Perhaps the only thing more immortal than Dracula himself is the endlessly exploitable franchise that has spawned in his name. Ever since Bram Stoker cranked out his novel about the long-fanged, blood-sucking creature of the night, Dracula has been brought back from the dead time and time again to appear in books, films and video games. From breakfast cereal to children's math tutors, we've seen every kind of vampire from the super-trendy and angst-ridden, to the low-budget blaxploitation. Frogwares' upcoming release, Dracula: Origin, returns to the source material to bring us a traditional point-and-click gothic adventure game where vampires are genuinely old-school. They're repulsed by garlic, allergic to holy water, have no reflections, and can only be killed the good old-fashioned way — with a sharp, pointy stick to the chest.
You play as Professor Van Helsing, a man obsessed with eliminating the dark stain of vampire activity from the earth. His story begins in the dimly lit streets of Victorian London amid a slew of newspaper stories reporting on a series of mysterious deaths occurring around the city. Something about how all the victims are found with two puncture marks on their necks registers on Van Helsing's vampire hunter radar, and he sets out to stop the undead scourge before it's too late.
The interface is a no-nonsense, point-and-click affair. The context-sensitive cursor changes over interactive hotspots to an eye if you can look at it, or a hand if you can use or pick it up. You can double-click on available exits to zip around between different environments. Right-clicking brings up your case file from which you can access newspaper clippings and other articles you've picked up during your vampire hunt. Unlike some other adventure games, where articles exist only to fill in parts of the story, the press stories were actually an integral part of some of the game's puzzles, which means you'll have to read them for detail, not just scan or file under "Forget."
Your case file also contains transcripts of all your conversations with the various characters, as well as Reports, which are your character's observations on how best to proceed with the story. This is as close to a clue or hint that the game offers, as there is very little in the way of hand-holding for adventure game newbies. In fact, the puzzles start off on the more challenging side, but thankfully are always at least rooted in some kind of logic and are generally satisfying to solve. In the preview we played, there was a slight emphasis on math-based riddles. There was also at least one instance where I spent a little too long hunting around for a not-so-obvious hotspot. A nice feature that's showing up in plenty of adventure games and that would help avoid this tedious game of hide-and-seek would be a single key press that reveals all of the interactive hot spots.
The inventory system, also accessed via right-click, is a little confusing at first. You can select inventory items, but you can't get any detail on them, and you also can't go around trying to use them wherever you like in the game world. They will only work with the object they were designed to be used with, and this lack of negative feedback might seem a little unusual to adventure gamers who are used to being told, "I can't use the Hammer of Thor with that." Inventory items appear in the top right corner of the screen when active, but it wasn't clear how you were expected to interact with the item. You'll also need to combine objects in this game, and this involves a much simpler drag-and-click mechanic.
The preview level restricted gameplay to London, where we got to plot vampire movements on a map in a luxurious Victorian mansion and loiter in a graveyard puzzling through a lot of locked doors. The graphics are clear and crisp, with a nice degree of realism but maybe lacking in some of the visual steroids that benchmark games seem to be pumped up with these days such as bloom, dynamic lighting and particle effects. Perhaps knowing he's the star of a gothic vampire slaying tale, Van Helsing is dressed for the occasion with a long, black overcoat and equally austere waistcoat looking slightly like the creatures he's out to kill.
The professor is supposed to be Dutch, and the voice actor does actually sound a little bit like the Dutch-accented guy at the online speech accent archive. There was also a grave digger laying on the Cockney accent a bit too thick and a lady who did a decent job of a posh English accent. The music fit perfectly well with the themes by bringing in moody and melancholic strings, but the sound effects were a bit sparse, and some additions here could help fill out the atmosphere.
Dracula: Origin is the first game that I've seen to date that uses the word "ululating" and almost expects you to know what it means, which I'm going to say is a good thing for the brainiacs and walking dictionaries out there. The preview build only offered a very brief introductory glimpse of the total adventure, but Frogwares is promising something of an epic tale that moves to the Egyptian Necropolis, a Viennese palace, a cursed monastery and finally Dracula's famous lair. With its challenging puzzles and intriguing premise based on a classic horror story, Dracula: Origin is already showing plenty of potential for adventure game fans.
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