You have to hand it to DreamCatcher Interactive. While most other publishers have either given up on the adventure genre altogether or have turned their sights to the dreaded action-adventure hybrid, DreamCatcher has managed to keep releasing pure adventures, and to the tune of 5-6 per year. If that's not more than every other North American publisher combined, then it's got to be pretty close.
DreamCatcher's latest offering is The Messenger, courtesy of French developer Index. It is a graphically impressive 3D adventure that uses the same Phoenix VR engine as Dracula Resurrection (released last June). It lets you take on the role of Secret Service Agent / cat burglar / wacko murderess Morgana Sinclair. If those three descriptions don't seem to go together, it's because, well, they probably don't. The box and manual claim Morgana is in the Secret Service, but she runs around in black latex and her favorite weapon is a crossbow, and she has absolutely no problem breaking into the Louvre at the start of the game. (In fact, if the Louvre is really as badly guarded as is shown in the The Messenger, then run, don't walk, to see the Mona Lisa before it's too late.) Plus, she kills about a dozen people for no particularly good reason while solving her various puzzles, and she has some pretty weird dialogue, so she's just a hard woman to pin down.
Anyhow, at the start of the adventure you (as Morgana) will receive a taped message from your father. You'll learn that he recently discovered the secret of Satan's Keys, four objects created by the Templar in the 14th century as revenge for the persecutions visited upon them by Philippe the Good. The keys are based on the four elements of the Apocalypse, and if they're combined together they'll destroy the world. So your job in the adventure, should you choose to accept it, is to hunt down the four keys and make sure that the Templar never get a chance to combine them.
So as premises go, The Messenger's isn't too bad. It actually sounds more like something you'd see in a role-playing game -- which is sort of a backhanded compliment given the unoriginality of most such stories -- but the Messenger does a good job of blending in the historical with the fictional. Plus, you'll get to visit real places and see some real people, there is an interesting twist late in the game, and everything holds together nicely.
In fact, one of the strengths -- and weaknesses -- of the game is that the story will take you to the Louvre during five different time periods. It's a strength because you'll get to see firsthand as the Louvre expands in size and goes from being the seat of kings to a home for prostitutes and beggars to a famous museum. It's a weakness because Index doesn't really take advantage of the opportunity. You'll start the game with a dictaphone with about five minutes of dialogue on the history of the Louvre, but that's all the information you'll get (and the dialogue will only partly mesh with the time periods you'll visit). Plus, there isn't any way to "look" or "examine" in the game, so you'll be able to see things as you explore, but you won't learn anything. Edutainment isn't such a terrible thing, and I think the adventure would have been better if Index had tried to give more of a virtual tour.
The puzzles in The Messenger aren't particularly good or bad. There are a couple that don't make a lot of sense, and there are a couple that seem to have much easier solutions that you're not allowed to use, but that's pretty much par for the course with adventure games these days. The Messenger mostly uses puzzles that involve inventory shuffling (using objects so you can open doors and get more objects), but there are a few gadget puzzles (pushing buttons to open doors) as well. A lot of the inventory puzzles are somewhat basic and repetitive -- you "open" a window with a knife about a half dozen times -- but the gadget puzzles are more imaginative and fun. There are also a couple of annoying timed puzzles, but most of the puzzles are friendly in that if you use an object and get a result, it was the right thing to do, and so you don't need to keep a bunch of saved games around.
Where The Messenger really shines is in the graphics department. Index went to a lot of trouble to give a detailed and accurate rendering of the Louvre, and it shows. The game uses a first-person perspective for everything except the cinematics, and you'll be able to rotate that perspective to any angle you want, and so you'll be able to see the floors and ceilings as well as the walls and furniture, and it will all look pretty good. (Well, ok, the floors won't be especially exciting.) And on the rare occasions when you get to meet another character in the game, the character will be modeled well, especially if you get a close-up view. Their eyebrows will move, their eyes will blink, and their mouth and cheeks will move when they talk -- all in a realistic manner. The only real caveats are that the characters don't lip synch to their dialogues very well (perhaps they're synched to the French version), and if you aren't in a close-up view of the characters, their lips won't move at all when they talk. There are a couple points in the game where the latter is very obvious and disconcerting.
