Almost four years ago I played Trecision's Nightlong: Union City Conspiracy and was very pleasantly surprised that it was a fun, traditional inventory-based adventure game. At the end of my review I expressed the hope that Trecision's next game, which at that time had the enigmatic working title of WM, would provide more of the same. Well they certainly didn't let me down.
The Watchmaker was released in Europe last year. I played the demo eighteen months ago and it seemed then that an English version was imminent. We know now that where adventure games are concerned it is unwise to take anything for granted. Thankfully, Got Game Entertainment have published the English version and, despite having to wait a little longer than we might have hoped, many more adventure game players will now have the opportunity to enjoy this game.
Given the recent spate of adventure games that 'feature' dreaded timed sequences it's a delicious irony that a game called The Watchmaker, with time as a theme and more ticking clocks than you can swing a pendulum at, manages to avoid the overuse of this feature. Only towards the end of the game, and only for reasons of dramatic tension, will you encounter a couple of puzzles that may ring alarm bells if you don't like to be rushed. Don't panic, once you know what you need to do (and it's fairly obvious) there is plenty of time to do it.
Time in The Watchmaker moves on only when you have completed certain actions. It's a handy way of keeping track of your progress similar to that used in games like the Gabriel Knight series and the much older Cruise for a Corpse. Indeed, The Watchmaker has a lot of the 'feel' of these games as for much of the time you can relax, explore your surroundings, talk to other characters and investigate the mystery.
For there is indeed a mystery to uncover. The introduction brings the two main characters together for the first time in the London office of an international law firm, Norman & McGreen. Darrel Boone is an expert in paranormal phenomena who has previously worked with Scotland Yard and Victoria Conroy is a Lawyer (but we won't hold that against her J). Darrel and Victoria learn that they must work together to investigate an Austrian castle (now the headquarters of a secretive organisation called the Multinational) for evidence that it may be the hiding place of a dangerous device that threatens human survival.
The Watchmaker is a third-person perspective adventure where you direct the investigations of either Darrel or Victoria and all it takes is a simple keystroke to swap between the two characters. There is also a first-person perspective mode for when you need to examine your surroundings more closely. In this view you can look around but you can't walk. For much of the game it really doesn't matter which character you choose but there are a couple of tasks that one can perform but not the other and occasionally you will need both characters in the same location to progress. Similarly, depending on who you are talking to, either Darrel or Victoria may be better suited to eliciting a favourable response.
Strangely, I thought, Darrel and Victoria don't talk to each other except in cut scenes though this doesn't really matter because what one learns the other also learns. Here you must assume that the two are in constant contact via their 'special' telephones. This becomes more apparent towards the end of the game when they do make audible contact with each other. These telephones are also integrated with their PDAs, which automatically record significant information that you can refer to when you want to review what you have learned. Although this automatic note taking isn't comprehensive, you are left to your own devices to do some of the thinking.
The game is largely mouse controlled though you can also use your keyboard arrow keys to move the characters around. There are some locations, particularly in the castle grounds, where it is easier to use the arrow keys as hotspots can interfere with navigation. For example, your mouse cursor will highlight with a text notation when it passes over items of interest such as trees or a hedge and these seem to have rather large active areas so that if you click in the distance to move your character to that location you may find yourself inadvertently admiring a nearby tree.
You will also need to use the keyboard to switch between characters (F8) and to look in first-person mode (space bar) and access your inventory (Tab key). In the inventory you can then use your mouse to select items, examine them closely and rotate them, and also access the game functions such as save, load and quit or the options menu where you can adjust audio settings and enable subtitles.
Another really useful feature of the inventory screen is that you can pass items between characters in different locations and even 'jump' the other character into the room with you from wherever you left them. Of course there are a few situations where this isn't possible, but in a game where you control two characters this instant travel and instant interaction saves a lot of time.
The Watchmaker really is a game for savouring. You can explore at leisure and think about what you have learned and what you might need to do to progress. The intricacies of the story unfold slowly as you investigate and the magnitude of the conspiracy sort of creeps up on you. A small conversational clue may lead to a startling revelation if you ask the right person about it. Items you find may seem insignificant at first but may be crucial later. Seemingly unrelated historical information could be just what you need to get your mind focused on the next piece of the puzzle. It's up to you to make the connections.
Exploration is a joy as the castle and its surrounds are fascinating and beautifully detailed. In many 3D games the backgrounds are just scenery like a painted stage backdrop, pretty but flat, and with no way of interacting with them. But in The Watchmaker that extra tactile dimension is added because it has retained the mouse, thus you can get a description or comment about the paintings or photos on the walls, or about items of furniture such as beds, desks, chairs and lamps. You can open cupboards and use equipment, and the descriptions may give you a clue as to what you need to do. For me all this detail makes the game more immersive and really contributes to the feeling that I am really there.
Consequently the puzzles too seemed to fit logically, even seamlessly into the context of the story and the locations. Locked doors must be opened or circumvented, old machinery may need replacement parts, characters may need distracting and their weaknesses can be exploited. You will know from the clues and comments what will likely work to solve problems. You will need to be observant though, and sometimes you will need to manoeuvre your character to the right position to find what you are looking for.
As well as impressive graphics there is also a good sound track that is at times haunting and dramatic. In certain scenes the music quite reminded me of the Gabriel Knight games. Unfortunately, the voice acting of several characters is below par for this type of production, though I thought Victoria was quite good and I tended to take her for most of my exploration. Speaking of voices, a few times during conversations the speech would suddenly fade out for no apparent reason. This was no big deal as I had enabled subtitles, and quitting and restoring always fixed the problem. Also, as both Darrel and Victoria can ask the same questions there was some conversational repetition that could have been remedied by 'greying out' redundant questions for both characters. You can click through repeats at any time so I took advantage of this. Interestingly, there was some strong language in the subtitles that was toned down in the spoken dialogue, and while I'm giving warnings, there are a couple of gruesome scenes towards the end that may upset some players J .
The game comes on one CD and provides the option to install all the dialogue to the hard drive if you have 400MB of free space. There are plenty of save game slots and I really appreciated the way the latest save was always on top and easily accessible, especially as I died a few times just before the dramatic climax.
The Watchmaker shows clearly that traditional mouse controlled adventures can work in 3D without sacrificing the inherent gameplay qualities that many of us appreciate. Rosemary and I played this one together and we both thoroughly enjoyed it. And we hope that Trecision will be encouraged to make a sequel.
Copyright © Gordon Aplin 2002.
All rights reserved.
(Min) Pentium II 266 MMX or similar, 64MB RAM, 3D Graphic Card with at least 8MB Video Memory, 150MB Free Hard Disk Space, 8X CD ROM, DirectX7.
(Suggested) Pentium III or similar, 128MB RAM, 3D Graphic Card with 16MB Video Memory, 400MB Free Hard Disk Space, 24X CD ROM, Sound Card with fully support for DirectX7.