There are some major developers out there who churn out a new adventure every four to six months, and who seem to spend that entire developmental cycle making sure that the game has good graphics rather than, oh, say, a solid story and interesting puzzles. On the other side of the spectrum, there are also some minor developers out there who spend years making titles. Sometimes those developers create good games (like Gilbert Goodmate) and sometimes they don’t (like Adventure at the Chateau d’Or), but there’s never a doubt that they care about their product and put a lot of time and effort into thinking it through. That leads us to Passage: Path of Betrayal, the maiden adventure from Dragon Works Interactive, a developer so small that it is essentially just one man, Darris Hupp. Hupp spent over two and a half years making Passage, and while the resulting game has many rough edges, it also captures the spirit of the inventory shuffling adventures of old, and it does enough things right to be fun to play.
Passage is a 2D point-and-click adventure, and it uses a third-person perspective. Some developers can take a 2D engine and still give their locations a sense of depth, but the Passage locations are very flat, and you can usually only move from side to side in them. In that sense the game engine is strongly reminiscent of the Sierra adventures from yesteryear (think King’s Quest), but Dragon Works also borrowed a little from LucasArts to make the game friendly. Objects are guaranteed to be available when you need them, so you can’t get stuck in a puzzle that you can’t finish, and, although you can die, the game automatically puts you back in a spot just before the sad event took place, and so you also don’t need to keep numerous saved games around. The overall style is certainly retro, but it still works well.
As the game opens up, you (as a young lad named Riff) wake up from a horrible, vivid nightmare. The nightmare is so disturbing that you immediately consult with the local magic keeper -- and find out that he had the exact same dream himself. Evil things are afoot, and the magic keeper directs you to warn the royal family while he further researches the matter. From that point on you’ll have to explore many lands by travelling through passages (portals), you’ll have to talk to many people and solve many puzzles, and you’ll eventually have to confront the evil itself. But Dragon Works was pretty good about not turning you into the lone protector of humanity. Just getting to the royal family takes half the adventure, and even then you’ll find yourself assisting people who are fighting the menace, and taking part in a story rather than directing it. The effect works well, and the story has enough intrigue and plot developments to keep it interesting.
What works less well is the game’s puzzles. As I mentioned before, Passage employs inventory-based puzzles, and so you’ll be using objects with other objects and giving objects to people rather than pulling levers and pushing buttons. But the inventory puzzles are pretty basic, and usually you’ll only need to use a single object to solve a puzzle. On the plus side, that means there aren’t any of those convoluted sequences that make you wonder if the developer gets royalties from the hint guide, but on the minus side it also means that it usually isn’t any challenge to figure out which objects go with each puzzle. That doesn’t mean Passage is easy to play, because it isn’t, but it means the focus of the game’s difficulty lies in actually finding the objects rather than in figuring out how to use them. Sometimes this difficulty is caused by the game’s graphics engine or interface (which aren’t especially good or friendly), but mostly it’s because Dragon Works often put objects where you wouldn’t expect to find them or simply tried to hide them. Luckily, they weren’t too outrageous here (like Index was in Dracula: the Last Sanctuary), and so the game is still playable, even without a hint guide.
Dragon Works also had some problems with the game’s interface -- which is strange because adventure interfaces haven’t changed much through the years, and copying a good one should be easy. But for starters, although the game’s cursor changes appearance when it points to a “hot spot” on the screen, it only grows a little bigger and switches color from gray to white. That’s a barely noticeable change, and so it’s easy to miss spots where you can do things. Also, the game uses a system similar to Curse of Monkey Island and Gilbert Goodmate where if you click on an object, a mini-interface pops up with options for what you can do with the object. But there are no less than six options available, and that’s just too many. Certainly, things like “action” and “operate” should have been combined into a single option, and the entire aspect of the game should have been streamlined. Lastly, inventory items are shown along the bottom of the screen, and while that’s fine in theory, Dragon Works didn’t provide any way to scroll through them, and sometimes you can have more than the 15 objects allowed. The “extra” objects are then unusable, and that can put you in a situation where you can’t finish the game. So Dragon Works still has some work to do, but they’ve already released one patch for the game, and maybe they’ll address some of the interface problems in a future patch.
Passage also has weak graphics. Adventures don’t really need a super slick graphics engine to work well, but the graphics in Passage are about as bad as you can get while still having a playable game. The characters and locations are all fuzzy and indistinct, the graphics style is in a bad place between cartoony and realistic, and everything looks like it was drawn in crayon (it was really pastel chalk). Also, the game has some palette problems, so characters often have white or gray skin (something I haven’t seen since the days of EGA graphics), and sometimes the graphics engine just isn’t able to depict what it needs to depict, and so there are times when you’ll have to recognize that a smudge on the screen is actually an object you can pick up. (“Oh, it’s a fork.”) Basically, Passage doesn’t look very good, and while Darris Hupp has some artistic ability, I just don’t think a game can really be successful unless the developer hires some professional artists to do the work. (They also need to avoid using pastel chalk. Hopefully that was just a one game idea.)
As for the game’s sound, it’s not too bad. There isn’t any spoken dialogue in Passage, but that’s not surprising given the game’s history and budget. However, Passage does have a nice range of ambient sounds, which are serviceable if not spectacular, and it includes (by my rough calculation) over an hour’s worth of original background music. Plus, the music, while not as complex or as fully orchestrated as the music found in some other games, sounds pretty good, and so I was happy with the game’s sound quality, taken as a whole.
Overall, Passage: Path of Betrayal probably fares about like you’d expect. It’s the first game from a guy working mostly by himself, and so while the ideas behind the game are solid, the actual performance is a little shaky. Still, Passage is better than a lot of the adventures I’ve played lately, and since it’s modestly priced at $20 and provides about 15 hours of gameplay, it’s a pretty good deal.