AMBER: Journeys Beyond
At a time when more and more games in the scary/horror category are, seemingly, rushing headlong down the path of gory sequences and cheap titillation in the name of entertainment along comes AMBER to buck that trend and restore some much-needed subtlety and intelligence to the genre.
AMBER is an eerie and evocative modern 'ghost' story that provides a refreshing tonic to gore-jaded palettes even as it touches on the tragic themes of loss and suicide, insanity and murder, and a child's accidental drowning. Nor is it a bleak experience despite these themes as the game allows you to explore the background to these events and close the chapters, so to speak.
The story opens with an incoming e-mail on your computer asking you to check on your good friend Roxy (Dr Roxanne Westbridge) who has recently purchased an old house and is using largely untested technology to investigate paranormal activity (hauntings). You set off to drive to the house as the credits roll by and it soon becomes evident that all is not well. As you near your destination a spectral image appears on the track in front of your headlights causing you to swerve into a small lake. You are on your back on a jetty looking up to the eaves of a boathouse when you get control of the game.
From here you can explore the gardens and the house to learn what has happened to Roxy, how far she had got in her investigations, and, eventually, what you must do to resolve the mysterious hauntings and aid your friend. I won't spoil it for you by revealing more here.
The game is played from a first person perspective and is quite Myst-like in its appearance and style of play. It is a huge compliment to Myst that so many games have followed in its footsteps and made way for this style of adventure where lonely intrigue is a major component and where it is necessary to take your cues from the environment itself rather than from character interaction or the manipulation of inventory objects.
Your character is not identified in any way so you can play as yourself and simply enjoy the game without having to carry around any extraneous baggage such as gender or attitude. Involvement is in the exploration and the gathering together of threads and clues that lead to understanding and progression through the story. You can manipulate many objects in the game environment and a limited inventory allows you to carry around certain items and use various tools for detecting paranormal activity.
I found much to enjoy in AMBER. The tasks to perform or obstacles to overcome fitted seamlessly into the story with the possible exception of a sliding tile puzzle and an underwater maze of sorts which, for me, seemed to break the spell that had been woven up until that time. For most of the game, though, I was so thoroughly absorbed in the story (or stories) that it did not feel like I was playing a game. Consequently, I played it in just two sittings (albeit lengthy ones of around four to five hours each) which brings me to my major disappointment, it was too short. Certainly the game is so good it kept me glued to the screen, but I can't remember a particular point at which I was well and truly stuck and wondering what to do next. My guess is that experienced adventurers will feel the same, though players new to this sort of game may well find that it provides a much greater challenge.
Where AMBER really excels is in its ability to draw you into the story and, amazingly, it manages to do this despite the fact that the game is played, for the most part, in a fairly small window, sometimes only half screen. Graphically it is very good and finely detailed, providing much more than pretty backdrops. Sound is also effectively used to set a particular mood whether it be chirping crickets at night, a creaking stair, the hum of a generator, or a 1940's radio program. Even silence creates an effect. I played for about half an hour before I realised there was no background music and wondered if the game had installed correctly. It had. The music is there but only in appropriate contexts. All of this builds up a great atmosphere which lends itself to an exceedingly playable game.
The simple point and click interface makes it easy to navigate your way around and there were some interesting touches such as a sliding movement on a frozen lake at one part of the game. It installs to Win 95 (it is also available for the Mac) and uses the familiar Windows menu bar for accessing game controls such as saving, loading and quitting, and for adjusting sound levels and visual transitions. The menu bar is hidden until you move your cursor to the top of the screen. Sadly, there is no on-screen text option which may make the game difficult to follow for hearing-impaired players and, though there are not a lot of voices, some are deliberately distorted for effect and I never did fully understand what the bees were trying to tell me.
AMBER is a fascinating game with an intriguing and compelling story. The scary/horror elements are very well done and, for the most part, eloquently understated -- the game doesn't trade on full-on gore, it doesn't need to, preferring instead to respect the player's intelligence. Subtitled 'Journeys Beyond' it is a trip well worth making and particularly for anyone interested in the paranormal.
Copyright © Gordon Aplin 1997.
All rights reserved.
Minimum: Windows 95, 13" or larger 16-bit Color Display, CD-ROM drive, 8MB RAM, and a Hard Disk with 25 megs of free space.
Also available on Mac