Are you a fan of detective fiction from the 1930s? How about Nessie, the fabled but elusive monster in Loch Ness? Does the sound of bagpipes stir you to read Robert Burns and start talking with a wee burr? Or perhaps you just enjoy an entertaining hour or two with a colorful adventure game. If any of these shoes fit, you might enjoy playing an older adventure game from Dreamcatcher and Wanadoo called The Cameron Files: Secret at Loch Ness.
The story opens in Chicago, with hardboiled private eye Alan P. Cameron reminiscing about his recent case in Scotland. Balding red-headed Cameron is an unlikely comic hero, a hybrid of Darren McGavin in his Nightstalker days and Guy Noir of Prairie Home Companion. The episode begins with his being summoned to the home of a family friend in Scotland to help resolve some mysterious events. As circumstances happen in games like this, the home is a large estate and castle on the shore of Loch Ness. As you might imagine in any story about an ancient castle, there are many secrets to discover, as well as hidden passages, family jewels, and even mystical objects. Some of the more original devices involve fingerprinting techniques and primitive fax machines to communicate with Scotland Yard.
As soon as he arrives, Cameron learns that his host, Lord McFarley, has vanished. Cameron’s first objective will be to find his father’s old friend. Our hero encounters both supernatural and natural forces as he investigates the strange events at Devil’s Ridge Manor. He carries a flask of whiskey (Scotch, of course) as a "tool" in his inventory, and handles supernatural events with the same forced fearlessness that Darren McGavin popularized in the television series. In fact, Cameron even physically resembles McGavin! The supporting cast includes an old aunt, a young fiery niece, a kilt-clad retainer, a whiskey distiller, the vanished host, a maid, and an Indian man. There is even a family ghost (called a "banshee" in the game) and, of course, the fabled "Nessie" herself, who unfortunately only has a small role to play. In general, the story line and characters are engaging enough to maintain player interest and curiosity for most of the game.
All of the voices are somewhat believable. They thankfully have mild Scottish burrs so that American players can understand the dialogue. The animation may not be as good as more recent games, but it was considered excellent when the game appeared in 2002. Faces and sets are rendered in a cartoon style rather than an attempt at photographic realism. The music and sound effects are excellent, even by modern standards. Old castles on windy moors simply sound scary, and this game uses those kinds of sounds nicely to enhance the game play mood. In combination with bagpipe airs and distant bird calls, most of the sound effects were enjoyable. Options to adjust the game settings are almost non-existent, leaving players to use their computer volume controls instead. There are eight saved game slots, which appear as dated image panels, and each saved game can be overwritten if desired. Since there are so few occasions which lead to Cameron’s death or some other dead-end, you will probably not need to use all of the slots unless you are playing the game simultaneously with other people.
The Cameron Files: Secret at Loch Ness is a first-person linear adventure game with scattered third-person cut scenes to bridge important transitions in the storyline. This is a standard structural device in many current games and the developers use it fairly well in Loch Ness. The movement paths of the hero are usually angular and predictable, sometimes making it seem awkward and tiresome to do simple things like walking across a room. If you ignore the nice images and colors of the Scottish interior and exterior scenes, you could almost plot Cameron's every move with straight lines and right angles. After visiting the same area several times, you learn to take two right turns followed by four clicks to the left and so on, merely to go out the door. I found myself wishing for shortcut icons that would move Cameron along a bit more quickly.
As with many older adventure games, Cameron's item inventory is kept in a container (a "wallet") and can be accessed at any time by a single click. Some items can be combined when necessary, and hints will leave little doubt when and which items are to be used.
A running log (Cameron's "diary") is updated each time a significant piece of the puzzle has been discovered. The diary will also provide suggestions and hints for subsequent linear choices. For example, Cameron will have written something like "Must investigate the pier!" in the log, so the rare player who is wondering what to do next will get a push in the right direction.
There is also a map of the exterior locations which Cameron locates early in the game. The map can be used to move quickly from one known distant spot to another. One of the more annoying movement elements is the sudden locking of the front door without any plot reason. This construction device was used by the designers to keep Cameron inside the castle until necessary linear steps are completed. While it simplifies and controls the overall linear progress toward the ending, it detracts from the complexity of the various puzzles and adds a little tedium by forcing the player to backtrack too often into visited areas looking for whatever is needed to open the front door.
The pixel-hunting aspects of Secret at Loch Ness are usually very straightforward and obvious, with occasional surprises and cleverly concealed clues. Because many parts of the game are so predictable, the player can get lulled into complacency and suddenly realize that he or she has overlooked an obvious item by not noticing a camouflaged door or drawer. On these frustrating occasions, impatience can drive even a good game player to one of the many excellent walkthroughs available in the Internet. But most of the clues and items can be found with very little effort and imagination, and the attractive artwork and original Scottish music maintains your interest while hunting down the more elusive hotspots.
The best puzzles in the Secret of Loch Ness are some involving runic characters and several mazes, particularly a timed underwater sequence and a concluding "twisty-turny" location which made me remember old text-based adventure games from my youthful programming days. In both these mazes, Cameron's movements become more complex with more directions and angles, and clever art work adds to the confusion and deliberate misdirection. If you like mazes, you should enjoy these two puzzles.
The ending of the Secret of Loch Ness seemed a bit contrived and melodramatic to me, but it did not really detract that much from the overall gaming experience. I was more annoyed by the tedious movement patterns than by anything related to the story or the plot. In terms of playability, this is an easy “E-Rated” game for older children to play, with a little supervision and guidance. There are a few scenes which some parents might consider questionable for young children, but certainly nothing worse than they see every day on prime time television. Older, more experienced gamers will be able to run though Secret of Loch Ness quickly, perhaps in several hours, and will enjoy most of the diversion. I doubt, though, that many of you will want to replay it. Once will be enough.