The Watchmaker, a 3D adventure from Italian developer Trecision, is about a mysterious clock named the Pendulum. The Pendulum was created long ago by -- who else? -- the Watchmaker, but because it has the ability to focus “leyline” energy, it potentially poses a threat to human survival. That means you, alternately controlling a lawyer named Victoria Conroy and a paranormal specialist named Darrel Boone, must search an Austrian castle and find the clock before it can be put to ill use. That’s right, it’s a race against time to find a clock.
As premises go, that’s pretty weak. Trecision at least tried to create a story for their game, which puts them ahead of about half the other adventures out there, but... a dangerous clock? Leyline energy? An undisclosed threat to human existence? None of that really hooked me into the game, and things don’t improve any as you play your way through. The developers never explain what leyline energy is supposed to be, the motivations of the people trying to use the clock remain cloudy, and the threat to humanity ends up being somewhat less than cataclysmic. Plus, the whole gimmick of having two characters to control doesn’t play out much, so for fun and entertainment, The Watchmaker has to rely on its puzzles.
Luckily, the puzzles are pretty good. Almost all of the puzzles are inventory based, and most involve distracting the castle’s staff or unlocking doors, so you can access parts of the castle where you’re not allowed. But simple trial and error won’t get you through (unless you’re overly patient); you’ll have to think your way through the puzzles, and Trecision did about as nice of a job as you’re likely to see of keeping puzzles realistic without making them so easy the game isn’t any fun to play. In fact, many of the puzzles are difficult, but it’s because they’re subtle rather than because they require bizarre solutions.
Also, the gameplay is relatively friendly. Only a couple of puzzles are timed, and there are only a couple of places where you can die. Otherwise, The Watchmaker works just like most of the LucasArts adventures, where nothing you do can cause you to lose the game, and so it’s easy to experiment. The only real problem the game has is that it’s a little sloppy, which, perhaps, isn’t surprising given that Trecision and Got Game Entertainment aren’t exactly household names. The inventory system isn’t very intuitive, spoken dialogue rarely matches the subtitles (and the subtitles for some reason eschew apostrophes), and some of the puzzles give bad feedback. For example, early in the game a character throws a bottle into a garbage bin. If you click on the garbage bin your character says there’s nothing worth rummaging through it for, and if you change your view to look inside the bin, you can see the bottle, but the hotspot for picking it up is so oddly placed that you might not realize that you can pick it up at all. And so it’s easy to not figure out that puzzle, even if you have the right idea. Otherwise, The Watchmaker’s puzzles are well thought out, but they require some patience, and so The Watchmaker is a better game if you can kick it around for a week rather than trying to blow through it in a weekend.
Graphically, The Watchmaker has its ups and downs. It uses an engine similar to the one employed by Alone in the Dark and Grim Fandango (among others), where you control a 3D character in a 3D world, and as you move the character in the world the camera position changes to create different “scenes.” But The Watchmaker has a couple of nice improvements: you can do everything in the game using the mouse (you can still use the keyboard to move), and you can rotate the camera and switch to a first person perspective to get a better view of your surroundings. The system works well, and the first person perspective is a nice way of allowing you to do things like searching through bookcases and (ideally) rummaging through garbage bins.
However, while the graphics engine is effective, the actual graphics quality of the game is sub-par. The Watchmaker doesn’t look nearly as good as other graphical adventures, and things only get worse when you switch to the first person perspective (since it zooms in the view). Textures don’t have enough detail, objects are blocky, and character faces barely have any animation at all. But, that being said, the Austrian castle is interesting enough to explore, and the graphics are good enough so that you can tell what everything is.
A notch below the graphics is the sound. The Watchmaker has nice enough sound effects and background music, but its voice acting is just terrible. Forget for a second that the game takes place in Austria and that none of the characters sound European, the voice actors have enough trouble just trying to say their lines clearly, and most sound like they’re totally bored. Even the main characters have problems, and games that have voice acting problems usually get at least that part right. The voice acting isn’t so bad you need to turn it off and simply use the subtitles... but it’s close, and somebody’s penny pinching really hurt the game.
Overall, The Watchmaker is a nice enough adventure. It has some depth, and you won’t breeze through it in under ten hours, but it’s also a little sloppy, and the voice acting is awful. Hopefully Trecision can take the game engine, which works pretty well, polish it up a little, and then take their experiences from The Watchmaker and create something really good in the future.