Humans are such curious creatures. Often have I been called to their world when those who have not forgotten the old ways speak one of my many names. I am often summoned for death, but this time, the sorcerer that calls me has three such deeds in mind. No matter. While he thinks himself wise in the ways of my kind, I, too, yearn to find my own answers. Knowledge is power, and little does he realize that I hunger to feast upon any I can find.
Qasir Al-Wasat: A Night in-Between is an indie stealth title from Brazil's gaming scene and a first-time title for developer Aduge Studio. Put together over 16 months, it blends medieval Middle Eastern trappings with sneaky tricks weaving a mystery that might have amused Scheherazade.
You can snag the game at an indie site such as Desura or buy it directly from Aduge's site. It comes in at around 288 MB and includes a colorful PDF manual crammed with background on your character and the game world. A generous demo is also available, so you can try out a good chunk of the game before deciding if it is for you.
The adventure takes place in a desert in what is present-day Syria. It appears to be set during the medieval age of scimitars, veiled servants, and strange magicks. You're summoned to that world by Farid ibn Abihi al-Saahir, a sorcerer practiced in ways forbidden by Islam, who demands that you kill three servants within his palace. Once that is done, you will be sent back to your world. The price to be paid lies in the weapons that they have, each containing one part of a powerful poisonous formula that is of use to you.
It's not as simple as that. Although al-Saahir's request is direct and has bound you to do him no harm while you are on your errand, you have a lot of leeway in which to do what you must. That means exploring his palace to your heart's content. After all, he's a powerful sorcerer, and powerful sorcerers always have the most interesting things.
As Makhor, the spirit that al-Saahir has summoned, you're naturally invisible — a boon that could have come in handy in Looking Glass' Thief. The downside is that your footsteps make noise when you're careless. Splashing through pools of water can also draw attention. Devious traps that blow colored powder into the air can reveal your presence until you wash it off at a far-away pool beyond several guards and more than a few spiky traps. Using your claws to kill someone will paint him red.
The palace is far from empty. It's filled with quite a number of servants, not all of them human, and the deal al-Saahir has made with you is a secret to them all. He's not concerned with their lives, only that you fulfill your mission.
Qasir al-Wasat's striking 2-D world of painted and hand-drawn miniatures inspired by the ancient Arab and Persian world easily lends itself to the feeling of watching animated, illuminated pages within an old manuscript. Sounds play during text much like Japanese RPG developers used different tones to distinguish speakers within their own titles years ago. Music is nearly non-existent; instead, the minimalist approach to ear candy relies on environmental sounds and cues to build its atmosphere, and that works incredibly well. There's a subtle sense of seeing the world as Makhor does to give it a fantastic atmosphere.
The game uses a top-down view, and you'll be moving from room to room through doors that aren't always open. Observing guard routes, sneaking up close enough to catch conversations that might drop hints about what to do next, or simply watching to see what might happen all are all of the gameplay. Patience pays dividends — and keeps you moving through the game — because Makhor isn't a tough guy. Getting hit once will not only send him back to his world, but it'll also force him to be a slave to al-Saahir for all time. That's death in this game. Fortunately, well-placed checkpoints zap Makhor back to try again.
Depending on what you want to do, you might not see everything. After hitting the three targets, Makhor's pact concludes, and the game ends as he's sent back home. He even muses on this as a reminder to the player right before the point of no return. Indulging Makhor's quest for information opens up much more of game and reveals even more of the story.
Puzzles cover a wide range of challenges, including timed, spiked floors and musical tiles to spinning icons into place so that they unlock a magically sealed box that might contain more hints. Alchemical puzzles require you to mix and match pipe sections to create potions, and magic walls hide you but not the sounds you make are a few more of the challenges that you'll encounter in the game. Self-proclaimed ninjas should also know that it's possible to get through the entire game without killing anyone other than your targets. The manual points this out as an additional challenge.
The game can be an incredibly short few hours or take up to many more, depending on how you play things the first time around. It took me around eight hours to get through the game following the much longer route of prying into al-Saahir's secrets. The ending was satisfying, though I'm still itching to go through it again. The manual says that it's also possible to finish the game in as little as 35 minutes, a goal that might appeal to speedrun fanatics.
As fun as the game can be, it wasn't without certain issues, but nothing was game-breaking. Most of the English text was well written, though it and the manual could have used one more proofreading pass. Post-game, there's also little else for you to do other than going through the game again to experience the story or try to beat the 35-minute challenge, but there aren't any internal tools to help track these personal achievements.
On a technical level, Qasir al-Wasat ran smoothly on my aging dual-core PC with no crashes. It did chug at certain sections for no discernible reason but not during some of the more tension-filled sneak sequences. Guards or other moving NPCs would sometimes clip beneath certain props, like levers in the scene, and not every checkpoint was in a great spot. Sometimes I'd run back to a room to trigger the checkpoint after weaving through a puzzle simply because the game didn't opt to save a point there.
There's also no manual save, so you're stuck with one slot that will get overwritten if you start a new game. The good news is that I didn't encounter a place where I felt trapped by that decision, though I understand that not many people will like this setup. It's possible to make more save games for yourself with a little creative file copying, but on the whole, the game makes the checkpoints friendly enough that it's a non-issue.
Qasir Al-Wasat: A Night in-Between stealthily snuck on to my radar during Steam Greenlight, and I'm glad that it did. It is an amazingly fun and well-crafted adventure that delves into a rich backdrop of legend and myth that's infrequently visited by game developers. Couple that with simple gameplay and the tough puzzle challenges, and Qasir al-Wasat might just be the oasis that players desire.
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