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Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Lost Crown: A Ghost-Hunting Failure














* this article adapted from my original review on GameFAQs. 

The Lost Crown: A Ghost-Hunting Adventure is an adventure game by Jonathan Boakes, best known for his previous work on the Dark Fall series. Given the man's reputation within adventure-gaming circles, as well as some really emphatic reviews for the game, including a 4/5 star average from 70 user reviews on Amazon, I had high hopes and expectations for TLC. 

But the game proved utterly disappointing. The pacing is incredibly slow, the characters are completely flat and shallow with some of the worst voice acting I've ever heard, and the plot lacks all form of intrigue and compulsion. To top it all off, the word of mouth claimed that this was a very suspenseful and sometimes scary game, but it's just not. There are a few shining moments within this sea of murky brown, but the whole package is mediocre, at best.


[The Premise]

TLC plays just like any traditional point-and-click adventure game. Scenes are constructed from third-person stills, and you click along the edges of the screen (usually along a visible pathway) to move to the next scene. Gameplay consists of going from scene to scene clicking on everything you can, hopefully in the correct order, until you get to a new area, with a couple of simple inventory-based puzzles along the way.

A decent portion of your time is spent hunting ghosts, using a typical array of ghost-hunting equipment including EMF meters, digital cameras, and EVP recorders. In some instances the game assumes a first-person perspective and has you moving through the environment by clicking to go forward and to turn left or right. These sequences are perhaps the most atmospheric of the entire game and can provide some chilling, memorable moments.

The main character, Nigel Danvers, is on the run and has decided to lay low in the quaint town of Saxton. Upon his arrival, he starts hearing weird things about the town, and quickly sets his sights on a local legend, the lost crown. In the process, he discovers that the town has a surprisingly large ghost population that he'll have to deal with them to make progress in his own quest. The majority of his time in this 25-30 hour experience is spent unraveling the town's off-beat secrets, and tracking down the legendary lost crown.


[The Narrative]

As the six-page mini-booklette in the box's cover flap informs us, Nigel stumbled upon some curious files on the Hadden Corporation website servers, and is now on the run. He's being pursued by two of Mr Hadden's lackeys, and he knows that Hadden will stop at nothing to secure the knowledge that Nigel has made off with. In order to dodge the heat, Nigel flees to Saxton.

An introductory "Let's Play" of TLC. Gameplay starts at 3:00.

Saxton is made out to be quiet and out of the way, ideal for his fugitive status. However, he begins to notice strange things, even before arriving at the town; notably, that the train he came in on doesn't even go the full track into Saxton, and that the station master wears a rather antiquated uniform. He asks him about his “period costume,” but the station master doesn't understand what he means. Suspicions immediately arise.

Nigel then has to travel through “the fens,” the marshy wetlands between the town and the train outpost – a mysterious region that the station master warns you to be careful around. Along the way he sees strange images, and most importantly, stumbles upon a few newspaper articles that hint at the legend of the Lost Crown, and I think something briefly about some townsfolk dying in ages past. Next, he meets an old woman on the beach who already knows his name and what his purpose in the town is.

Once he's finally in town, his first stop is The Bear, a local pub and inn, but the bartender refuses to tell him what year it is. He takes up residency in the local “Harbor Cottage,” which the game immediately suggests to be haunted. From here, he spends the next few days meeting strange new people, exploring new areas, and uncovering evidence about the trail of the lost crown, all-the-while trying to piece together Saxton's mysterious history as he encounters one strange inconsistency after another.

The box would like us to believe that one character, Lucy Ruebans, plays an important role with Nigel. In truth, she doesn't get that much screen time – it's a little more than the other townsfolk, but she doesn't spend nearly enough time with Nigel to be considered a main character. Boakes tries to set up a Mulder/Scully duality between the two; Nigel is a Believer, and Lucy is a Skeptic. She wants to believe in the paranormal, but needs hard proof before she's willing to go out on a limb for Nigel. 


Their relationship isn't all that deep, and although the voice acting definitely makes it seem shallow, the true fault lies within the script. There's nothing unique about them that we haven't seen a hundred times in film, television, literature, or other video games. We don't learn anything about Lucy's past, origins, or even her personality or interests (in fact, neither do we about Nigel), so in practical terms she's just another stranger off of the street with a knack for showing up whenever Nigel needs another pair of hands.

