Note: This review was originally published March 18, 2009
Step aside Kate Walker, Randy has a new virtual girlfriend - Mona De Lafitte. Ah, I dream of losing my soul in those deep, unblinking eyes; of caressing that cold and clammy skin and those blood-red lips, . . wait a minute, that really is blood on those lips! Unfortunately, Mona is a lady of the night. No, not that kind of ‘lady’ you silly. Ms. De Lafitte is a vampire, a bloodsucker, a manananggal, a nosferatu, the Queen of the Damned, but with one teeny, tiny complication – she refuses to admit that she has crossed over to the dark side. Sigh, there’s always a complication to these virtual relationships. Still, I hear the tinkle of her voice in my sleep; glimpse that slinky figure approaching as through a haze and feel a strangely icy, yet refreshing pinch on my neck…
The above paragraph was the last time we heard from Randy - though some staff members have reported seeing someone who looks like him outside their bedroom windows late at night - and have asked Greg Collins to step in and finish this review.
As the late Mona de Lafitte herself might put it, "Vare to begin, mon vieux?" First, has there been a more eagerly, even feverishly anticipated adventure game in recent years than A Vampyre Story from Autumn Moon Entertainment? This was to be the magic bullet to restore the adventure game to its rightful place of prominence in the video game marketplace. This was to be the return, however convoluted the path, of LucasArts brilliance to the genre, in the considerable personage of Bill Tiller, the man responsible for the background art in the Curse of Monkey Island. Ah, mes amis, we have all been the lost tribe roaming aimlessly around the Sinai peninsula since the dismantling of the adventure division up at Skywalker Ranch.
After that plague of locusts walloped Northern California, the high priests of adventuredom scattered to the four winds, landing here, there, everywhere and nowhere. Tim Shafer ventured forth to produce, most notably, Psychonauts. A bunch of 'em kicked off Telltale Games and reignited the Sam and Max engine. And now, Mr. Tiller, with his new company Autumn Moon, has not only done the background art for AVS, but directed as well. You know, you have to give all these guys a lot of credit. They all probably could have gotten gainfully employed at id, Rockstar or some other head-banger production house, but they've stayed true to the adventure game ideal. They're putting their careers where their mouths are. George Lucas may have jumped Guybrush's ship, but these stalwarts are still lashed to the wheel.
None of which, of course, tells you how much fun A Vampyre Story is to play. Well, AVS is terrific fun to play. However, a number of people out there are hopping mad over a number of issues. I've read reviews complaining that Mona, the lead character, isn't detailed enough. Others complain that the game is too easy. That it's buggy. That certain puzzles don't make sense. That it's too short. That the acting is campy. Well, with great expectations come high standards. While it's true that AVS is not without its faults, I do believe some folks have been fixating on its shortcomings and not enough on its strengths.
I suppose I should provide a few particulars about the plot before anything else. Mona, an opera singer turned vampiress, is the lead character in AVS. Her goal is to escape the obsessive attentions of her vampire captor Baron Shrowdy von Kiefer, and return to her former life in Paree as a budding opera star. As the game begins, she's trapped in the baron's Draxylvanian island castle. The subplot has it that poor Mona refuses to believe Shrowdy has indeed made her into a vampire, but over the course of the game she comes to learn more about her new nature and its peculiar traits, favorable and unfavorable. Actually, the most interesting plot points in AVS have to do with what transpired before the game opens. One might argue that instead of chapter one, plot-wise, this game is chapter two, or even chapter three. There's a whole, rather elaborate back story of Mona training to be a singer in Paris, then succumbing to Shrowdy, and then a fairly long period spent in Castle Warg, wherein, not least of all, she rescues and befriends her wisecracking bat sidekick Froderick. I only just recently noticed that there's an entire story played out in storybook images during the opening credits of Mona learning to sing, coming to Paris, and, apparently, being double-crossed by a conniving competitor at the Paris Opera. As for the Castle Warg episode, the writers have shoe-horned a lot of that into the game's dialogue, especially the Abbott-and-Costello banter between Mona and Froderick.
Come to think of it, this game has a boatload of subplots. Clearly the writers whipped up far more than they could pack into this one game. There is, for instance, a rather long explanation about a pair of local constables and their lifelong sibling rivalry which seems to have virtually nothing to do with the game. I would say that gamers who like plot will have a field day with AVS. It already has a mythology to rival far more developed franchises. The one subplot that left me completely confused has to do with an elderly gypsy woman who is either helping or hunting Mona. I can't tell which. Then there's Baron Shrowdy's mum, a witch, who has mysteriously departed the scene long since, after searching for some sort of super spell. Plus there's the raven Edgar who has his own life story, and the gargoyle Rufus with his fairly elaborate employment history with the von Kiefers. Even Mona's horse Buttercup has a somewhat lengthy, mildly tragic tale to tell. And yes, pretty much everyone and everywhere in the story has a funny name except for the gypsy woman, who's called Madame Strigoi. Don't know how she escaped being tagged Madame Stoli or Bev Stroganoff, but there you have it. Since this is the first episode of what appears to be several, the detailed environment and character histories make sense. But I think a little too much of it leaked out into this installment.
