Even if you've never heard of H. P. Lovecraft, you've probably encountered his writings -- at least in one form or another. Lovecraft wrote over 100 short stories between 1897 and 1937, and while the stories themselves might not be especially well known, they've influenced films such as Re-Animator and the Evil Dead, authors such as Stephen King and Peter Straub, and even a computer game in Alone in the Dark. Now French developer Wanadoo has joined the fray, creating a point-and-click adventure based on Lovecraft's work. Their game, Necronomicon: the Gateway to Beyond, spans two CD's and relies heavily on Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos, but it fails to capture the tension or the horror of the mythos, and it doesn't end up being very much fun to play.
Necronomicon takes place in New England in 1927. You play a recent college graduate named William Stanton, and early in the game you receive a visit from a boyhood friend named Edgar Wycherley. Wycherley gives you a dark, pyramid-shaped object and tells you, “Don't give it to anyone, not even me, especially if I ask for it.” Later you find that Wycherley no longer recognizes you, that his family and friends think he might be insane, and that he's been researching areas better left unexplored. Your job in the game then is to discover what happened to Wycherley, how the pyramid fits in, and how you can set things straight.
That's a pretty good premise, with intriguing questions and lots of possibilities for the answers, but the story doesn't pay off. In fact, the story is so vague and fragmented that it might as well not be there. For example, there's a shadowy character named Gregor Herschell involved somehow (even though he's dead), and you learn things like he died in a fire and he collected corpses, but you never learn what his motivation might have been, if the fire was in any way significant, and why he'd want lots of anonymous corpses anyway. And then there's a doctor named Owens, and you find out Wycherley is working for him, but the doctor makes a five second appearance in the story and then disappears without a trace. And then you discover an encoded message and find out Herschell's grave marker might let you decode it, but you never go to a cemetery or decode the message. Plot points just appear and disappear right and left, and it's like there should have been another CD to the game to help you figure out what's going on. As it is, you're left with that fact that there's a Bad Guy, he's up to something Bad, and you have to stop him -- never mind the details. And if that wasn't bad enough, the characters are boring, too. Most are just there to provide snippets of information, but Stanton is so wooden and unemotional that he seems perpetually on the verge of falling asleep. It's just hard to get involved in a game when there's nothing there to pull you along and keep you interested.
An adventure can get by if it doesn't have compelling characters or an interesting story (Myst 3 is a good example of that), but to do so it has to have a good set of puzzles. Unfortunately, Necronomicon doesn't score well in that category, either. For starters, pretty much all you do in the first half of the game is walk around and talk to people, and the puzzles aren't any more complicated than finding the (obvious) key and using it to unlock the (obvious) door. Then, in the second half of the game, there are about ten real puzzles to solve, but the clues for those puzzles range from obscure to unfriendly to nonexistent, and trial and error is about the only method for working your way through. For example, in one puzzle you have to create a special fluid by combining the contents of a pair of flasks. That doesn't sound like a problem -- except there are 15 flasks to choose from, the method for combining the flasks is cumbersome, and, of course, this is one of the puzzles where there aren't any clues, and so the only way to solve it is to go through the 105 possible combinations until you hit upon the right one. Fun, fun, fun. In another puzzle you have to figure out how to open a complicated door, and, as luck would have it, there's even a clue for the solution. But the clue is located on the surface of an object, and -- get this -- the object mysteriously changes appearance between the game's first CD (when you pick it up and most likely look at it) and the second CD (when you need to open the door). Since there isn't any reason to suspect the change, it's easy to miss the clue entirely and end up having to solve the puzzle through the same sort exhaustive method used with the flasks, which isn't very enjoyable. So, overall, I didn't like the puzzles very much, and I won't even get into the fact that Wanadoo added cheesy mazes to the game -- other than to point out that they're there, which should be warning enough.