In fact, none of Saxton's inhabitants (living or deceased) are as fleshed out as they ought to be. Very little about the characters is revealed beyond your own first impression. They're instantly forgettable, and almost none of them serve any purpose in the actual story. As you explore, you usually uncover one fact about each character that connects them to the town, to the legend, or to one another, but these revelations have no implications on anything in the actual story and come off as a weak attempt to add significance to everything.

Your investigations aren't very compelling, either. What makes a suspenseful, riveting story, is putting the audience in situations where they don't know what's going to happen next, as the hero comes to the edge of solving a problem or answering a question, which will inevitably lead to another problem. The stakes rise with each hurdle, until it becomes life or death, success or failure at the climax. It's about pacing. It's about simultaneously asking questions and answering others. Giving the player feedback that provides a sense of accomplishment and progression.

TLC doesn't do any of this. The story amounts to Nigel wandering around town doing odd jobs for the townsfolk, and stumbling upon clues about the local history, which never answer any of the questions that have been amassing in your mental log. The effect is that you spend hours and hours doing random things wondering “What's the point of all of this? Is it all going to come together in the end?” 

And it never does. The whole time I was hoping for a twist ending, where Nigel turned out to be the ghost, or that the whole town was a ghost town. While a fan could probably theorize endlessly about what the game means, there's no evidence to support any claim, because the ending answers absolutely zero questions. Who is this Mr Hadden? What were those files that Nigel found? What does Nigel actually do for a living? Why are so many ghosts clinging to this town? Why won't anyone tell me what year it is? What's with these newspaper articles that seem to be from the future? How did the townsfolk know who I was before I even got there?

Ultimately, the story is just too spread out to be enjoyable or even comprehensible. The game drags on far too long, and would have been more interesting if there had been fewer characters, fewer ghosts, and a more linear plot progression concentrated on a more compact and concrete premise.


[The Atmosphere]

The front of the box proudly quotes a review from JustAdventure, right under the title, saying that TLC may “go down in history as the best horror adventure game ever written.” This quote is blatantly inaccurate and misleading. Not only does the script feel like something written by a 14 year-old fan fiction author, but absolutely nothing about the game can be classified as “horror.” The genre label on the side of the box says “Suspense,” which is a little more accurate, but as I described earlier, the pacing is slow and wanders around so aimlessly, with zero consequences for anything you do, that there's zero suspense to be had.


Horror games are supposed to inspire some feeling of dread and vulnerability, but nothing in TLC's gameplay mechanics do anything to convey those emotions. You get occasional flashes and suggestions of murder, death, and suicide, but it's about as horrific, as, for example, watching an episode of a television crime drama. The few moments when you're dealing directly with the paranormal are about as close to horror or suspense as the game actually gets. By their own merits, these sections have passably spooky or eerie atmospheres, but they're still not all that scary or suspenseful. 

Meanwhile, Nigel Danvers is just an annoying character to have to put up with. He constantly makes captain obvious comments (telling me exactly what I've already deduced by looking at an item) and asking utterly stupid, moronic questions that make me want to smack him. I feel insulted that I have to be paired with this guy. Other times he just refuses to do what you tell him, which establishes a disconnect between the player and the main character, which made me distance and dissociate myself from the main hero, and by extension, the whole game. I really don't care about the lost crown, but I'd be happy and willing to play along if Nigel were a better character.

I also don't understand Nigel's motivation. I get that he's on the run, but if I were laying low, I wouldn't be going around introducing myself by full, real name to everyone I meet, poking my nose into treasure myths and spreading a reputation about myself and my whereabouts. We go through the whole game on a treasure hunt just because Nigel's greedy. There's no reason or incentive to find the lost crown (in fact, there are even hints along the way that you should stay AWAY from it at all costs). You know like how Indiana Jones has to find artifacts in order to keep them out of the wrong hands thus preventing some catastrophe? He has a reason, and we root for him because of that. Nigel's just some guy fresh off a train with a sweet tooth for treasure.

In short, Nigel kills the atmosphere.

The scenes are all constructed from real life photography. Set a camera, take a snapshot, and that's a scene. The photos are then doctored up to make them look like they were created for the game, so that characters and other 3D models don't clash with the imagery. Then, to top it off, almost the entire game is grayscaled to black and white. Many scenes have flashes of color in them to emphasize items (like the red phone booth, the pink flowers, or at the end, the blue sky), and a couple of simple animations in the foreground or background.