The biggest shock of this game, to me, was the stunningly abrupt "to be continued" ending. This notion of it being episode one is not exactly played up on the game's official website. The cliffhanger ending is a successful gimmick when you're watching a TV show or a Saturday serial, but not necessarily when you're playing a game that set you back thirty bucks. The Monkey Island series (four games) each came to a satisfying conclusion, for instance. Well, time and sales will tell.
Wait, wasn't I supposed to be explaining why you'll love AVS? Well, I'm getting to that. Right now I'd like to delve into some of the serious complaints gamers have had about this game. Most notably the dreaded dual dead ends issue. Autumn Moon claims the patch now available on the game's official website fixes both bugs, although I've read elsewhere on the web that may not be the case. Personally, I ran into neither of the dead ends, but I know they've been generating a lot of criticism out there in cyberspace. I read at least two reviews where the reviewer stopped playing the game altogether after encountering the first dead end. That's fairly drastic. Except there's nothing worse in a game than a dead end; that is, a situation where you don't realize you can't complete the game. The first one in AVS involves a certain container and when and where to fill it. The other has to do with, as I understand it, getting back out of a certain area. It's the first, though, that seems to have most people lathered up. The reason I avoided it is that I had played the demo and knew I needed the item in a certain condition later in the game. I hope that the patch works because I'd hate to see a regrettable mistake like this prevent people from enjoying the game.
The other thing that has many people worked up is a certain elaborate "assembly" puzzle in the game that doesn't, to put it mildly, go according to plan. This problem seems to me far less serious than the dead ends. I understand and sympathize with players who griped about this puzzle, but I do think it's possible to get through it without too much agony. I also think that the game does provide more clues for its completion than some people are suggesting. Though AVS is not exactly a cranium cruncher, puzzle-wise, it does behoove you to "look" at most things. Many important clues are provided in the item descriptions and the dialogue. If anything, I thought this puzzle suffered only from being a little too simple. It involves following instructions and progressing through steps to create something, and at first it reminded me of one of my favorite adventure game puzzles, the lab sequence in that cruelly under-appreciated game The Riddle of Master Lu.
One of the great trademarks of the old LucasArts adventures was that the puzzles were ingenious, fair and usually amusing. I played every LucasArts adventure and had to use a walkthrough only once, in LeChuck's Revenge. This is not because I'm smart, but because the games were so brilliantly put together. Anyone can make a puzzle difficult. All you do is hide the solution. What is difficult to do is to make the puzzle fun and challenging to solve without resorting to combination locks and other cop-outs. I think they did that in AVS. It's true, as some have complained, the game is not difficult. Hell, even I didn't get stuck for long while playing it. But that's not because the solutions are simple or obvious, but because the puzzles have been well constructed. In fact, I would argue that AVShas some of the best puzzle design since those venerable LucasArts classics. I also would argue that the puzzles in AVS have been rather well integrated into the plot, and with the characterizations. I'm going to give one example that I hope is not giving away too much as a means of illustration. When she reaches Vlad's Landing, Mona comes face to face with her true vampiric nature, and she struggles with it at first. However, a couple of the puzzles naturally lead her to accept her new powers (one that involves her front teeth). While you're solving the puzzle, Mona is learning to live with herself. That's far more sophisticated than finding the gold key and inserting it into the silver lock. That takes real writing, real plotting, real integration of plot and puzzle. Finally, Mona gets to "employ" her newfound ability on a skunk who really deserves it, and, presto, both she and you have grown comfortable with her new power. Otherwise, acting like a vampire could be quite the turn off for many players. After all, this is an adventure game, where people don't go around blasting everyone's head off, then chuckling while reloading.
But the puzzle designers of AVS went one even better, in my opinion. They may even have created a whole new type of puzzle. I'm speaking of the "ghost" inventory item. In most adventure games, LucasArts classics included, the main character wanders around sticking more and more improbable items into his inventory. In a game like Curse of Monkey Island, the designers have fun with the convention by showing Guybrush literally dropping everything down the front of his pirate pants. Most games simply accept the convention by ignoring the illogic of it. In AVS, Mona doesn't pick up anything large until she's actually going to use it. Instead she puts the "idea" of doing something with that object into her inventory. Then, when the time is ripe, she flies around collecting the items and using them. Brilliant. Not only logical, but entertaining. In fact, I don't think the game designers developed this idea enough. Mostly, Mona flies around collecting one or two items to use. But why not have her assemble a whole Rube Goldberg list of things? Maybe even in a precise order. This could become a whole new type of complex puzzle, where the hero has to find everything, and combine everything properly, before it will work.
