the close-up of an eye as a recurring motif. The title might be fairly dull if all you did was prompt people to tell stories, and happily, it doesn't stop there. Once a patient is provoked to tell his or her story, you take over that character in the memory sequence and have to run through some reasonably simple puzzles to reconstruct the story. This means that you get to play as a total of six different characters through the game. To top it all off, it turns out your own character has some ghosts in his own closet, with an impending divorce and barely concealed alcoholism.

Chances are that if you've even read this far, you don't get all your gaming thrills from twitch-factor, run-and-gun gameplay. As an adventure gamer, you can probably appreciate the merits of a decent storyline and have the sort of patience that allows you to wade through reams of dialogue without desperately pressing buttons. Even for patient adventure games, Overclocked veers toward the slow end of the scale, with plenty of chat that aims to flesh out characters and paint backgrounds. With its emphasis on cut scenes and long conversations, it sometimes it feels more like a slightly interactive graphic novel than an adventure game. Of course, this is going to be welcome news for those of you who hate the bizarre logic that inhabits some adventure games, where you have to pick up every available red herring and combine them into makeshift tools to get anywhere. Be assured that there is no need to use the maple syrup with the cat hair to make a fake moustache in this game.

That isn't to say that there are no puzzles in Overclocked, but that they take a backseat to the slowly unraveling plot. A lot of the brainwork goes in to getting the kids to open up and tell their stories. Especially in the beginning, they need triggers to help them invigorate their memories. To help you with this, you have a PDA that doubles as a phone and journal. Every conversation you have with the kids is recorded automatically on your PDA, and one recollection can act as a memory trigger when played back for another patient. The trick is to try to relate stories between the five different patients and play the right recording to the right patient at the right time. This somewhat-tricky endeavor starts off logically enough. If another patient is referenced in a recording, there's a good probability that playing the recording back to that patient will do the trick. But this isn't always the case, especially in later chapters, where they try to ramp up the difficulty.

Overclocked is structured into chapters, each of which recounts a day in McNamara's life, from when he wakes to when he hits the sack. He won't go to sleep until you've fulfilled a somewhat hard-to-fathom series of plot-related actions. For example, toward the end of one day, I tried to go to the bar, but was told that maybe he should go to bed sober today. Fair enough. I tried to go to bed, but was told that he didn't want to sleep now. This led to much confused wandering around, trying to figure out what was left to do before I could end the chapter. It turns out that he wanted to phone some friends first. After his lengthy phone call, I tried to put him to bed again, but still something was left undone. Now he needed a drink at the bar. Of course! This sort of arbitrary logic and linearity pops up in many places in the game, but it's an aspect —such as picking up every available red herring — to which adventure fans have long become accustomed.

The interface is intuitive, but there isn't much real estate for gameplay space, with large letterboxes on the top and bottom where the inventory is always visible. If you have subtitles enabled, you can skip the vocals by pressing the Escape key, but you can't do that same in conversations, where pressing Escape will instead only give you the option to skip the entire conversation. In places, the English appears to fall into the translation vortex, such as when you "eavesdrop" on the answering machine or "consider" the bed.

Even though there aren't all that many locations, the environments look great and are suitably bleak. The perpetual drumming rainfall creates a pervasive damp that gets to your bones, and the Victorian mental hospital is the classic dilapidated institution that looks more like a place to be forgotten than to receive treatment. The character models are a little crude, and facial animation could use some help since they tend to look the same whether they are shouting, angry, happy or sad. The music is very effective in setting the mood and tone, with some great haunting piano melodies and edgy sound effects that could be nails scraping down a blackboard.

Overclocked's strengths are a reasonably intriguing plot and unique narrative structure that holds your attention and builds up toward a revelation that aims to explore the complex theme of violence. It feels a lot like a slow movie with plenty of characterization, dialogue and atmospherics and should hopefully appeal to adventure gamers yearning for a decent plot and tired of artificially induced brain teasers. It shares many features with the developer's previous game, The Moment of Silence, including the pace and presentation. If you enjoyed that game, chances are that you won't be disappointed with Overclocked.

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