The visuals can look pretty nice, but so little happens on screen that it's easy to zone out because you're staring at a photograph for so long. The shots themselves, though, look good and can be pretty memorable, and the black and white kind of adds to the atmosphere. However, because everything is 2D and the gray tends to blend together in your field of vision, it's sometimes difficult to tell what parts of the environment are new to the scene or are unique items that you're supposed to use.

This ambiguity is especially problematic when they put multiple activation zones for items right next to one another. At one point I was in a graveyard, and the entire field of the gravestones could be clicked for Nigel to say something about life and death, but one individual grave could be examined at closer detail for a necessary puzzle item. I had already clicked on four or five different spots in the graveyard and heard the same line over and over again that I just assumed the whole field was the same. This same thing happened several other times with piles of boxes, the ocean, the sky, blank papers scattered across a desk, etc.

Dialogue is atrocious, and Nigel is the worst culprit. In every single line of dialogue, Nigel adds unnecessary pauses to the flow of a sentence or stresses the wrong words. "The clock, has stopped, at nine o'clock." "HOW, do you KNOW, my NAME?" "Did you see, anybody else, board the train, at London?" You know how people always write in their reviews that voice actors are noticeably reading lines out of context? Here, it's like the individual words are out of context, as if words and phrases were cut out of different lines and assembled together into one sentence, like an anonymous message written from magazine cut-outs.

The other characters aren't as bad, but while Nigel tries too hard to add dramatic emphasis and feeling to his lines, the others do just the opposite. Lucy, in particular, speaks in complete monotone and sounds like a robot (both in terms of emotion and timbre). There are maybe only two or three voices that are actually good, and a decent portion are adequate, but so many are completely devoid of life and emotion. It's especially tragic because an adventure game like this should rely on its characters to breathe life into the game; instead they make what is already a questionable atmosphere even worse.

It's enervating when these conversations drone on and on and, frequently, when the characters don't actually say anything of value. Almost all of the conversations involve characters telling you things you already know, dodging the question and giving you an unsatisfying answer, or saying something that just has no real effect on the plot. It's all too easy to tune out, and it's frustrating that you can't skip lines of dialogue if you hate the voice acting or just want to read the subtitles faster than they can talk. And if you accidentally hit the wrong option you get stuck listening to the entire conversation all over again.


A lot of lines are repeated ad nauseum, in multiple different places. Whenever you meet a ghost, for example, you cycle through the exact same five lines of dialogue, each time. Whenever you collect paranormal evidence, Nigel says the exact same “There's definitely something” and “There! Definitely paranormal activity.” He says “Nothing ventured” every time you walk into a dark area, “Home sweet home, for now anyway” every time you enter the harbor cottage, “Symbolic images, or ancient graffiti” every time you click on a mystical carving. It just gets so annoying.

The rest of the audio is pretty decent. There's not a lot of music, I suppose since this is supposed to be as realistic as possible, so you only hear music in shops and homes where the characters are actually listening to music. And at least half of the music in these scenes sound suspiciously similar to Greensleeves and Scarborough Fair, which bothered me to no end. The ambient sound effects, though sparse and minimalistic, get the job done and fit the scenes pretty well.

Character models are pretty bad for 2008 standards, but since this is an independently developed game I can't knock it too much. The animations, however, are just bad. Nigel doesn't really walk; his feet slide across the floor faster than he actually lifts and plants his feet. When he turns, he keeps his upper torso pointed to wherever he was originally looking until the last second, quickly spinning his shoulders around once his feet are pointing the right way. Whenever you click on something, he stands around for two or three seconds and then slowly tilts his body up or down as if he's the Batman and can't move his neck. When he knocks on doors it looks like a robot trying to stick a dollar into a vending machine.

Have you seen any of those old, cheesy horror movies, where everything looks so fake that you laugh at the characters and the supposedly scary moments? Playing TLC is like that, because a lot of stuff just looks and sounds so bad that you can't take it seriously.


[The Gameplay]

Gameplay is your standard adventure affair. You control the entire game with the mouse and use it to move around the scenes and to interact with people and items. There aren't any action sequences that require fast reflexes or good hand-eye coordination, it's all pretty relaxed adventuring. There aren't very many hardcore puzzle sequences, either – most of what you need to do to progress is simple detective work: collecting evidence and talking to people.