The Messenger also has its share of problems. Consider the sound. There isn't any background music to speak of, just short, looping pieces that you'll hear with the credits and when you open the inventory screen. The ambient sounds are pretty good, but you'll often hear something inappropriate like footsteps in an obviously empty room. And the voice acting is mediocre at best. The actors seem to go out of their way to speak quickly, and there were a lot of times when I had no idea what they were saying. Compounding the problem is that there is no way to repeat conversations (short of reloading) and there is no option for subtitles. Since other characters will often give you clues for solving puzzles or tell you things to help flesh out the plot, not being able to understand them can be a real back-breaker.
Another problem with The Messenger is the interface. For some reason Index decided not to give any install options for the game, and so the only way to run The Messenger is with about 99% of the game data residing on the game's two CDs. That means every time the game wants to play a sound or move to a new room or access the inventory screen or change the appearance of the cursor, it has to go to the CD. Index did the same thing with Dracula Resurrection, and while I didn't have any problems with that game, The Messenger often ran sluggishly. And let's just say it's frustrating when you want to access the inventory screen (pause), select an item (pause), exit the inventory screen (pause), and then try to use the object on something (pause), especially when that's a process you'll repeat a lot. And the problem is even worse because about a third of the time when I clicked a mouse button the game didn't notice it, and so a lot of the time when I thought the game was pausing, it was really just waiting. These are things that Index could fix in a patch, but since they're also elements of Dracula Resurrection (and didn't get patched there), I suspect they won't.
However, the worst part of the interface, and something much more difficult to correct, is the design decision Index made to limit the active inventory to eight items. Since you'll start out with seven items, and since you'll be using those items over and over again (like the knife with all those windows), it doesn't take a brain surgeon to realize that an eight-item limit is much too small, and that, really, any item limit is bad idea. Since you can't drop anything, Index "solves" the problem by placing several magic treasure chests throughout the Louvre. You can put any number of objects in the chests, and the chests will share their contents, so if you need one of your objects and it isn't in your active inventory, you can just go to the nearest chest to get it. That doesn't sound too bad in theory, especially since there is a map feature that allows you to jump to any room you've already visited, but constantly running back and forth between chests and the place you want to be (with the sluggish response times, remember) can be really annoying and is the worst part of the game.
So is The Messenger worthwhile? It has its share of problems, but its puzzles are reasonable, it will give you somewhere around 15-20 hours of gameplay, and you can get it for $20 or less. If you're looking around for an adventure to play, and if you haven't tried, say, The Longest Journey yet, then The Messenger is a reasonable choice.
Ever since Sierra On-Line split into Sierra Studios and a myriad of other sub-companies, the adventure gaming community has been looking for a company to pick up the pieces. Though LucasArts managed to keep our thirst for adventure quenched with such titles as Grim Fandango, Monkey Island and Full Throttle, their focus seemed to remain on their lucrative Star Wars license. DreamCatcher Interactive is responsible for the recent Dracula: Resurrection as well as Dracula: The Last Sanctuary. The likely success of these titles is the partnership with Cryo Interactive. Cryo has been responsible for many excellent titles over the years, not including Test Drive 6, of course. As a final introductory note, though my inbred hatred for the French resulted from a childhood of forced French immersion courses, I must admit that they’ve been releasing some great games; Props especially to Infogrames.
The Messenger is a relatively simple, true-to-the-genre search and retrieve style game. The basic storyline is that you play Morgan Sinclair, a secret service agent assigned to retrieve four artifacts known as “Satan’s Keys” from the Louvre. Apparently, when joined together, the four keys cause global annihilation. To put a slight twist on things, you must travel back to three separate periods in time (via temporal spheres) where the Louvre was inhabited by different kings; Namely Charles V, Henri IV and Louis XV. To make your mission a tad more difficult, the descendants of a cult of Black Templars are also after the keys.
