Publisher: The Adventure Company
Developer: Autumn Moon Entertainment
Release Date: December 2, 2008
During the heyday of PC adventure gaming, LucasArts was one of the premier names in the business. Many adventures today are often compared to the benchmarks made by titles such as Sam & Max or Full Throttle, which had leapt out from the wild imaginations of Sean Clark, Noah Falstein, Steve Purcell and Michael Stemmle, among countless others. Although the genre has continued to maintain a strong following today in regions such as Europe, when the focus of the company and the market in North America began to shift away from adventures, many felt that it was the end of an era.
Several former LucasArts alumni would continue to spin their stories by striking out on their own. Tim Schafer went on to found Double Fine Productions, responsible for Psychonauts. Sam & Max would return in episodic format, thanks to Steve Purcell and another group of LucasArts expatriates at Telltale Games. When Bill Tiller quit his job at EA to found Autumn Moon Entertainment in order to keep the adventure flame burning, he would eventually gather several former LucasArts veterans such as Will Eaken and Anson Jew to help create A Vampyre Story.
It's 1895 in Draxsylvania, where Mona de Lafitte, an aspiring opera singer, languishes in a gilded cage thanks to being turned into a vampire before being whisked away by the nefarious Baron Shrowdy von Kiefer. Although allowed to wander around her new home, Castle Warg, she is never allowed to leave and is a virtual prisoner alongside her only friend, Froderick, a wisecracking bat. One night, the baron heads out to find Mona some fine "merlot" to drink and unexpectedly meets the pointy end of a sharpened stake.
Mona sees her chance at freedom, and with the player's help, she might actually make it back to Paris in order to become the opera diva that she has always aspired to be. There are a few problems, though. For one thing, Mona doesn't think that she's a vampire, only "cursed"; Froderick often tries to convince her otherwise, but to no great success. Secondly, the castle in which they are stuck is on an island in the middle of a lake, filled with its own challenges, and Mona is unable to fly over water because of her "curse." Getting out is the first order of business, which turns out to be far more complicated than Mona first realizes.
While a few adventure games, such as Revolution's Broken Sword series, eventually eschewed 2-D backdrops in favor of 3-D sets, Autumn Moon's artists have opted to stick to their brushes with fantastic results. The paint-like visuals are a loving tribute to the whimsical, artistic stylings of earlier LucasArts signature pieces, and they should be collected in an art design book the same way that Japanese game companies issue special editions of their own work for fans. The art direction easily defines the world and the characters with plenty of detail, whether Mona delicately saunters across the screen as the opera prima donna that she is trying to be, or when she explores a secret, demonic laboratory hidden deep within the castle itself. There is some 3-D at work, such as Mona's character, but the effects blend in nearly seamlessly against everything else.
Mona seems to be a cross between Meg Ryan's "Anastasia" and Jessica from "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?", which makes for an interesting character — until she opens her mouth. I'm not sure what they were aiming for here, but jouncing back and forth between French and Brooklyn accents may work in a Bugs Bunny cartoon, but it grated on my ears and made me wish that they had found one of the actresses who had voiced Broken Sword's French freelance reporter, Nico, instead. On the plus side, every other character had spot-on performances, such as a snooty gargoyle, a rat pack, and especially Froderick. Topping that off is Pedro Macedo Camacho's score, composed of a haunting mix of operatic organ music and atmospheric pieces that bring each painted scene plenty of ear candy … once I was able to hear any of it.
A Vampyre Story was rife with issues right from the outset, even after installing the newest patch. Sound was missing during the introductory movie, and it didn't play during the game, which was the first warning sign. After some sleuthing, I found that I had to reduce my sound acceleration in DirectX to Basic, which fixed the problem. But this isn't a free pass for the game, since I never had to do this for anything I've played until now. On a system that can run Fallout 3, Red Alert 3, Crysis or freeware games without having to delve into DirectX, this doesn't make much sense. I worry for the users without any technical background who may run into this problem and not know where to look for the answers.
I didn't find that solution on the official forums, which seem to be less than helpful, and if you have dual monitors, that's another problem to deal with. A post on the same issue went on without a reply at the time of this review, so instead of playing the game on the monitor I wanted, it was on the secondary monitor instead. I could have unhooked the monitor and forced the feed to my main screen, but that's asking too much for something that shouldn't even be an issue. It's like removing half of your desk space because the office mail continues to hit the side that you don't like. I had to put up with the occasional Alt-Tab moment as the game minimized itself whenever my cursor would click too far off the left side of the screen, but the best was yet to come. More on that later.