During the game you also acquire two important volumes. The first is Shrowdy's mom's spell book and the second is a "Vampirism for Dumkopfs" primer. In this installment, Mona has access to only one spell in the former and the first chapter in the latter, but it seems clear both of these tomes will figure large throughout the series. Mona also can "use" Froderick as an inventory item, the way Sam employs Max, although somewhat less cavalierly. These devices help expand the adventure game puzzle vocabulary and are to be applauded. I'm only surprised that you don't get to "play" as Froderick in certain situations, another good way to expand a game's possibilities.
Another thing I loved about AVS is that both Mona and Froderick are game for pretty much everything.AVS employs the same "action disk" device as Curse where when you left click on an item a cross (odd choice for a vampire) pops up allowing you to look, use, talk (or other oral activity), or fly (as a bat) with or to that item. In most adventure games, when you choose a clearly inappropriate action you hear back something like this: "No, you idiot." Mona and Froderick almost always give it a try no matter how improbable, often with amusing results. And occasionally with productive results. Autumn Moon realizes that fun is the main objective in a game.
The Autumn Mooners clearly lavished a lot of time on the story, on the characters, and on the art. Not too surprisingly, with Bill Tiller at the helm, or at the tiller I suppose, this is one gorgeous looking game. I still think Curse of Monkey Island is one of the most beautiful games ever made, and A Vampyre Story is its equal, or nearly so. Moreover, AVS uses something called multi-plane backgrounds, where two or more backgrounds shift left or right to give the illusion of depth. It works quite well. (As it did, incidentally, as a common scenery convention on the stage in the 19th century.) The characters are in 3D and they also fit in beautifully. Lots of games have beautiful scenery, but their art is not Art. Bill Tiller is a real artist. It's as though they got Vincent Van Gogh to do the backgrounds for a game.
Another exceptional aspect of A Vampyre Story is the soundtrack. Composed by Pedro Macedo Camacho, it is the equal of Mr. Tiller's artwork. Honestly, I usually don't even notice the music in a game. But when was the last time you found yourself whistling a tune from a game you've just been playing? The score of AVS is the best I've come across since the one Fatman did for The 7th Guest. It could easily stand alone as a chart-topping pop album. I watched the closing credits of AVS I don't know how many times just to hear the snatches of the score played during it.
I played A Vampyre Story on my mediocre-spec PC running the Windows 7 beta. I did have some problems installing the game and have read on the web of other technical headaches encountered by others. As my ‘late?’ editor Randy Sluganski forgot to send me the manual, I played the entire game not realizing I could right click on the exit arrows to jump to the next screen, or pump the space bar to cancel almost every animated scene, including spoken dialogue and even Mona's traipsing from place to place.
To me, A Vampyre Story looks, sounds and plays like a long lost LucasArts game. The few mistakes are unfortunate, but by and large Bill Tiller and Autumn Moon got it right. They put the emphasis where it belongs, making a rich, beautiful game that's a lot of fun to play. They very nearly even got the dialogue and the humor right. They clearly tried their darnedest to make as clever a game as Curse. At times they succeed. The characters in AVS are just as colorful as the ones in Curse. I especially liked the Iron Maiden and the Ghostly Nun, and even Rufus and Edgar. Their stories are every bit as wacky and rich as Mr. Goodsoup and Lemonhead. But Curse is still heads and shoulders above most games, even this one, because the folks who wrote Curse understood that to be truly funny a character has to be deadly in earnest. Both Mona and Froderick are funny, have some good lines, and make some pretty wild comments, but they both are winking at you while joking. In Curse, the characters not only have a perfect deadpan, but they really believe in what they're doing. Lemonhead really is serious about being a vegetarian cannibal. Captain Blondbeard really wants to succeed as a fast-food proprietor. Even LeChuck is deadly in earnest about winning Elaine's hand.
They also didn't prune the dialogue trees enough in AVS. At times, especially when you get to Vlad's Landing, you think you're never going to get back to pointing and clicking. There are a dozen characters scattered about, all of whom have reams of back story to fill Mona and Froderick in on. One of the funniest lines in the game, and there are many, has Froderick warning Mona that if she returns to talk to Madame Strigoi, she'll get stuck listening to hours more of exposition.
It's grading time and, honestly, I'd give an A to most things in A Vampyre Story. Certainly the artwork and the music. They're among the best ever. I'd also give an A to the puzzles, if it weren't for the mildly unforgivable screw-up of the dead ends. I even thought the acting was top-notch, though there are a couple of places where Mona drops out of her fetching impression of Teri Garr in Young Frankenstein. This game, like so many adventures nowadays, came out first in Europe and I can't help wondering if Mona has a comic Bavarian accent in the German version. Draxylvania is certainly a very cosmopolitan place. There are funny accents from all over the world. Brooklyn, New Jersey, Minsk, you name it. But all in good fun and mostly well voiced. As for the grand prize letter grade, I award an A- to AVS, demoted from top honors only by its unfortunate technical problems, its excessive talkiness and its sneaky, "See you next game!" ending. Honestly, if you played it and were rubbed the wrong way by the glitches, apply the patch and give it another shot. Mona may be only a campy vampire, but her heart, and the game's, are in the right place.
Final Grade: A-