The 11th Hour review

Well, it’s Halloween! So, ghosts, goblins and other things that go bump in the night, today we’re going to take a look at the sequel of my very first horror-themed review, The 7th Guest. I’m talking about The 11th Hour.

The 11th Hour is an adventure game developed by Trilobyte and published by Virgin. It was originally released in 1995 for DOS. It was ported to Macintosh in 1997 and re-released by Night Dive Studios in 2013 for Macintosh and Windows.

Graeme Devine, the main designer and programmer, created a new video compression  program called Wavelet and updated the Groovie engine used in The 7th Guest specifically for this game (which would later be used in subsequent Trilobyte titles).

But, as always, before we take a look at the game, let’s first look at the covers:

17406-the-11th-hour-dos-front-coverThis is the US cover and apart from the title, which looks cool, it’s a bit of a mess with several clocks, wires and remains of a baby doll. I see where Trilobyte was going for with this, but I find it very confusing.

Luckily, the European version is a bit better:

93203-the-11th-hour-dos-front-coverNow, this one I like better. Yes, I understand if some people find it too simplistic, but the use of the baby doll’s head along with the strings and the colour red in a black background, makes it look more ominous, fitting for a horror-themed game.

And now, as always, let’s boot this child of the night:

The game starts with a long intro cutscene introducing our main characters: Carl Denning, the host of the TV show “Cases Unsolved” and its producer; Robin Morales. The intro starts with Carl watching the news about Robin’s disappearance and the series of unsolved murders she was investigating before disappearing. Carl then receives the GameBook (a PDA-like laptop) by mail with a video in it of Robin asking for help and an image of Stauf’s mansion. Carl then goes to Harley-on-the-Hudson, where Robin was last seen while remembering their last interaction. Carl arrives at Stauf’s mansion and after solving a riddle via the GameBook to open the mansion’s door, the game properly starts.

The 11th Hour, just like its predecessor, uses logical puzzles to advance the story, but with an added element to the gameplay: first you receive a riddle by Stauf in the GameBook referring to any object in the mansion, then you have to find and interact with said object to solve the riddle, but every time you enter a new room, you can’t interact with any object whatsoever until you solve the puzzle located in said room in order to “unlock” the objects and the rest of the room. And there’s also a lot of “red herring” objects you can interact with.

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The beginning of the intro featuring our hero, Carl Denning, played by Douglas O’Keeffe.

And every time you solve a riddle, you’re awarded a short cutscene, usually depicting Robin’s investigation before her disappearance (later in the game, they also show Carl’s adventure in the mansion). The game’s story is divided in acts (represented by each passing hour), in which at the end of each act, a longer cutscene plays (including the smaller cutscenes you’ve “collected”) that advances the story along.

To help you, you have the aforementioned GameBook, which substitutes the Ouija board from the last game as the in-game menu. In it, you can save and load and you’ll also have access to a map (and although the mansion’s layout is still the same, it’s good to know which rooms are accessible and which puzzles remain unsolved or not) and a help button that substitutes the library book from the last game. The first two times you click in it, it gives you hints to the puzzle or riddle you’re solving and the third time, it solves the puzzle or riddle for you (although you still have to search for and interact with the objects to solve the riddles). But this time, however, there’s no penalty whatsoever in using the help feature to solve the puzzles and riddles. But you can’t use it to solve the last puzzle (which we’ll talk about later on).

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Looks familiar?

The riddles usually use anagrams and if you’re bad with anagrams (like I am) then it’s a good thing there’s the GameBook. And the new puzzles are even harder than in the previous game. Remember the dreaded microscope puzzle in The 7th Guest? Guess what. It’s back with a vengeance! AND IT’S NOT EVEN THE HARDEST PUZZLE IN THE GAME NOW! Maybe that’s why there’s no penalty in using the help feature to bypass the puzzles. And, as always, Stauf taunts you throughout the game, especially if you fail a puzzle or riddle. And again as always, his taunts get old fast due to repetition.

The cutscenes are now longer (sometimes a bit too long) and of a much better quality than The 7th Guest. Robert Hirshboeck (Henry Stauf), Julia Tucker (Julia Heine), Larry Roher (Ed Knox) and the late Debra Ritz Mason (Martine Burden) are back to reprise their roles and Hirshboeck again turns the ham all the up to eleven while playing Stauf, whether it’s live-action or just voiceover. The new actors, however, aren’t as memorable. Although some of them are renowned TV actors, their performance ranges from bad to acceptable, with some good moments here and there.

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The GameBook with one of the riddles displayed.

