KingArt may well have been responsible for one of my favourite adventure games of the last few years, the Book of Unwritten Tales, but as so many developers have found out, not everything that one touches turns to gold. With The Raven: Legacy of a Master Thief, the development team certainly made a strong start.
The freely downloadable or browser-based prologue was a stylish and atmospheric introduction to the world. We learnt who The Raven is and some of those most concerned with bringing him to justice. Then there was the first episode, which was quite well-received, and further established what we could expect from the series. Unfortunately, with Chapter Two, entitled Ancestry of Lies, the series takes a somewhat major misstep, and the flaws that perhaps could have been over-looked in the first entry in the series are now far too obtrusive and obvious to ignore.
The episode actually starts quite strongly. We are thrown in at the deep end, following on exactly from where the first chapter ended with the player-controlled protagonist Zellner having been taken by surprise by a very sinister doctor. Immediately, you’re in a dangerous situation where you have to think fast, with any wrong move leading to death (luckily the game will promptly return you back to a point shortly before your demise if you’re unsuccessful, letting you try again as often as you need to). The sense of urgency and feeling of desperation is quite well-represented, with the effects of a drugging also making this scene even more disorienting.
Sadly, this scene is rather short and straight afterwards you are plunged into a heavy conversation that is entirely confusing if you haven’t played – or have forgotten what happened in – Chapter One. Some sort of brief re-cap or summary might have been a useful tool here, as there are a lot of case details discussed early on that could easily have been forgotten. You do have access to Zellner’s notebook to read some of the past details, but navigation through this is a bit confusing and not explained fully at any point.
So, after a lengthy and somewhat confusing dialogue – made harder to follow by the strange assortment of jumbled European accents among the characters – the story re-locates to the main location for this chapter, the Cairo Museum. This is where the second Eye of the Sphinx is to be exhibited, and where master thief the Raven is predicted to strike next. You must investigate the Museum and check it is secure – but, of course, things all go horribly wrong as the Raven has other plans. Whilst this makes up around half of the play-time, the most interesting part of the game is when you shift perspective and get to see things from the point of view of someone taking part in the heist.
This is particularly interesting because it takes place as a flashback, so you get to see events from Chapter One unfolding, but from a new perspective. Unfortunately, the same problems exist when playing as both characters. The main one is the fact that aside from the opening five minutes, the game plays at a snail’s pace. Even when events taking place demand urgency, the game continues to plod along happily, resulting in a lack of excitement or suspense when the story really needs it. Considering the length of the episode, there are a lot of action-style scenes included, but none that feel like an actual action scene – they all fall a bit flat.
The length of the episode is also quite an issue. Understandably, downloadable episodic adventure games are shorter than a full title – as seen with success stories such as The Walking Dead: The Game. But Ancestry of Lies ended as soon as it seemed like it was getting to an interesting point. The game could easily be whizzed through in a couple of hours and there is absolutely no replay value, and no alternate paths/solutions to try out. Of course, players who have gone through the previous instalments will likely want to play the third entry to see the conclusion, but this one is so short, it’s hard to imagine there being a satisfactory conclusion when only one Chapter remains.
In terms of gameplay, the inventory and navigation systems are fairly robust and intuitive, with some good inventory-based puzzles to work out, but aside from those there are scant other puzzles in the game. One feels a little like a passenger along for the ride, as the characters make more discoveries by themselves, without the player feeling like they have accomplished much at all. There is one large traditional puzzle, which requires a little back-tracking to solve but is clever enough; it is just a shame that there aren’t more of the same.
When you add the presentational shortcomings to those of the story and gameplay, The Raven begins to look less and less masterful. Character animations are all a little jerky and out of time, and when characters talk to one another they are often facing the wrong direction so you cannot clearly tell who they are trying to talk to. This is compounded by a few really bad camera angles that make watching conversations difficult, or even one where it is made almost impossible to transition from one location to another unless you click in one very specific area.
As previously touched upon, the variety of accents throughout the cast are really hit and miss. Some are fine and sound authentic, but many come across as a little lazily delivered, or worse, just plain difficult to understand. Of course, you can equip subtitles – as I would usually advise adventure gamers to do so that they don’t miss any information – but that is no excuse for an uninspired voice cast. The audio issues are compounded by a poor selection of orchestral background music, which tends to endlessly loop around and is almost always far too jolly for the action taking place on-screen. When the score and the visuals clash, it produces a comical rather than authentic result.
VERDICT: The idea of playing a game from the perspective of both thief and investigator is a fascinating one – especially when the two points of view overlap and interact – but Ancestry of Lies doesn’t manage to pull off this idea with the polish or precision required. After an impressive start, Chapter 2 goes downhill quickly and never manages to recover. This really is a missed opportunity, especially considering the pedigree of KingArt and what they have been capable of producing in the past. I would hope that the concluding episode manages to end things strongly, but I fear that many of the flaws run too deeply in series as a whole.
AVERAGE. The epitome of a 50/50 game, this title will be unspectacular but inoffensive, charmless but amiable. We aren’t condemning a game by scoring it a 5, but we certainly aren’t championing it, either.