Elderly male looking for a small one-room apartment in North America. Mildly eccentric, likes to tinker with clocks. Only goes out at night.
Yes, once again a wonderful adventure game is looking for a publisher in North America. Why you ask? Because it has the audacity to be an old-fashioned, point-and-click, puzzle-driven game. In fact, The Watchmaker is the type of game that a hardcore adventure gamer would eagerly devour, but with so few of us left we'll most likely soon be fighting over the scraps afforded to us by the graciousness of the bloodthirsty American gamers and computer magazines who have deluded the rest of the world into believing that intelligent, non-violent games are no longer welcome here.
Watchmaker was developed by Trecision, the same Italian company that gave us Ark of Time and Nightlong. Now all is not wine and pasta in the in the land of The Watchmaker. There are numerous small, but niggling, problems that can distract from the atmosphere, but these are nuances that could easily be reprogrammed. The version I played was in Italian with English subtitles. There are currently no plans for English localization - though the game has been released in Italian, Polish and Russian - but if and when the game is localized let's hope that Trecision hires professional English voice-actors. There is much dialogue in the game and, much like an Agatha Christie novel, it is exploited to define the personalities of the characters
The 3D graphics are strikingly gorgeous, but as is the case in many 3D games there are minor, but annoying, instances of clipping as characters can occasionally seem to be walking through walls. A problem unique to point-and-click adventure games - pixel hunting - is magnified as some items necessary to solve puzzles can not be found while in the third-person default view and are only visible by switching your character to a first-person point-of-view - an option that is not always readily apparent.
The plot seems to be way out there, but actually is grounded in reality - well, at least until the end of the game. A machine created in 1663 that is thought to harness the energy of ley lines - invisible lines on the earth's surface linking prehistoric sites that can channel a mystical force allowing the dead to walk again - has been stolen. Okay, well that part is not rooted in reality, but the means taken to recover the machine are as familiar as any Gabriel Knight or Tex Murphy case. Authorities believe that the machine has been hidden in a 14th century Austrian castle and contact paranormal expert Darrel Boone who now has 24 hours to find and deactivate the machine before it creates havoc across the earth. Joining him in his search is Victoria Conroy a lawyer whose main function is to exist first as an object of conflict (if you haven't already guessed that the sparks don't initially fly between these two, then you have never played a Gabriel Knight game) and then as a willing partner. As you may guess, conversations that are initially insults soon develop into a subtle sexual tension.
What is unique about Watchmaker is that there are some puzzles that can only be solved by specifically Darrel or Victoria and yet others that are co-operative. Some involve switching back-and-forth between characters, some involve exchanging inventory items and others involve using a character to distract one of the castle staff so you can use the other character to explore the now accessible location. While this entails teamwork at its best, it can also instigate unexpected problems for the keyboard commands used to exchange inventory items can be confusing.
Watchmaker is non-linear and as such requires a lot of searching and exploring of the castle grounds just to get a feel for the gaming area. Though it may seem the game is open-ended, it actually is timed as you have only a twenty-four hour period to find the missing machine. Various means are used to advance the clock, usually in fifteen minute increments, and it can be as simple as speaking to another character or as complicated as solving a multi-tiered puzzle. The problem with all of this freedom, especially early in the game, is that there are so many enigmas to solve and areas to visit that at you are sometimes at a loss attempting to figure out what to do to advance the clock and unless the clock is advanced new puzzles and areas can not be opened. In other words - there is often too much going on! Add to this a large cast of characters, almost all of which are readily available at the beginning of the game, an entire castle and its grounds that can be explored and inventory items that can be found but not used for hours and you have a morass of information. In fact, in many waysWatchmaker becomes easier as the game goes on as by then you need only deal with one or two puzzles.
The problem though is you never know when or where you may have overlooked a vital object and can often become totally stuck in the game, unable to move the clock forward and not sure if your lack of progress is due to an object you have overlooked or simply because you have not yet figured out a puzzle. This happened to me on two occasions and both times it was because I had not found an inventory item needed to solve a puzzle, yet I was unaware of what I needed. Also, as seems to be the norm for today's point-and-click games,
there is that one puzzle that defies all common sense and sticks out like a sore thumb. For Watchmaker it is a problem involving retrieving a locket from the bottom of an indoor pool. Since Darrel has conveniently forgotten to pack his swimsuit he can't go into the pool. Instead of employing about a dozen other options that would make sense, the player must instead undertake a convoluted series of tasks that culminate with Darrel pouring soap in the pool's infiltration system in order to force the pool caretaker to drain the entire pool. It is little things like this that mar our already tenuous suspension of disbelief.
The music can best be described as lackadaisical (and at time degenerates into Bill Murray/Lounge Lizard territory) and the sound effects also don't always seem to be up to the quality expected in today's games, but much of this can be forgiven in lieu of the fine cast of characters and the fact that Trecision has developed a game that never insults the intelligence of the gamer. There is a healthy cast of 18 characters each with a secret to hide and information to offer if only asked the right question.
What concerns me most though is for a game that spends so much time establishing its plot and developing its cast, the endgame seems to have been rushed as though the developers either ran out of inspiration or funds. This is especially disappointing as one feels that the developers seem to be building a groundwork for future games teaming Darrel and Victoria.
Sure this review has been a little harsh, but I don't want anyone to think we are recommending an adventure product only because it does not have a publisher. The bottom line is that The Watchmaker is a game that grows on you and has you thinking about it even during non-gaming hours. As it is now, if Watchmaker were released in North America it would just be one more game sitting on the store shelves after being lambasted by the gaming magazines. If the few minor annoyances were to be corrected - the 3D clipping, the languid music, the pixel hunting - then Watchmaker could possibly develop a devoted following especially in the wake of foreign upstarts like The Longest Journey.
For now though, time is ticking away for The Watchmaker as he vainly searches for a new home in North America.
Final Grade for The Watchmaker: C+.
Pentium II 266
64 MB ram
CD Rom drive
3D Graphics Card