December 20, 2006
A new detective adventure game set in 1920’s Montreal has come to us from Absurdus, a small development company located in Montreal, Quebec. In it, you walk in the shoes of Edgar Delacroix, a small town man moving into the big city to seek his fortune. His first job is as an assistant for a private investigator. The game boasts a black and white film noire feel and cinemascope format.
For those not familiar with cinemascope, it is basically a widescreen 2.35:1 picture aspect ratio. While this might sound intriguing, the net result is that you’ll find a lot of empty black real estate on your standard monitor that never gets put to use. Even so, you would think that with the lower resource requirements of not having to fill the screen could have been put to better use by maybe upping the resolution of the game to sharpen things up a bit. As it stands, the game runs at 800x600 but the game images themselves are only 800x340 centered on a black screen. Maybe I’m being too technical or nitpicky here, but there is a point to this. Read on…
Keep it simple
The mouse pointer is relatively large, blocky and never changes when over hotspots. Instead, a typed message appears under the game image to let you know you can click there. This will bring up a menu of choices such as talk or examine. It must be noted that you will only get a listing of actions you can perform. There is also no turning or looking closer at a spot. When you are at a location, you will see the entire room and do your investigations from that one perspective.
You get around by clicking on a map of Montreal and new locations open up as your investigations progress. In total there are 14 different areas to go to and you will visit each one – a lot.
One Giant Dialog Tree
While many people are not very crazy about dialog trees, imagine a game that is entirely structured just like one. There isn’t much decision making to be done here. You pretty much run around and exhaust your options. As you gather inventory items, they become a part of the menu of choices when you click a hotspot. Not your entire list of inventory items, just the ones that will work. For example, (and this is not in the game) let’s say you have a locked box you want to open and you have hammer, a crowbar, a hacksaw, and a key. Instead of being able to pick your inventory item and trying to use it on the box, you instead click on the box and the menu will give you the following options – look, hacksaw.
Just like in dialog rich games, when something new is discovered you’ll find yourself revisiting every location and clicking every hot spot to see if a new option is available on the menu there. This means you will be seeing the same screens over and over and over…
This style greatly weakened the potential gameplay. As long as you clicked on every hotspot and exhausted the menu options, you would eventually reach the end with no real challenges. This makes the game incredibly easy, yet very monotonous.
Bouts of Brilliance
Where this game shines is in its dialogs and the cutscenes. As someone who dislikes long-winded speech in games, these were thankfully very brief. This game is packed with some serious humor and many times I found myself laughing out loud at the insanity of it all. If not for the gameplay issues (in that there really wasn’t any gameplay), I would have thoroughly enjoyed myself with this game. The characters are quite unique and crazy and the cutscenes were well done.
I have to admit though that the first part of this game was quite difficult to play. It was for the most part pretty boring with not much really happening. Ironically, when the plot thickened, your character even says something to the effect of “now things are getting interesting (its about time!)” Heck, it was like the developers themselves were admitting that the first half of the game kind of sucked. So why didn’t they try to improve it?
Another unique feature was in the characters skills that get developed during the game such as spying, ventriloquism, persuasion, deduction, etc. Unfortunately, to bring these up you had to try them on certain people – in the right order. The skills became a mini-game of finding the right sequence. For example if you wanted to bring up your ventriloquism skill from 1 to 7, you had to try it on person A, D, C, F, E, B and in that order. Once you found the right person to bring it up a point, you then had to go revisit the others again to see which one would bring it up a second point. You don’t need to visit the same person again once you got a point from them, but as is the style of this game, you’ll find yourself revisiting locations and talking to the same people repeatedly.
You also get to save your character at the end of the game and reuse them on future episodes so you can continue to improve your stats.
Oh Those Voices…
There are some issues with the voices in this game. Bizarre ones in fact. On a few occasions it seems they spliced another voice actor into a characters speech. Seriously, right in the middle of a conversation. The boss of the detective agency was talking, and then suddenly a different voice read the last sentence. I ran it three times to see if I was confused. Then there were the female voices. I swear it had to be men who tried to sound like women that did two of them. One voice in particular was so over the top grating that it was painful to listen to, never mind even trying to understand it.
That Nitpicky Thing
I started this review talking about possibly being a bit too technical and nitpicky when I talked about the resource space they gained with the cinemascope format and not choosing to up the resolution a bit. Well, you sese, this game is small and pretty short. You are looking at about 5-6 hours of gameplay without a walkthrough simply by going through it and exhausting all of the menu options. Add in that there are 14 locations, which might seem like a lot, but most of them consist of onescreen. In total I counted less than total 25 screens. Make that sparsely detailed screens. I could understand the lower resolution if - like many other adventure games - there were 100’s and even 1000’s of screen images, but there were less than 25 here. It’s not like they were hurting for space to fit it all on a CD. The full install on my hard drive took just a bit over 400 Megs uncompressed and that included all of the movies and dialogs.
Normally I probably wouldn’t even have brought that up, but for one thing that I am scratching my head over – the price. It’s retailing in the UK at £26.99, that’s around $50 USD! I understand people do pay more in the UK so I did a quick comparison look up for recently released Barrow Hill and it retails for £16.99 (around $30 USD). The game does come with a free (worth £19.99) USB Drive (while supplies last – yes, you have to send in for it after purchasing the game), but I suspect that it really isn’t free based on what they are selling this game at…
I think if this game was selling in the $10-$15 range it would have been easier to overlook many of the games shortcomings – you get what you pay for – but at the selling price of this title, they become monumental issues that can’t be ignored. At its current price range, you expect a lengthy and highly polished game - something this game is definitely not. It’s also only Episode One. While you will find that the game can be played by itself, there is a bigger plot that begins near the beginning of this game that never gets resolved leaving you with a feeling of a job unfinished.
Based on the JA review grading system, this game falls squarely into the “Get this game from the discount bin. The store should be encouraged that it won't lose money on adventure games, but the developer should not be encouraged to repeat the same.” category.
I really think the guys at Absurdus have a lot of talent and potential to put together some great titles in the future. There are some really fantastic moments in Carte Blanche, unfortunately they are lost in limited gameplay and mediocre presentation (voice acting). If they can continue their strengths with Episode Two while fixing the avoiding the mistakes of Episode One, then I think Carte Blanche will be a series to look forward to in the future.
Final Grade: C-