The story is now darker with some gore and one or two adult scenes here and there; and for the most part; it isn’t that bad. But halfway through, Trilobyte throws at us some poorly plot points added only for shock value. And the production value, although better than in The 7th Guest, is equal to a 90s suspense TV series. Honestly, I had more fun with the puzzles than I had watching the cutscenes. And also, all the dark zany humour present in the previous game is now mostly gone, with a few moments here and there with Stauf.

The new 16-bit graphics are definitely an improvement, with much better detail. But since the game now occurs in the 90s, the mansion is rundown and debilitated, which means that although the graphical quality is better, the game isn’t prettier which ruins the atmosphere in my opinion. If the intent was to make the game more visually scary, then it failed that purpose, even if you play it in “spooky mode” (just the game in faded black and white). And also, there’s a lot of visual references to The 7th Guest (in case we forget we’re playing a sequel to it) and even one small reference to another famous FMV adventure game of the time.

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One of the several puzzles for you to solve.

Which leads us to the animation. The animation, again, is better in terms of graphical quality but now with some top-quality special effects (well, top quality for the time, that is). There’s no longer weird auras around the actors (which prompted The 7th Guest becoming a ghost-story in the first place), but there’s still some pretty obvious green screen effects (it was kind of new at the time). I have to say that the animation is actually one of the best parts in the game.

Now in terms of music, George “The Fatman” Sanger is back as the main composer and not only does he brings remixes of the previous game’s musical score but also some new themes, which in their majority aren’t as good. With the exception of “Mr. Death”, the main menu theme, which is quite catchy. Also, instead of taking advantage of the new technologies to improve the music quality to CD audio, Trilobyte released the music in MIDI format, which was kind of outdated by 1995’s CD-ROM standards.

Which brings us, finally,  to the end of the game and before discussing it, here’s your spoiler alert:

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Without revealing too much, the game now has three endings to choose from, ranging from good, to bad, to worst. However, there’s a small detail: you can only save the game right before the final riddle and the final puzzle. And after choosing one of the endings, if you reload your save file in order to see the other endings, you obviously need to solve the final puzzle again. But here’s the catch: the final puzzle gets harder the more endings you unlock and the previous solution to it no longer works. So you might want to get the best ending first.

Ok, spoilers over!

So, in conclusion, The 11th Hour is technically bigger and better in comparison with its predecessor, but it fails to provide a proper scary atmosphere and therefore, it lacks  the previous game’s charm. And due to the order of the riddles and fact that the game is divided in acts, it’s also a bit more linear than the previous game. If you’re a The 7th Guest fan or simply enjoy logic puzzles and riddles, then you might want to give it a shot. But for traditional adventure games fans, I can’t really recommend it. If you want to play it though, you can buy it here on Steam.

50234-the-11th-hour-dos-screenshot-the-library-in-spooky-mode

The library in spooky mode.

Before wrapping up the review, here’s a few curious tidbits: The 11th Hour is definitely a mature game, but did you know it was supposed to be even more adult? R-rated sex scenes were planned, which prompt the rumour of an uncut and uncensored version of the game, but said scenes were never filmed. However, the script for the R-rated version can be found on the official strategy guide (and in the digital versions).

And like its predecessor, The 11th Hour had a great commercial success, selling around 300,000 copies in the US alone, despite the mixed reviews it received. Trilobyte would later make a compilation of some of the puzzles found in both games (along with some from another title, Clandestiny) in Uncle Henry’s Playhouse.

Also, there have been several attempts to crowdfund either a third game in the series or a remake of The 7th Guest, but all have failed until now. There’s a successful Kickstarter project called The 13th Doll, which is planned for release between late 2018 and early 2019. And from what I gathered, it’s more of a reboot/remake of The 7th Guest than an actual sequel, so who knows if it’ll even reference The 11th Hour.

Ufff! I thought that would never end! So, ghosts, goblins and other things that go bump in the night, I hope you all enjoyed the review. And wish you all a happy and scary Halloween, WHATEVER YOU ARE! HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

Space Racer review

Last week, we reviewed a futuristic sports game and today we’re going to review a futuristic racing game. Yup, you can’t tell me I don’t have a lot of variety in my reviews! Anyway, today’s subject is Space Racer.

Space Racer is a futuristic racing game released by Loriciels in 1988 for the Amiga, Amstrad CPC, Atari ST, Commodore 64, DOS, Thomson MO, Thomson TO and ZX Spectrum.