A Vampyre Story plays much like your typical point-and-click adventure title as players guide Mona through each scene in order to collect clues, combine items, talk to gargoyles and other inanimate objects such as torture devices and stuffed heads, and generally figure out puzzles along the way. Mona is even able to fly as a bat to access certain areas, another benefit of the "curse" that she's under, or team up with Froderick to work out some of the puzzles.
Much of the humor can feel like a LucasArts homecoming, although the wordiness of the some of the jokes and dialogue occasionally drags down the flow of the story. References to modern pop culture, both on- and offline, are everywhere ensuring that there's a little humor for everyone. If you know who Leroy Jenkins is and what he has to do with World of Warcraft, then your funny bone will be in good company. Even if you don't, there's plenty of subtle wit hiding in the dialogue.
The interface keeps out of sight, allowing you to savor the gloomy visuals. Holding down the left mouse button will bring up a four-way cross interface where you can decide what you want Mona to do with a particular item or NPC. Right-clicking the mouse displays an open coffin acting as the inventory screen, filled with everything Mona has collected. Certain items that are too big to lug around take on the form of blue icons, indicating an idea that she has for a certain action, which is a nicely method that sidesteps the issue of Mona carrying a small warehouse in her gown. Using the Tab key also highlights all of the hotspots on the screen to show players what they can interact with, and saves are handled by hitting the Esc key to bring up the system menu and click "Save."
Moving around is handled by simply clicking where you want Mona to go, and the space bar warps her over to where you left-clicked, if you don't feel like waiting. The space bar is also helpful for speeding through dialogue that you may have already heard before, and right-clicking on an area's exit arrows warps Mona to the next scene. One thing I noticed is that there is an occasional delay in the transition between scenes and going back and forth from the inventory, and it would've been nice to at least remap the spacebar to one of the mouse buttons to keep from feeling as if I were flip-flopping between the two.
The puzzles vary between simple trial and error, item-based solutions with only one or two steps to convoluted conundrums with subtle clues to their solution strewn throughout Mona or Froderick's voiced observations. What might not turn out to be particularly important in terms of dialogue at one point may be the key to solving a particular puzzle later, although some players may be caught completely off-guard by how innocuous some of these leads are, which blend as easily into the amusing story as its characters do against the lush environment. Certain options are also not revealed until Mona talks to someone about it, even though you might intuitively know what has to be done. Unfortunately, as enjoyable as most of the tour through Castle Warg was with my friend from Brooklyn, my journey through the game would come to a brutally technical dead end.
At one point in the game, Mona finds a perfume bottle and needs to empty it in order to use the receptacle for another puzzle. There is another item that also refills it and, being the overly cautious adventurer that I am, I did. The bad news is that, according to online posts that I was forced to consult after attempting to figure out the problem for over an hour, this breaks the bottle puzzle because now Mona won't empty it anymore. The worst part is that the most recent patch was supposed to fix this issue, and re-applying it didn't help. Another solution pointed to editing one of the game files, but the variable I needed wasn't there, and experimentation with the other settings did nothing else, aside from raising my frustration level.
This is one of the worst things to experience in a game because there's no error message to inform the player that this might be a problem, only a confusing condition that may be misconstrued as another puzzle with no possible solution until the player has no choice but to look for help. A Vampyre Story isn't unique in being the only title to have such a game-breaking bug as subtle as this one, but it's still an inexcusable issue in any genre when it keeps the player from progressing. It casts doubt on the integrity of the rest of the gameplay, especially when puzzles are at its core.
I don't know how the game ends because at this point, I couldn't go any further. I haven't had to replay a title because of a game-stopping bug since Ubisoft's Warrior Within when it changed my character into a shadow monster for no reason after I restored a save, which made the rest of the game unplayable, only to have it happen again upon replay. No player should put up with this for any game. Others have apparently managed to play through Mona's trip without encountering this issue, but for this adventurer, the story ends here.
The real shame is that in many ways, what I had played hearkens back to when LucasArts made the rounds among armchair adventurers alongside Sierra and Legend, carving its name into the genre with classics such as Day of the Tentacle, Curse of Monkey Island, Maniac Mansion and my personal favorite, Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis. Having come from the imagination of a few of LucasArts alums, A Vampyre Story had the potential to spin a gothic comedy steeped in that tradition, which my score reflects. But I won't recommend half a game to players.
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