So gameplay generally involves walking into a new scene, clicking on anything and everything possible, and then progressing to the next screen. The game structures your access to various places by blocking areas off with convenient blockades until you're ready to go there, and once you're in an area, Nigel will refuse to leave until you've done everything. The system works well in guiding you along and making sure that you do things in the right order, but it also hinders the feeling of exploration.

It makes me wonder why they didn't just make the game more linear in the first place, instead of giving you the illusion of complicated maps. You can't go places at your own pace and are frequently trumped by Nigel's own incompetence. You'll often find a new path, click on it, and Nigel will refuse to go that way and tell you “I don't know where this leads .... IF it leads anywhere at all.” My reaction is always “Well go find out you stupid idiot!” There's one section in particular where you need to find a church, and to do so, you need to arrange a series of rotating statues in the woods in the right way to get a lens looking through a particular sight-line at the church. When you leave the woods, Nigel finally goes down that path that you've been clicking on all this time, and the church is two screens away. Why we had to go through that whole process and couldn't just, oh, go there, is beyond me.


For that matter, the final crypt in which you ultimately find the lost crown has absolutely NO roadblocks to pass through. Literally, you walk by it two or three times in the course of the game and there's nothing blocking your access to it. The only reason you can't go there? Because the cursor wouldn't highlight over the entrance to let you in until the end of the game. There is NO reason you couldn't have just wandered in there and found the thing right off the bat, other than the game being kind of a jerk to you.

The item collecting and detective work can be frustrating as well. Sometimes the game requires you to interact with certain items in a certain order, so you can easily go through an entire region of the map looking at things, and then get to the roadblock and have to backtrack because you looked at some things before triggering some sort of special sequence. It's then easy to overlook many of the items because you don't remember what they were supposed to be for, and if you're like me, you're reluctant to click on things and get stuck watching Nigel glide over to them, turn in place, look up or down, and then bombard you with his stupid inner monologue over and over again (it was bad enough the first time).

That said, you're not pixel-hunting like in many adventure games. In fact, most items have a pretty wide activation area, which generally makes it a simple matter of sweeping the cursor across the screen and finding all of the activation zones. It's nice because it makes most items easy enough to find, but you sometimes confuse activation areas assuming they cover an entire region when there are actually multiples right next to one another. Inventory-based puzzles are also fairly few, and most of the times when you need to use an inventory item on the environment, it's simple and logical. You still wind up with literally dozens of items in your inventory, though, most of which you can't use or dispose of. 

This is also an adventure game in which you cannot die. There are a bunch of places where your life is put at risk but there's absolutely no consequence, since you can't die or suffer any sort of penalties. It completely breaks the immersion when there's an evil darkness swarming in on you and you have to navigate through a maze to escape, but it's designed to easily allow you to escape by never blocking your path and never actually closing in on you. There's no sense of danger, which therefore never puts you on edge and never ups the suspense. 


Interacting with ghosts is fairly straightforward. You have five different tools at your disposal: an EMF meter that picks up fluctuations in the area's electromagnetism (usually an indication of a ghostly presence, though electrical devices can interfere, even though they never actually do in the game); an EVP recorder that allows you to pick up spectral voices on tape recordings that can't be heard by the human ear; a digital camera with motion-censor to capture images; a digital cam corder with night vision to see in the dark and record video; and a surveillance system set up in your cottage, which combines all of the above.

There aren't a whole lot of things in the environment that you can use your inventory items on, so when that wrench-like icon appears on screen it's usually a safe bet that you have to use your ghost-hunting gadgets on it. In my opinion, this defeats the point because the game explicitly tells you when and where to use your gadgetry, so there's no actual hunting involved, and half the time, Nigel will tell you that you can't use certain gadgets on it. In this regard, the ghost-hunting is literally the exact same gameplay mechanic as talking to someone on the street and then cycling through dialogue options.

Whenever you find an actual ghost, you go through a process of asking the same questions: Is there anybody there, can you see me, can you hear me, etc. It's literally the same questions each time, so you'll probably get sick of it after a while (and you'll get irritated by Nigel repeatedly asking “Can you hear me?” after the ghost has already responded to all of his other stupid questions), but this leads up to the climax when the ghost usually reveals itself and actually carries a conversation with you. Again, this part functions exactly like talking to an NPC, the only exception being that the ghost interaction has weird special effects on screen, and they talk in whispery, spectral voices.