But as always, let’s look at the cover first:

223510-space-racer-dos-front-coverNow this is an interesting cover. It shows a hoverbike smashing through a sort of window with a race track full of skulls behind said window. Both the race track and the hoverbike seem nice, but my only problem is that it seems the pilot is smashing into the limbo because of all the empty black space. Was he supposed to smash the computer screen? If so, why is it circular? Or was all the blackness supposed to be outer space? If so, where are the stars? Well, at least the title looks nice.

And it’s time to boot this scooter:

The first thing you’ll notice is the fantastic title screen, which blows the cover out of the water, not only because of the artwork, but also because of the awesome digital music theme playing out of a PC speaker! This blew my mind when I was a kid. But then I realized how much the game was outdated for a late 80s computer title. The title theme is actually an ensemble of several music samples, arranged together. I have to confess that’s actually a very clever way to come up with a music theme, if successful.

Then a menu appears where you can choose between three tracks. And apart from the backgrounds, the tracks don’t appear to have any difference between them whatsoever, as you’ll find out. Then we go to the race screen and the first red flag appears: the title is very misleading because none of the races occur IN SPACE! All of them occur in what appears to be alien planets. At least the backgrounds look nice. We then see our hoverbike in the middle, and on top of the screen; the number of the level, the score, an energy bar that doubles as the timer and something on the right which I have no idea of what it is or its function.

1018-space-racer-dos-screenshot-on-your-marks-get-set

On your marks, get set, GO!

The game is an arcade-type racing where you don’t actually race against other racers but against the clock. Like I said before, the energy bar on top is the clock, if it reaches zero before finishing the race, then it’s game over (although you have an opportunity to replenish part of it once). You automatically get points the more you stay on the race and I think you win the race when your score reaches a certain number. If you win a race, you move on to the next race, keeping your score, until game over.

On the tracks, you encounter several obstacles; like traps, posts and other racers. Because of the race track (the white line) being quite small, it’s very hard not to bump against one of the poles every five minutes. With enough time, any person could master the hoverbike and the tracks, if it wasn’t for the other racers. To bypass another racer, you have some options: the easiest one would be to blast them, but you end up using some of your energy. You can also put yourself alongside one and push him to a post or simply go over them. And there seems to be an endless supply of the buggers.

1020-space-racer-dos-screenshot-take-that

Damn you, you bloody sign!

Now with the technical aspects: the CGA graphics have very little color and apart from the aforementioned title screen and the backgrounds, the rest of the graphics and sprites aren’t really that good. The animation, including the parallax scrolling, isn’t also anything to write home about. However the digitized music and sound effects in a PC speaker were a surprising and welcome addition, although the engine sound gets grating after some time. But the controls are a bit stiff, in both the keyboard and the joystick (although the latter is still the better option).

In conclusion, Space Racer is an outdated title for a late 80s game and apart from the title screen, the music and the tracks’ backgrounds, the game isn’t really that good. It’s very repetitive and after awhile, it becomes rather monotonous. If it had better controls and more variation in general, it would be a better game. As it is, I can’t really recommend it, not even for a quick-play. If you want to try it though, you can go here to play it in your own browser.

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The Amiga and the Atari ST versions appear to have better graphics and sound but I haven’t play them, so I can’t really compare. Also there seems to be another version of the game released in the US by Broderbund Software that has a championship mode and more stuff, but I can’t find a copy of it.

So, what is your favorite sci-fi/futuristic game? Tell me in the comment section below or on our social media. Next time, let’s leave the future and travel someplace else. Until then, keep on racing and playing.

Speedball review

One of the most famous developer studios from the late 80s and early 90s was The Bitmap Brothers. If you had a Commodore Amiga, you know what I’m talking about. The Bitmap Brothers is one of those studios that started small but valued quality over quantity which resulted in fantastic games and a rockstar fame among video game companies. Perhaps one day I’ll write a retrospective about them. But today, we’re going to take a look at one of their earliest games: Speedball.

Speedball is a futuristic action/sports game developed by The Bitmap Brothers and published by Image Works. It was originally released in 1988 for the Amiga, DOS and Atari ST and re-released the next year for the Commodore 64. In 1990, it was ported to the Sega Master System and the following year to the NES (as KlashBall). And in 2013, the Amiga version was ported to the BlackBerry.

But as always, let’s first take a look at the covers:

52003-speedball-atari-st-front-coverThis is the European cover and it nails down the futuristic sports imagery perfectly, with the player’s gear full of spikes and the blood splatters all over the stadium field floor. It conveys perfectly what the game’s about, but the artwork could be better.