The Messenger seemed to be very interesting at first. I hate to knock it right off the bat but to illustrate what I’ve experienced, the best method would be to draw parallels to other titles, as opposed to trying to praise its originality. Right off the bat, after watching the intro, the first thing that came to mind was Myst. Though I could just as easily have said Lighthouse or 7th Guest or for that matter Thief, everyone knows Myst. The background art is visually appealing and a 360 degree panoramic view immerses you into the depths of the Louvre. The model of the museum’s interior is supposedly architecturally accurate. Though I cannot back this up, why would they lie? :)
Adventure games of this ilk have one feature that can make or break them: background music. Sadly, first person static screen adventure games tend to lack a good score. The Messenger does have a repetitive, droning soundtrack to ease your mind while you swing the mouse to and fro looking for points of interest. Don’t get me wrong though, some titles music can grow on you; Shadowgate, Deja-Vu and The Uninvited, though old school NES titles, provide my proof of concept. Background noises help, and the sounds of passing horses and buggies as well as the miscellaneous din add to the overall ambiance. All character interaction comes with a cut-scene and, to my surprise, the voice acting is rather good. To tell you the truth, I expected the voices to have the thick, stereotypical Jacques or Francois sound you’d hear in cheap movies. Half the cuts scenes don’t sync the speech to lip movement though, actually, most of the characters don’t move their lips while they talk anyways.
The game is controlled using solely the mouse. Like most first person adventure games, you move the cursor across the screen until the icon changes to indicate a new action. There are only two forms this can take: Interact and Move. The latter is self explanatory and Interact can take two forms, depending on whether you’re dealing with an object or a person. Interacting with a person jumps to a cut-scene. Should you want to interact with an object, you’ll either see an effect immediately, such as opening a door or chest or you’ll have to select an appropriate item. Choosing the appropriate item isn’t always as straightforward as you’d think because items usually need to be combined with each other to create, well, new items.
This brings us to inventory management. You have an eight-item capacity in your “wallet” as well as nine slots in chests, scattered about the landscape of the Louvre. This is reminiscent of Resident Evil, seeing that the items travel magically from chest to chest. Unlike RE though, these chests are a lot easier to get to (no Zombies in the way) and are much more plentiful. After you travel through time, you begin each new stage with an empty inventory but key items are waiting for you in these chests. You also have four dedicated slots for the “Satan’s Keys”. Depending on which item you choose, you have the option to Use, See, Combine or Separate. The Dictaphone of the Louvre, as well as the Plans of the Louvre, are useless and useful options, respectively. The Dictaphone offers up some historical background on various periods in French history, where the Louvre was occupied by some form of French monarch. The Plans of the Louvre is basically a map. This is an extremely useful function, which allows you to instantly travel to an area you’ve already explored. Personally, this is a feature that is lacking from similar style games because, unless you’re using a walkthrough, you tend to miss items and events A LOT and half the game is spent backtracking.
The puzzles aren’t exceedingly difficult. Clues as to the solutions of the more difficult ones are usually easily solved. This allows the story to progress smoothly. I must admit though, I was often stumped and admittedly scoured the Internet for a walkthrough when I got frustrated (it’s my first time, I swear). Since none was available, going back and thinking logically usually won the day.
The Save/Load feature is done in an interesting fashion. The same 360 degree style applies to these screens as well. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe the same applied to a title called Of Light and Darkness: The Prophecy. I give credit where credit is due and spicing up usually dull, static screens like this is a definite plus in my books, no matter how minor the feature may appear.
Overall, the experience left me with a feeling of playing a Tomb Raider, minus the 3rd person view, minus Lara Croft, minus the action. Museum Raider I guess. Could be worse right? Could be Panty Raider. This title is rather uninspired and leaves a Christian adventure game taste in your mouth. The innovation this title introduces is the fact that the setting is, though one of the worlds most famous museums, the Louvre.
Anyhow, 2001 hasn’t really seen any good releases to date and DreamCatcher’s The Messenger, overall, isn’t that bad. Take it at face value and you’re left with a historical romp through one of France’s most popular tourist attractions. Just as a final note though, my background for the game’s plot comes straight from DreamCatcher’s web site but if you listen to the introduction, apparently the heroine’s name is Morgana and she’s not a secret service agent, she’s just the daughter of some guy who excavated some ancient relics and stumbled across the whole “Satan’s Keys” Templar thing.