Ecstatica is set in Northern Europe in 928 AD - here endeth the history and geography lesson. The tiny village of Tirich that you happen upon on your travels is now overrun with demons let loose by the coma-induced dreams of a young girl (Ecstatica of the title), who dabbled in magic that was too powerful for her to control. The other villagers are largely dead or in the process of dying in various gory poses though you will meet a few survivors who tell you a little of what has gone before. You become embroiled from the moment you set foot in the village, indeed there is no escape, until you unravel the mystery of how the demons came to be unleashed and learn how they can be vanquished.
In terms of gameplay Ecstatica most closely resembles Alone in the Dark than anything else, so if you have played and enjoyed that series you may consider this game to be worth a look. For those of you who haven't played Alone you are required to steer your on-screen character around obstacles such as walls and furniture and pick up objects and clues to solve the puzzles, whilst being almost continually harassed by sundry demons and monsters. This is usually most frustrating until such time as you can find a weapon and even then you may find certain foes to be particularly stubborn and difficult to eradicate.
However, for my money, I thought Ecstatica emulated too many of the worst features of Alone in the Dark, and added a couple of its own, without the saving grace of depth and sophistication of puzzles to be solved.
For a start the ever changing perspectives, whilst they may be very clever examples of the programmer/animator's art, simply become annoying during the fairly repetitive fighting sequences. Although, to be fair, my annoyance at the shifting perspectives was most keenly felt early on in the game as I was still learning the control system.
Speaking of which, Ecstatica has no mouse control during play. Every action, and these are limited, is performed via the numeric key pad and supplemented when it comes to speed of movement by the function keys. So basically all you can do is move, hit, dodge, pick up and drop. You don't actually speak to other characters, but they will talk to you if they have anything to say. Your role is reduced to listening as they fill in the plot or tell you what you must do next. The dialogue itself is limited and not very inspiring.
Nor do you have an inventory, so you are restricted to carrying one item in each hand which means a bit of to-ing and fro-ing if you have to gather several items in one place. Especially if you want to keep hold of a weapon at the same time. However, the game world is quite small and, with a bit of practice, it doesn't take too long to navigate your way around at some speed, provided you don't get accosted along the way.
I mentioned earlier that the fighting is repetitive, and thus, ultimately tedious due mainly to the circumscribed nature of the combat which revolves around punch left, punch right and duck. The few weapons you find such as a sword or mace barely make any difference in fights with the toughest creatures, and lesser creatures provide merely nuisance value and some comic relief. Thankfully the combat is not gory, unlike a few of the back drops, and not a drop of blood is spilt despite severe beatings and the satisfying 'thwack' of blows finding their target. Personally, I found that it was often easier to run away than to fight and so was able to avoid many of the arcade-style conflicts in favour of arcade-style dodging.
Unfortunately, certain malevolent creatures have a tendency to pounce on you from nowhere and will even follow you for several screens until you gain some sort of sanctuary. Or until they catch you, which is more likely as your character is liable to stop dead if he or she blunders into impenetrable scenery such as ankle-high grass.
That's right, you can play a male or a female character for which the programmers should be applauded. Except, they became lazy. If you choose to play the female character as I did you are still addressed as 'My Lord', or spoken of as 'him', and the witch you meet chases you around as her long lost 'Prince Charming' and so on. All of which tends to make the whole exercise of playing as a female a rather pointless one as your responses are as restricted as the male character's, and only a 'well-rounded figure' distinguishes you. Although, I must admit that character portrayal is not what this game is about.
So, what is Ecstatica about? It has to be said that this is essentially a fighting game with a few unsophisticated and relatively easy puzzles thrown in. The fighting component won't satisfy the hard core beat-em-up fans, nor even those who enjoyed Alone in the Dark, but it is guaranteed to turn off the adventurer who will also be disappointed with the puzzles of which basically there are just two. The first is to gather the ingredients for a spell, and the second revolves around getting two items to turn into a potent weapon for the final conflict between you and the Demon Lord. Needless to say the game itself is quite short even with all the inconvenience of fighting or dodging and running away as you are trying to explore the village.
The graphics are beautifully drawn and light and colourful which is quite a contrast to many of the games that have been released recently. The characters are rounded or ellipsoid rather than angular like in Alone in the Dark, and move smoothly, if a little sluggishly at times. Were it not for the classification of 'Mature', fifteen years and over, and a couple of questionable, even objectionable scenes, I would probably have recommended this game as suitable for children, eight years and over, as they would have little difficulty with the puzzles and may also have got a laugh at the scene with the farting bear and the statue of the little boy urinating. However, they won't get to appreciate such 'gems' until they are much older. In the meantime, older players have been granted the privilege of sharing the programmer/animator's fantasy of seeing women impaled at the cost of a wider audience for the game and potentially greater sales.
Ecstatica is very disappointing. A lot of work has gone into the graphic and movement side of the game at the expense of storyline and depth of gameplay. I can't help thinking that some game developers need to work out just who is their intended audience before embarking on a project such as this. All it would take would be for them to tone down the background scenes, cut out some of the fighting, and they would have had, in all probability, a game suitable for children.
Copyright © Gordon Aplin 1995.
All rights reserved.
486SX25, 4MB RAM, CD-ROM.