I have read H. P. Lovecraft's short stories. They are strange, dark, and often incoherent like ravings of a man half crazed with horror. So, I had certain expectations about the game claims to have been directly inspired by Lovecraft's writings. The game's retail box has great screenshots - realistic, dark, and eerie. It looks promising...
Inspired by Lovecraft's story...
The opening of the game doesn't disappoint. A huge full-moon gives way to a dark, menacing sky with swirling yellow and black clouds. The sky then gradually becomes gray and wintry as the camera descends to a plain-looking house with a large front yard. A sense of foreboding behind the normalcy of life. So far so good, even though it's more Edgar Alan Poe than Lovecraft. I see someone running into that house.
Can't hear, can't see!
Then, abruptly I am inside the house, and I hear a loud banging on the door. I manage to get to the front door to answer. A skinny, serious-looking man dressed in a gray suit starts talking to me rapidly. Hey what's the problem here? I CAN'T HEAR A THING! It's not my PC speakers, because even after I turn up the volume I still can't hear well. I stop the game, trying to find the game option menu to turn on the subtitles. AND THERE IS NO SUCH THING!
With only a vague idea as to what this person said, I am left in this house. Hmm...
I decide to take a look around, but then I immediately get disoriented. WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH ME? Well, the game fixes the mouse pointer at the center of the screen. That's OK, a lot of games do. But in this game, the fixed point seems to serve as a vanishing point in perspective. When you move the mouse, everything around you is re-drawn with the center as a vanishing point. You get a weird sense of seeing everything from inside a fish bowl. (This has a repercussion later in the dark.)
What am I supposed to do?
Since I couldn't understand that man, I figure I'd better read the manual. But there is not much there to help me. So the year is 1927. I am William Stanton, and the rapid talker is my childhood friend (even though William Stanton looks like a 17-year-old while his friend looks 40-something). And my friend's strange behavior may have something to do with some alchemist's lab somewhere and a book called Necronomicon (Book of the Dead).
I take a look at the box, and it says: "Join William Stanton on a mysterious journey, in a desperate quest to save the life of his friend." OK, so I am going to save my friend. The narrative continues: "Travel beyond the realms of science and discover the mysterious apparatus which holds the secrets to the afterlife." Well, I haven't gotten much from the box either, other than some vague horror and mystery. I will just restart the game and see what I can find out the second time...
So my friend's name is Edgar Witcherly. A good doctor who visits me right after Edgar tells me so. The place is somewhere in Rhode Island. He says my friend needs to be interned for insanity. I am supposed to find out what he's been doing in secret with a dubious chemist. It has something to do with reviving the dead.
My journey will take me to a small fishing village, a dilapidated old barn with cabalistic symbols, an underground alchemical laboratory, and finally to the underground tower built by the Old Ones.
(More or less) non-linear gameplay
Many adventure games claim to be non-linear, but most of them usually proceed on a more or less predetermined path. I recently played a "non-linear" game which did not become fully non-linear until about 1/2 of the game was finished. Often, certain places don't open up until certain events trigger them. Some games won't even let you out of the initial location until you finish everything you are supposed to do.
Necronomicon is one of the better "non-linear" games; you are free to go outside and check things out even before you do anything in the initial location (the house). Go out the front door, walk up to the road, look left and right. You see the motorcycle leaning against the white picket fence. You also see the mailbox, and you can read the mail if you click on it. Face the road again, and it looks like there are two directions you could go - left or right.
In order to go either direction, you will need to use the motorcycle. But as soon as you find the ignition key in the house you are free to go, either right to the fishing village or left to your friend's house. There may be certain things you cannot do in the village because you lack the necessary inventory items, but you are free to knock on the doors, interact with people there. The events that take place in your friend's house won't be triggered until you do certain things, but at least from the beginning you are able to walk up to the front door.
Story collapses as puzzles defy logic
Lovecraft's stories may not be logical, but for any game to be credible, it has to have a consistent, internal logic - even a madman's logic, both in the storyline and in the puzzles.
