Mr Brendel and Unimatrix were responsible for the unassuming Lifestream, an enjoyable blend of story and puzzles that emerged last year. Shady Brook is another independent effort and was apparently born as a script for a possible short horror film, one which didn't get the green light so became a game instead. Though not that horrific, it does have some dark and sinister moments, and whilst I didn't think it lived up to its predecessor, Mr Brendel should certainly be encouraged to keep making his story driven games.
Shady Brook is a quiet little town of minimal population, somewhere in the middle of nowhere. Jake Tobin and his elderly father are newly arrived in town, having moved there for some peace and quiet whilst Jake finishes his latest novel. But the town, of course, is not all it seems, and peace and quiet is somewhere else.
Beginning with a flashback, and then moving forward to Jake's arrival, Shady Brook is played over 5 days, in which time much is revealed of the secrets of the town. The game builds slowly towards what is a satisfying finale, however the tension lurking beneath the respectable veneer never really asserts itself. There are some surprises and some unforeseen events, but it lacked suffficient atmosphere.
That it did might well have had something to do with Jake himself. There are quite a few characters in Shady Brook, and most are well to excellently voiced and scripted. Indeed, the characters drive the story, and much of the offbeat feel to the game comes from the characters themselves. Jake, though, just sounded flat and bored the whole time. Certainly I thought his character had a world weary feel to him, and caring for his father and moving to a new town entitled him to be a little underwhelmed, a little detached. But given what was occurring around him, he should have livened up, and he should have taken us along with him. That he didn't was a failing that I don't think the game was able to get over.
Graphically, too, Shady Brook has its limitations. Backgrounds are fairly simplistic, blocky and a little distorted. You don't need elaborate real time worlds in order to deliver a solid and satisfying experience, but I thought the graphic quality here was another factor which kept me dislocated from the game world. Plus there is this really jaundiced orange hue at twilight time that put me right off.
The character modelling, though, was quite excellent, I thought. Proportions can be a little odd, but the faces in particular are life like, detailed, and well animated. You get genuine lip movement rather than flapping jaws, and the character driven nature of the plot meant this aspect was a strong point. You can talk to all the characters you meet, dialogue options appearing at the bottom of the screen.
Some of the non-verbal character interaction is something that you won't get in many other games. It would spoil it to tell, but Mr Brendel is to be commended for what he is prepared to try.
The models do have an annoying way of popping in and out. When you are standing in the position where you can interact with them, they disappear and then pop back into existence, generally and briefly accompanied by a black screen. I suspect this is a limitation of the software, but it is somewhat irritating.
In large part, probably because of its movie script beginnings and the story-driven nature of the game, the puzzles in Shady Brook are not terribly strong. There aren't that many, most being situational (eg how to get out of gaol) with the occasional straight puzzle (eg opening a puzzle box). Some felt a little "tacked on", and one of the straight puzzles seemingly has a dead end if it is only partially completed before leaving it.
In fact, most of the "puzzling" is generated by the necessity to have the required conversation in order to trigger progress. Too many times I was wandering aimlessly and undirected, going back to characters simply to see if talking to them would move me forward. Sometimes talking to them made sense in terms of the plot, but at other times it seemed to be simply random. Shady Brook is not a big place and there were limited places to visit, but it was one of the less appealing aspects.
One excellent puzzle aspect, though, was the capacity at the start of the game to choose Adventure Only mode, which skips those few puzzles which have a timed or action element. Some gamers hate such puzzles, others quite like the interlude, so everyone is catered for here. Further, a pool game which you have to win gave you the option of playing again if you lost, or simply winning and moving on. Thoughtful touches both of them, which shows that Mr Brendel listens to his audience.
The plot is a little fanciful but is well written. Scriptwriting and storytelling seem to be a strength of Mr Brendel. So too the music, and the use of cutscenes. Though a little blurry, they had a cinematic feel to them in the way they were composed (there's that movie link again).
I must make brief mention of the endgame, not about what happens, but simply to say that games that simply peter out with flat and predictable endings are not something Mr Brendel can be accused of making. To the contrary, his endings are worth getting to.
Gameplay is straight forward, and novice adventurers would easily pick it up in a few minutes. Active icons and directional arrows are your stock in trade for exploring. A journal automatically records your objectives, and a pop up message will indicate a new one has been added or that one has been completed. Some are a little obvious, eg solve the riddle, but they do provide some direction. Jake's novel is also written as you go, and you can read along as he writes.
The inventory is revealed by moving the cursor to the top left corner, and you drag and drop to combine or examine items, or to use them in the game world. Right clicking brings up the exit, load and save toolbar. There are no subtitle or other settings options.
There is some limited nudity and the occasional "graphic" scene, but you can also choose to play in Censored mode, which removes these scenes and images. According to the menu, it doesn't affect gameplay but may affect some of the plot detail. I chose to play without Censored mode, but it's another thoughtful option.
Shady Brook is a decent length, taking me 12 or so hours, and my final score (yes, the game keeps score) was 80 or so less than the maximum. Clearly I had not examined everything, or uncovered all the little details needed to get full marks. A quick flick through the 35 page companion guide which came with my copy revealed that to indeed be the case. It also revealed a number of easter eggs which I went back and examined, some of them more than a little amusing and worth seeking out. The game companion also has character bios, a complete walkthrough, a list of the actions needed to gain the maximum score, and an interview with one of the main voice actors. It is purchased separately.
I had a little trouble installing, as the game would not recognise my CD drive but then I realised that was because it is a DVD only game. My fault entirely, but something to be aware of if you are thinking of purchasing Shady Brook. There was a hotspot that generated an error message early on, but once past that point it was smooth sailing. The game also installs XviD video codecs which are necessary to play the game.
According to the Shady Brook website, there have been some problems with SoundMax video cards so these are not supported, and there is a patch which fixes a problem with some systems when Adventure Only mode is selected.
Finally, you get to look at short promos for two other games currently in development when you have finished the game.
In summary I was a little disappointed with Shady Brook, partly because of my expectations after Lifestream, but also because it never quite "got there". However it did make me want to find out what was going on, and whilst I wouldn't want to live there, Shady Brook was an ok place to visit for a while.
Shady Brook can be purchased online at www.upforums.com/store
Copyright © Steve Ramsey 2005.
All rights reserved.
Windows 98/2000/XP, Pentium III 1 GHz, 516 MB RAM, DVD-ROM drive, 350 MB disc space, 640 x 480 resolution, 24-Bit Colour display, Windows-compatible sound card and mouse.