242973-speedball-dos-front-coverThis is the US cover and I think is a lot better. It conveys the brutal, futuristic sport part even better, but the spikes and the violence are definitely toned down. Still, the quality of the artwork is way better and more colorful.

194416-speedball-nes-front-coverThis is the NES cover and as you can see, they’ve put back some the spikes and a bit of the violence too. It’s also a pretty cool looking cover but I have no idea why they changed the title.

236442-speedball-sega-master-system-front-coverNow this one’s the Sega Master System cover and as you can see, it’s definitely the most brutal one. They’ve doubled the spikes and the blood on this one and it could perfectly be a death metal album cover.

But as always, it’s time to boot this sucker:

As you can see, Speedball features a pretty cool title screen, with the fist coming through the screen and then we have the main menu screen with a fist constantly pounding his own leg, just to reinforce how hardcore this game is. In the menu screen, you have several options: you can either play against a friend or against the AI. The single-player options are League and Knockout. League is your typical league gameplay where you face down against other ten teams for points and you can also choose its duration. The more matches you win, the more points you have. Knockout is more akin to a cup tournament, where you face the other teams in a best out of three matches against each team in direct elimination style (you need to win two matches against each team in order to move on to the next round).

7506-speedball-dos-screenshot-ega-main-menu

“Pounding it. Pounding it. Pounding it.” – Jim Sterling

After choosing which mode to play, you then have three teams to choose from along with the portraits of their respective captain and the stats below. There are only three major stats: Stamina, Power and Skill. Stamina is the energy each player has to tackle other players and to shoot the ball. It goes down everytime one of your players is tackled by an opponent; Power is the force each player employs when tackling an opponent, the stronger your player is, the more stamina the other player will lose when tackled; and Skill is used when performing any action, the higher it is, the more chances your player has in performing said action, whether it’s tackling other players or shooting the ball. Power seems to be the most important stat in the game because the AI tends to perform better when controlling teams with high power.

And then we finally get to the match. Speedball is sort of a no-holds-barred handball sport, played in a top down view, with teams of five players. The objective is, of course, to score goals, but you can tackle any other player to get the ball or to avoid them getting the ball (except for the goalies). There are also black bumps randomly distributed throughout the field where the ball can ricochet, as well as the field’s walls. There are even are two openings in the midfield that when the ball is shot through one, it comes out the other one in the opposite side of the wall (like in Pac-Man). With practice, you can make awesome trick shots that’ll dazzle your opponent (especially if you’re playing against a friend).

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There are also bonus items that appear randomly throughout the match that when touched by any player, it’ll have several different effects on the gameplay, from freezing the opponents for a short period of time to electrify the ball, turning it into a throwing weapon, among others. You can also collect coins during the matches and if enough are collected, you can have several choices at the end of each match that’ll affect the next match, from bribing the ref or the official to downgrade the opponents’ stats, among others. It would be better if we had this option at the start of each match, because it’s near impossible to predict if the next opponent will be strong or weak.

Now for the technical aspects, I have to say that the EGA graphics are quite good. Although the game isn’t very colorful, the sprites are however very detailed. The animation is okay, nothing spectacular, but quite serviceable for such a fast-paced game, but the game tends to slow down if there are many players on screen at once. And also the music themes are very good, despite having a PC-speaker quality (press F3 to enable the music), but the sound effects are mediocre. The control scheme is quite simple but it gets a bit used to, whether you’re playing with the keyboard or a joystick (I personally recommend the joystick), but after a while, I didn’t had much problems controlling the players. And like I said before, the AI performs better the stronger the team is, so the difficulty changes a lot from match to match.

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So in conclusion, Speedball is a fun game to play, whether alone or against a friend. Sure, it has its flaws (like the slowdowns or the random difficulty), but I had fun playing it. A difficulty select option would be much appreciated, among some other small tweaks. If you like fast-paced action sports games that are very easy to get into, then I recommend this one. If you want to try it for yourself, then go here to play it in your own browser.

Speedball, according to its devs, was based on the 1975 movie Rollerball (but it’s not an official adaptation of) and it shows, right down to the spikes (but not the roller skates nor the bikes). The Amiga version not only has better graphics but also digitized sound effects and music, although the controls remain the same and the AI’s more polished, resulting in a harder difficulty.

Speedball received critical acclaim and it was very successful among the public (as with almost every Bitmap Brothers’ title). But it was quickly surpassed by its vastly superior sequel (which we’ll review in a later date).

So, do you prefer Speedball or its sequel? Tell me in the comment section below or on our social media. Next time, we’re going to continue exploring the future. Until then, avoid any spikes in your clothes and keep on playing.