It's 1727, somewhere in the North Atlantic, not far off the coast of Britain. It's the Dead Reefs to be precise, with their long, bloodthirsty history of piracy. However as the game opens we witness a recent fatality when a young man is pushed from a cliff top by an unseen assailant. The unfortunate victim is Patrick, son of Baron Wyndham, and you, Amadey Finvinerro, have been sent by the King to investigate the matter.
Dead Reefs is a gothic style murder investigation, with lashings of suspicion and mystery mixed into the bubbling cauldron (yes there is one), including a witch who concocts potions in said cauldron, an old, dark mansion with a bricked-up doorway, an ancient curse, a ghost, a potent artefact, a graveyard, a crypt, a maze of dingy passageways, a derelict ship, and more. Maybe the ingredients are piled on a bit high, but the story plays out pretty well. It's potentially an enticing journey marred by a terrible interface.
So lets deal with the interface first, unfortunately it can't be ignored. Dead Reefs is a third person perspective, keyboard controlled game, although you can go into first person 'search' view to look around. But you can't interact in this view; only identify hotspots which are signaled by a large eye. Normally I prefer to look for myself rather than having hotspots flagged, but on this occasion I was thankful for the help as navigation is so frustrating ... what a relief not to have to steer Finvinerro around to search every nook and cranny.
So all actions including movement are via the keyboard. You can reassign keys but it's risky because of the odd key bindings for the direction arrows. Yes, you can pan normally in first person search mode with these keys but they each have an added function in third person mode — inventory, action, look and talk. Try to remap any one of them, inventory to 'I' for instance, or look to 'L', and it takes the panning function along with it. Trouble, because you can't then use the directional arrows exclusively for panning, you might end up jumping around all over the place.
My advice, take care if you remap the keyboard — you may get more than you bargained for.
You will get used to using the awkward default settings, or find a workable alternative, but no matter what navigation is terrible. Finvinerro won't stop easily when you start him moving forward, he invariably overruns his mark despite pressing 'shift' which is meant to slow him. This means continually turning back. He stops at any tiny obstacle too, so there's lots of maneuvering to get him to the right place, and he needs to be intricately positioned to act on an object. Continual key tapping to move incrementally is the best strategy for a lot of the time.
Which brings me along to turning, another frustration. There is a key to turn 180 degrees and it works perfectly, but try to turn in minute degrees and Finvinerro is often slow to respond, he can even get stuck fast, especially when near a wall. Tap away to get him to turn, but don't lose patience and plant your finger because he'll suddenly respond and spin in circles. Wait for him to stop, then try again.
What a shame the interface is so incredibly annoying because Dead Reefs has lots of promise. The opening sequence is spectacular, showing the demise of Patrick Wyndham to the accompaniment of stirring music and flashing and cracking lightning. The graphics and sound are very good throughout with a beautiful, haunting soundtrack and excellent sound effects. Intermittent bird cries above the lapping waves, frogs croaking in the swamp, crows cawing in the graveyard, and the sound of footsteps noticeably change from crunching on the pathways outdoors to sharp clipping on stone. Indoors, they are even better. Run Finvinerro across a room and you'll hear his hollow footsteps on wood change to dull thudding on carpet and then back again. It's impressive.
Together the background music and the sound effects create a suitably ominous atmosphere that compliments the graphics where there is again minute attention to detail. The mist hangs low on the lonely islands and trees and buildings are eerily silhouetted against the sky. The indoor locations are just as well done with delicate rugs, carpets and wall hangings in the mansion and all sorts of decorative furniture. The characters are also expressive and well animated and the writing is pretty good. Finvinerro himself is suitably decorous for a king's man, although he could have been a bit more expressive on occasions.
It's a murder mystery, so there are 9 or 10 characters to interrogate to gather clues. The puzzles themselves are varied and though they start off fairly easy, they do get more difficult. To some extent the extra difficulty is due to the lack of feedback. I stumbled on a couple of puzzles because the mechanics eluded me. Some extra information would have helped. Also one of the riddles was great fun but the other lacked sufficient clues. But maybe it was me; unfortunately the frustration of moving Finvinerro around didn't encourage persistence.
As well as the above there are a couple of simple spatial puzzles (move matches, draw lines on a sketch), plus a seemingly compulsory match the tones, as well as a liquid measuring exercise, and a couple of mazes. Then there are the inventory based puzzles too, of course, and items are fairly easy to find in the gameworld despite the darkness, because you can always enter first person 'search' view and zoom in on the right spot. Oh yes, and there is a timed puzzle made all the more difficult by the awkward navigation. A little patience works wonders here to weather the repeats.
There is a diary to keep you on track so it's never a problem deciding what to do next. Indeed, the game leads you onwards fairly rigidly, especially near the end when Finvinerro will refuse to go anywhere except in the right direction. There is also a map to jump to various locations, and when completed the jumps will disappear, once again offering guidance.
Remember to save often in Dead Reefs because you can die. Fortunately there are limitless save game slots. The game comes packaged with an eventful and intriguing story you can jump right into, it's wrapped in evocative graphics and music, but the execution ultimately lets it down. Following more closely some of the accepted conventions for keyboard driven games would have helped a lot, as would smoother navigation.
Some food for thought despite my earlier approval of the 'eye' symbol that tells you exactly where to direct your attention in each location in Dead Reefs. Considering that the gameplay in Adventure Games revolves around exploration and puzzle solving, doesn't highlighting every single interactive object dull the exploratory experience a little?
Copyright © Rosemary Young 2007.
All rights reserved.
Win 2000/XP/Vista, AMD 1800+ (1.5 Ghz) or Intel 1.8 Ghz, 512 MB RAM, 4x CD ROM or DVD ROM drive, Graphics card nVidia GeForce 5200fx or ATI Radeon 9200, 16-Bit Sound Card, DirectX 9.0c, Hard Disk Space 860 MB.