Earlier this year Wanadoo merged with Index, the developer behind Dracula Resurrection and Dracula: the Last Sanctuary, and so it's no surprise that Necronomicon has a graphics engine very similar to the one used by the Dracula games (it's also similar to, but not as good as, the one used by Myst 3). That is, the game world is made up of numerous locations, and while ``you'' are stuck in the center of each location, you can rotate your perspective to look around in any direction you want. Also as with the Dracula games, the locations look good and have a fine sense of detail, but they're not nearly as atmospheric. Basically, Wanadoo traded in old castles, cemeteries, and Transylvania for general stores, libraries, and New England, and it's just not the same (although there is one creepy underground sequence). The real surprise in the graphics department is that the character models in Necronomicon don't look as good as they did in the Dracula games. For some reason Wanadoo changed how they modeled hair, and the end result looks pretty awful, like it was a work in progress that they gave up on halfway through.
The sound for Necronomicon is unimpressive. There might be a grand total of two minutes of background music for the game, but it is so unobtrusive that you probably won't notice it except when you view the closing credits. And even when it does play, it only has endlessly repeated 20-second tracks of music, so it's difficult to rate as good or bad. The ambient noises are better, but sometimes they're a little heavy-handed, like the howling wind you hear when walking through the town of Pawtuxet. It's not supposed to be a ghost town, but that's the way Wanadoo made it look and sound. And then there's the voice acting, which ranges from bad to acceptable. None of the characters sound especially believable, but then they have to utter some really bad lines, like when Stanton goes into the general store and asks, ``Do you have something strong that will cheer up a miserable fishermen?'' Maybe dialogue like that sound better in French.
The interface is straightforward and works well, but then there isn't a whole lot it has to do. Necronomicon uses a simple point-and-click interface, and while there aren't any hotkeys, the things you need to do only take a click or two, and so hotkeys aren't really needed. Wanadoo also included an overhead map in the interface, making it easy to travel between distinct areas of the game, and that is definitely a nice touch and something I wish more adventure games would implement. Less nice is that Wanadoo changed how conversations take place, with the result that now you usually can't repeat conversations without reloading the game. That's a problem because the actors aren't always clear in what they say, and because there aren't any subtitles available in the game.
On a technical level, Necronomicon never crashed when I played it, but there are still several parts of the game not implemented as well as they should be. Necronomicon uses the same engine as Index's two Dracula games, and it inherits all of their problems. Mouse clicks are ignored far too often, there aren't any install options, you can't start from the game's second CD (forcing some needless disk swapping), and there isn't a way to change any game settings (like the volume). The latter wasn't a problem in the Dracula games, but in Necronomicon the background noises are too loud and often wash out the character dialogue. Since Wanadoo / Index has been using the same engine for over a year now, it would be nice if they'd fix some of these things.
As for the manual, it meets the minimum requirements for what it needs to do. Necronomicon is a simple game to understand, and you could probably play it without looking at the manual at all, and so the manual's ten pages are more than enough to explain how to play. However, since Wanadoo (or maybe DreamCatcher) splashed H. P. Lovecraft's name all over the box, they should have put a little something about him in the manual, and perhaps added a bibliography. It also wouldn't have hurt to add some background information for the game or to include some information about what the Necronomicon (the book) is supposed to be.
Overall, Necronomicon just seems like a game that was developed too quickly. Dracula: the Last Sanctuary only came out three months ago, and it wouldn't surprise me to learn that that's how long it took Wanadoo to make Necronomicon. The story is muddled, the puzzles are boring, the acting is bad, there are mistakes all over the place (like the cast pronouncing Wycherley in different ways, or the merchant selling you a map and some information for $40 -- in 1927, remember), the character models seem hurried, and there aren't even any good cinematics to make the game at least fun to watch. And Necronomicon is also short. The box claims it has 30 hours of gameplay, but I suspect the answer is more like 10. So if you're interested in H. P. Lovecraft, then you're much better off reading some of his stories than you are playing this less-than-impressive adventure.