Developer: Kheops Studio
Release Date: August 12, 2008
Dracula has been staked, burned, blown up, and done in a countless number of times in gaming history, but Microids' Dracula 3: The Path of the Dragon will take players on an investigative adventure to pry back the veil of mystery behind the legend. The two previous titles dealt directly with the legend, but with this third chapter, Microids has opted to take players into the 20th century, where myth has begun to give way to science and reason.
The title pulls few punches in getting off to a harrowing start in 1920 as Europe continues to recover from the horror of the Great War. As Father Arno Moriani, a member of the Vatican's Congregation of Rites, the player is sent to the Romanian village of Vladoviste to investigate a potential candidate for sainthood, Dr. Martha Caligarul, who had recently passed away and is being fast-tracked in order to help bolster Catholic support in the region. As the "devil's advocate," it is hoped that Moriani's research will provide an unbiased view in determining whether the local doctor has earned the right for canonization. His investigation concludes much faster than he thinks, but what he discovers beyond a simple errand for the Vatican will turn his world around and set him on the enigmatic Path of the Dragon in the search for truth.
Although Cthulhu might not be invited to this particular party, the feeling that something is lurking in the shadows escalates Dracula 3 into more than a typical adventure. The eerie, fog-shrouded streets of Vladoviste are shown off with considerable detail as they click to move from node to node and explore their surroundings in first-person view. The 360-degree view lets players sweep the camera around to poke at and prod potential clues. Many of the scenes are rendered in plenty of detail, from the rustic flavor of Vladoviste's village inn to the exotic collection of museum pieces in a professor's office in Budapest. Much of the game's atmosphere benefits from Kheops' work, all of it stitched together with well-acted cinematics that cling closely to the world of 1920s Europe. You look on as you change from an inquiring priest to an unlikely vampire hunter who tracks his quarry from the dark countryside of Transylvania to the mountains of Turkey.
In addition to the detailed environments, many of the characters have some strong voice acting behind them, especially Father Arno, who notably focuses on the pronunciation of many of the exotic names that come up in conversation. There is also quite a bit of ambiance, such as the sound of Father Arno's racing heartbeat when confronted with something unnerving. Music also creeps in at just the right moments to add another layer of tension to the scene, whether it was climbing through a dark cave or walking up to the ruins of a Vlad Tepes' ruined castle. The fortress looks like a broken skull that peers over the nearby mountain at the village below it; it's enough to make you feel that some dark, hidden places of the world should leave their secrets undisturbed.
Dracula 3's inventory screen, the in-game options, and most everything else is easily accessed with the right mouse button. Picking up objects is not enough in this game, as I was also responsible for taking them out of the "stack" of items, placing them in my inventory, and organizing it myself, which seemed to be an interesting twist. In-game notes also recorded all dialogue between Father Arno and everyone else, including his own commentary, so it's easy to refer back to clues that may have been missed. The game also collects all documents in one handy location, allowing you to organize them, flag them for importance, or peruse them whenever you feel the need. Clues such as drawings, paintings, and even photographs can be examined using a magnifying glass to see if there might be a hidden message buried within them.
But the best part about Dracula 3's presentation is in how it appears to seamlessly weave the history of the 1920s, occult references such as the Thule Society, and the cold touch of classical horror into the narrative and the atmospheric puzzles filling it. The game appears to look at the history of vampirism by balancing theories from both science and the history that Father Arno is unraveling; it all blends together in a compelling tale that can feel part Indiana Jones and part Sherlock Holmes.
Many of the puzzles, from drawing your own blood to breaking codes, appear to depend more on what you have in your head than what you've got in your inventory, which is something of a welcome relief. Some puzzles allow you to bypass their challenges, especially if your grasp of Latin isn't all that great, and gathered clues even list the location of where you'd found them for easy reference. Documents collected range from simple notes to a complete copy of a Latin Bible that you can consult for clues, including the entirety of Bram Stoker's "Dracula" if you feel up for a little light reading.
The engrossing story seems to play quite a bit with its material in creating an oppressive, horror-tinged feeling. At the edge of your thoughts is that there is something very wrong as Dr. Caligarul's story takes on a more sinister twist. It's a little early for Halloween, but Dracula 3: Path of the Dragon seems to beg to be played with the windows shuttered, doors locked, lights turned down, and your speakers turned up. Many of today's adventure titles may have done away with accidentally dying after trying something that would obviously lead to a bad end, but Dracula 3 kept me on the edge of my seat, making me wonder if the next step may be my last. Get ready to be terrified when the game hits store shelves next month.
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