This game starts out logically enough, and you are able to comprehend what transpires in the early parts of the game fairly well. However, the story stops making sense about halfway into the game. William Stanton has his friend locked up in a sanitarium for his own safety. Yet William seems to all too easily forget about Edgar's protection when he refuses to answer my trivial question. Huh? Didn't the box say that I am on a desperate quest to save the life of my friend? It's all downhill from there. Toward the end, the developers seems to have totally abandoned the effort to tie the loose ends of the story (there are many) in their desperate quest to end the game.
The puzzles in the game are solved by collecting information (by talking to people, collecting documents) and combining inventory items that you pick up along the way. In the beginning where there is still a semblance of a cohesive story, the puzzles are logical enough, and you can follow the reasoning behind the puzzles.
However, after the game proceeds beyond the point where you need to insert 2nd CD to continue, the puzzles become increasingly arbitrary and meaningless. Once you go to underground maze that leads to the tower built by "The Old Ones", don't waste your time trying to figure out the puzzles. Just go the hint sites and get the solutions. You won't get any insight into the supposed secret; I still don't know what is.
Aside from the non-linear game play, there is one more thing I did like about this game. It is one of the two endings you can trigger this during the final sequence of the game. You get to relive the excitement and anticipation of the game's opening scene.
It's so dark in here
The developer seems to have taken the "dark" aspect of the story way too seriously and literally. In many indoor locations, you cannot see well. Turning up the brightness on your computer and adjusting the lighting in your room may help, but not much. The mouse pointer should alert you to a hot spot in the dark, but often I couldn't even find it because of the skewered perspective that the game uses. You lose your sense of location. I was lost in the underground maze in pitch dark for what seemed like eternity (40 frustrating minutes in the real world).
When it is light enough to see, the graphics look good. They create a realistic, sinister atmosphere appropriate for a horror adventure game. However, the characters that inhabit this realistic world look like cartoon characters. Their bodies and faces are not proportioned like human beings. The doctor who advises the protagonist has an extremely fine set of teeth that seem to form a circle in his mouth. (And to see his hair follicles up close is a horror indeed.)
Game control: You have no choice in the matter
Usually the game control issues do not make or break a game. But in this case they contribute significantly to breaking the game.
First and foremost, there is the strange fish-bowl perspective the developer decided to use for navigation: I didn't like it, I never got used to it, and it screws up the spatial orientation, making it harder to find hot spots in the dark.
Second, you have to swap discs. Aggghh. It's not a big game, but the developer decided to keep most of the game on 2 CDs. Not only you have to have a disc to play the game, but you have to swap discs after you are about halfway through, in the middle of a dark hallway beneath the barn. You insert Disc 1 to start the game and select the saved file, then you have to switch to Disc 2 to play the saved file.
Third, as mentioned earlier, you don't have access to any settings in this game. No sound level adjustment, no brightness / contrast control, no subtitle options. No matter how you tweak your PC's hardware, you can't hear well, and you can't see well. After a while, you simply lose interest in continuing to play.
Fourth, there is no explanation of what it is that you pick up as an inventory item. Although it is pretty obvious what most items are, sometimes I did not have a clue what I was carrying.
The final nail in the coffin is that you have only 8 save slots. I don't know what the developer was thinking. Even back in 2001 when this game was released, didn't a typical PC have enough space on the hard disk for almost unlimited saves?
If you are running Windows XP, you may need to use the compatibility mode to play the game. Right-click on the game icon, go to Properties, click on the Compatibility tab, and check the box in "Run this program in compatibility mode for" and select Windows 95, 98, or Me from the drop-down menu.
Verdict: Great promise never delivered
I am afraid that the claim of having been directly inspired by Lovecraft was too tall a claim. As far I could figure, the extent of inspiration was to borrow the title of the game and the idea of the Old Ones (not that they did anything with it). Perhaps the developer shouldn't have mentioned Lovecraft. A story where you are out there trying to stop a madman from unleashing the dark force that would destroy the world can be developed into an interesting game without resorting to Lovecraft or Necronomicon.
My final score is 51 out of 100. If you can borrow this game from a friend or somehow get it for free or close to it, it may make a nice short diversion on a lazy weekend, but don't expect much.