In a few areas, you use the nightvision camera to navigate through dark places, and if the entire game had been like this, it would've been so much better. In these areas you assume a first-person perspective looking through the green tint of the camera. You click on the edges of the screen to walk forward and to turn around, and it's easily the most atmospheric aspect of the game. It's still in 2D and there usually isn't a lot of animation, but it emulates the feeling of being there and walking through the environment as if you were in the moment. But, alas, these moments are fleeting and we're quickly back to third-person stillshots and weak animations.

And, unfortunately, most of the evidence that you collect through your ghost-hunting is utterly useless. There's a table in your cottage where you stash photographs and audio recordings but there's never any need to review or cross-reference anything. Pretty much you snap the photograph, you record the audio and then you're done with it for good. It's the exact same mechanic as pressing a switch to open a door, as in, it's not that involved or satisfying. The game is scripted in such a manner that is does everything for you, and all you have to do is click the buttons to make it go.

It's a long game, but it's worse off because it's so long – everything drags on, and on. The whole thing will take you easily over 20 hours to complete (25-30 if you're adamant about not using a walkthrough), but you'll spend a significant chunk of that time listening to Nigel repeat his horrible lines over and over again, and watching all of his horrible animations. A lot of time is wasted on these little things, and it builds up a lot over time. And in general, most of what you do is a waste of time because it accomplishes nothing.


[The Conclusion]

I trudged through The Lost Crown for two reasons: to get my money's worth (I don't feel like I did), and to be able to write a review with some credibility. It's really quite a pretentious game with all of the boasting and hype on the box, the six-page mini booklette laid into the front panel (which actually gives more insight to some of the characters than the actual game), and all of Jonathan Boakes' shameless self promotion within the game. These facts alone should have told me this wasn't a premium quality experience.

The whole product feels amateurish, and indeed it is, given that it's an independent game developed largely by one man. It's an astonishing accomplishment that one man was able to piece together a game of this length mostly by himself, but I can't make exceptions because of this fact. Ultimately, it is a good game .... for something made by one person. But in the grand scheme of things, it's a flawed experience. I'll grant that it's a memorable experience, but more in a bad way than in a good way.

TLC has decent adventure gameplay mechanics, but it's thrown together with a very loose script that doesn't tie anything together or make sense of anything. Sometimes the less you know, the more mysterious something can be, but The Lost Crown doesn't even make the audience ask the right questions to make it a curious, riveting experience. Even though several gameplay aspects could have been altered to improve the experience, the root of the problem lies with a bad script that really should have been thought out better before going into production.

3 comments:

  1. I'll second all of that. It was reassuring to hear someone voicing the same complaints as I had as I really wanted to give Nigel a good slapping too! I also cannot complete the game because I did part of the Ulcombe section of the game in what is deemed to be the correct sequence and now, even though I've done everything right, what should be happening in the crypt is NOT happening and I don't have a saved spot close enough to the end to backtrack, and I really can't bear the thought of going through so much pointless, repetitive dialogue again! On the plus side, I think Jonathan Boakes is a master of atmosphere and ambient sounds and this is one of the best things about this game. Sadly the rest of it is pretty frustrating, repetitive and annoying.

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  2. What about scratches? Not much to say here, I disagree with you about the lost crown, I believe you are bit stiff, but I guess it is just a matter of taste after all. I had a good time playing it, solved all riddles by myself and the atmosphere was very "ghosty". I believe this is why you find it too flat and all. Anyway, I'd like to hear your opinion on scratches really. They place it among the top 5 horror-adventure games of all times, while it was neither horror nor adventurous. And this can't be only my opinion:

    1) The only scary thing in this game was the last scene.
    2) Some riddles were ridiculusly far fetched
    3) The whole game takes place in a single area. How boring...

    I am only saying that If you feel like defaming someone better choose this game than lost crown.

    H.

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  3. I thank you for this honest review of TLC! I can understand every single point. It is a terrible game with abysmal writing, extremely terrible voice acting (it's definitely the worst I've ever heard), annoying gameplay (you have to click on every single shit to get the story moving), unbelievable characterizations, and some of the worst gamedesign choices I've ever encountered in any game. The only good thing in this game is the music and the background sounds (with exception of the terribly overused ship's horn). Ok, it may be all a matter of personal taste. But it seems to me that the most gamers have no taste at all to rate such a game high.

    I know it's years since the last entry here, but to compare this piece of junk with Scratches is an absurdity in itself. Scratches has some places, where I got stuck, because I didn't know what to do. But it had a good script, a consistent dramaturgy, a believable, acceptable main character and good voice acting.

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