Whether you're watching Bela Lugosi at his black-and-white best or whipping your way across Konami's Castlevania as a member of the Belmont family, Dracula's versatility as an iconic villain has run the gamut from a tragic, lovelorn figure to someone who seeks to destroy the world. Frogwares, probably best known for its Sherlock Holmes adventure series, has added its own twist to the mythos surrounding Vlad Tepes with Dracula: Origin, a title that takes a slightly different look at how he came to be the granddaddy of all vampires.
Players star as Van Helsing, who has just received word from Jonathan Harker, which can only mean that he has failed to stop Dracula. As the story begins, we're led to deduce that Van Helsing has been on the hunt for the infamous count and that Harker was sent to follow a lead about where the nefarious vampire may be hiding. Unfortunately, as Van Helsing finds in the opening moments of the game, Harker won't be coming back anytime soon due to excessive blood loss. That leaves the self-appointed vampire hunter to continue the chase on his own while making sure that no harm comes to Mina, Harker's beloved.
Frogwares' take on Bram Stoker's Dracula has created a chase filled with evil henchmen, mysterious powers, and even a touch of Lovecraftian horror, making their version of the immortal vampire irredeemably evil. It doesn't follow the book, so fans who were hoping for a faithful look at the original story might be disappointed, but it does provide plenty of fiction to chew on, with Van Helsing's adventures in faraway places such as Cairo, Egypt, and even Vienna, the capital of the Austrian Empire.
Despite having an interesting story with dramatic cut scenes underlining important points, it can feel as if much of Dracula: Origin was pulled straight out of a B movie. It'll leave you wondering how smart these characters really are when Van Helsing shows up in Egypt without knowing how to speak the language while hoping to run into someone who speaks his. Dracula himself is reduced to something of a simple villain who's in league with unspeakable evil instead of the suave, smart vampire that some may envision him to be. Despite the material in the game that tries to give reason to his madness, it isn't convincing enough to make him seem more than your typical madman. This is slightly disappointing to see in comparison to Van Helsing's unwavering conviction while he pursues his quarry.
NPCs that Van Helsing will run into will deliver hints and suggestions for what the vampire hunter has to do next. The voice acting is able, although the dialogue is something of a mixed bag. Not all of the characters are acted well, including Count Dracula himself, whose forced accent can ham up a scene.
Visually, Dracula: Origin is beautifully rendered in 3-D with plenty of details, whether it's a graveyard littered with tombstones, the richly appointed room of an Austrian duchess, or the vampire lord's depraved demesne, complete with ruined stone and blood-stained floors. The character models tell the story with animated gestures as they try to lip-synch their lines, although it can be somewhat bizarre to see Van Helsing pull giant axes, planks and shovels from his ever-present long coat. A variety of haunting tunes fills the production and adds quite a bit of atmosphere to each scene, from Middle Eastern-styled tunes while in Egypt to darkly haunting tracks while in Transylvania.
Players familiar with adventure games will find themselves in familiar territory here as they point and click across scenes in an effort to find items and solve puzzles. Hitting the space bar will highlight everything in a particular scene that you can interact with, much like how Dreamfall and a few other adventures have done, keeping the pixel-hunting to a minimum. Right-clicking brings up a simple menu that gives you access to his inventory; from here, you can mix together parts to create items that can be used to solve puzzles, review NPC chats for clues, and analyze reports and news clippings that Van Helsing may have picked up along the way to unravel each mystery.
Van Helsing will usually offer up his thoughts on clickable items in each scene with a simple statement or two, or he might get his hands dirty if it happens to be a puzzle. Traveling from scene to scene is handled by clicking on a shoe icon at the edge of the screen if it appears, and double-clicking instantly zaps him into the next area if you don't want to wait for him to walk. This doesn't work all the time, however, and you may be forced to wait as he walks the entire distance.
While talking with NPCs is pretty much a straightforward affair and picking up everything that isn't nailed down is practically a given, Van Helsing will also run into puzzles that the player will need to help him figure out. Most of the puzzles in Dracula: Origin revolve around Van Helsing's collection of goodies, but there are a few that will test your mettle instead of seeing how many different combinations you can try with your items. Memory puzzles, number-based riddles, and one or two others that rely on knowledge outside of the game will take up most of Van Helsing's time. Early on, these brain teasers are somewhat infrequent, but by the time you reach your final destination, they come at you in nearly every scene and are accompanied by increasingly obscure clues.
Most of these are creative twists to the environment and make sense, but there are a few that simply feel as if they were pulled from Frogwares' puzzle book and then stuck into a particular scene because the designers didn't want to make it too easy. One of the more bizarre puzzles is a lock for a crypt that you encounter near the end of the game; it resembles something that you might see Milton Bradley offer up instead of what you might find within the dark recesses of a medieval castle.
The overall challenge of the game feels aimed at the casual adventurer who isn't afraid to take a few notes and deal with the occasional bizarre puzzle or two. Many of the puzzles follow a comfortably logical flow that won't recognize a solution that exists at the edge of reason, but some of the solutions don't make a whole lot of sense, considering some of the situations in which Van Helsing will find himself. In one puzzle, the vampire hunter had to figure out how to drain a cask of wine so that he could hide in it on the way to Castle Dracula — without leaving behind any evidence. One item that was used to solve this bit of MacGyverism shouldn't logically work with the rest of the assembled parts, but it did only because of judicious item clicking. Another instance involved a mysterious tomb that Van Helsing had to find, and after doing an errand to get the name of the place where it might be located, he simply "finds" it. I understand that it might have taken another adventure to find a tomb like this, but the way the game presents it is that anyone can find a hidden tomb by simply saying, "Egypt" and going there. Take that, Howard Carter!
Van Helsing will also let the player know if there is something else that he needs to do before leaving a particular area, but it might not be obvious as to what that might be, just that he's missing some "information." His journal won't keep updated notes about what he has to do next, so players will need to keep on their toes to keep up with the game events to avoid getting stuck. He'll also let players know if a door is locked, or if he doesn't need to pick up or do anything in particular with something that you might find interesting.
Van Helsing may chase Dracula all over Europe in an attempt to save a dear friend from the clutches of immortal evil, but Dracula: Origin is remarkably short. Even Dracula's castle comes off as a tiny hovel because there are only a handful of rooms to explore. Veteran adventurers can get through this title in less than a few days of dedicated puzzle-solving, but Origin's entertaining take on the vampire lord and his nemesis easily provides hours of atmospheric fiction. Its simple approach to gameplay, along with the promise of a sequel at the end, make Origin a good start for Frogwares' newest storytelling venture.
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