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.

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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!

I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream review

Last June 28th, renowned sci-fi writer Harlan Ellison passed away at the age of 84. Ellison is considered one of the most prolific and influential sci-fi writers of the 20th century and today we’re going to take a look at the video game adaptation of one of his most famous short-stories: I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream.

I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream is a graphic adventure developed by The Dreamers Guild and published by Cyberdreams and Acclaim. It was originally released in 1995 for DOS and Macintosh. In 2013, it was re-released by Night Dive Studios at Steam and GOG.com, for Windows, Macintosh and Linux. And in 2016, it was gain re-released in Google Play and Apple Store, for Android and iOS.

The original short-story was published in 1967 and it quickly became one of Ellison’s most famous works, winning several awards, including the Hugo Award. And Cyberdreams, famous by their adult-themed sci-fi, fantasy  and horror games, decided to adapt Ellison’s short-story into a graphic adventure game. But unlike other video game adaptations, Ellison was actively involved in it from the start, from co-writing the game’s script to voice AM, the game’s main antagonist.

But before we take a look at the game, let’s first look at the covers, shall we?

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I think I’m starting to understand the title of the game…

The original cover features a central image of Ellison himself with his mouth covered by what it looks like computer circuitry, hinting at the game’s plot. In some editions of the game, the central image was in fact a 3D mousepad that was shipped along with the game. It’s a very eerie image that conveys oppression by technology, which is one of the game’s main themes.

But the re-released version brings a slightly different cover:

271594-harlan-ellison-i-have-no-mouth-and-i-must-scream-linux-front-coverNow, this version expands upon the computer circuitry imagery, which I personally  adore! While the red and black background in the original cover might look more menacing, the blue highlights in this one makes it look more logical and cold, which still works within the game’s context.

But enough about imagery and let’s boot this sucker, shall we?

The game’s intro doesn’t show a lot of backstory, so reading the manual before playing the game it’s highly recommended. The backstory is basically this: an omnipotent computer called AM, after a nuclear apocalypse (of which AM might have provoked), saves the last five humans from said apocalypse, but when reaching the height of his omnipotence, AM found a great hate for Humanity and for more than 100 years, dedicates itself in torturing the last humans, preventing their deaths by torture or even old age.

AM then decides to put the humans through tests and dramas, both for its own entertainment as well to prove to itself all the failings in human nature. And it’s here that the game starts, in which you have to choose between our five protagonists: Gorrister, a former trucker with guilt-ridden suicidal tendencies; Benny, a former soldier who was the most tortured by AM to the point of being modified into an ape-like creature; Ellen, a former computer engineer with an inexplicable phobia for the colour yellow; Nimdok, an extremely old German scientist and Ted, a paranoid and vain con artist.

10593-harlan-ellison-i-have-no-mouth-and-i-must-scream-dos-screenshot

The beginning of the game.

After choosing your character, AM then sends him or her to a scenario where each character must find out the objective of said scenario and fulfill it. However, they must also confront their past, fears and shortcomings in order to succeed in their respective scenarios. However, there are different ways to solve the puzzles and each character has the option of following their basic instincts or learn the human qualities that evaded their past lives in order to raise their karma level.

The karma level is measured by each character’s background colour in their respective portrait, located in the bottom-left corner of the screen. It ranges from black to white, going through several colours. It gets lighter for every “good” action and darker with each “bad” action, including reading each character’s Psych Profile, which provides clues to solve the puzzles. The reason for the karma level is only revealed at the final part of the game, but believe me, it helps to try and finish each scenario with the highest possible karma.

10596-harlan-ellison-i-have-no-mouth-and-i-must-scream-dos-screenshot

Gorrister’s scenario.

The screen is divided in two sections: the main section, where the action occurs and the bottom section, where the character portrait, the action menu and the inventory are located. The interface is very reminiscent of the SCUMM engine by Lucasarts, although it’s lacking some common action verbs, like “open” and “pull”. But usually it’s “use” the most commonly one used for such actions.

The graphics are very detailed and quite good, although not very colourful (with some exceptions). But then again, in such a dark-themed game, a dark colour palette for most of it makes sense. The animation is equally good. The sound is great, be it the sound effects, the voice quality; although the voice acting ranges from great (Ellison’s AM is deliciously hammy!) to bad (I’m not a big fan of using actual children to voice kids); and the soundtrack, which is also quite good in providing a proper atmosphere.

The puzzles, however, can be quite hard (especially in the final part) with a lot of pixel-hunting and backtracking. In fact, for almost every puzzle solved, you need to backtrack to previous screens to look for new objects, situations or characters to interact in order to move the story along. I’m not ashamed to admit that I had to use a walkthrough several times, especially at the end, since reading the Psych Profile for clues lowers the karma level.

10594-harlan-ellison-i-have-no-mouth-and-i-must-scream-dos-screenshot

I wasn’t kidding when I said there was a lot of symbolism in this game!

But I do like the freedom given to the nature of your characters, because your karma level influences the type of ending you can get, ranging from terrible (the canon ending in the original short-story) to the best ending, all of it which gives the game some replay value, something that’s quite rare in graphic adventures.

But for me, the best part of the game, it’s the story and the characterisation. Due to nature of graphic adventures, Ellison had the opportunity to expand all the characters’ backstories and the story’s themes, not just adding extra endings. The story is quite dark and bleak, exploring themes of human nature and condition, especially redemption, mixed with a lot of symbolism and ethical dilemmas. And apart from the best ending, the endings can also be very dark and depressive. You won’t find any comedy or humour whatsoever throughout the game (although the violence isn’t as gory as I expected).

10595-harlan-ellison-i-have-no-mouth-and-i-must-scream-dos-screenshot

“Walk like an Egyptian…”

Also, the characters were substantially changed from the original short-story and given a deeper characterisation, making them really fleshed out when you find out their backstory. Of course, there was a little controversy when Benny’s backstory was drastically changed, but there are still some hints of it here and there when playing his scenario.

In conclusion, I Have No Mouth… isn’t a perfect graphic adventure from a puzzle solving perspective, but the premise, the story and the characters more than tip the balance in its favour. Regardless to say that I recommend it, although it might be very hard for newcomers to the genre.

10597-harlan-ellison-i-have-no-mouth-and-i-must-scream-dos-screenshot

No, this isn’t King’s Quest, not even close…

I Have No Mouth… was very acclaimed by most critics, even winning some awards, but it sold poorly. Most of its success come in more recent years, becoming a cult classic and increasing Ellison’s fame as a writer, although he personally prefered to stick to writing short-stories, novellas and screenplays.

You can buy it here on GOG.com, here on Steam, here on Google Play or here on the Apple Store for iPhone and iPad. Both the GOG.com and Steam versions come bundled with the original short-story in PDF format and the soundtrack.

So, I hope you’ve enjoyed this review dedicated to the memory of Harlan Ellison. Next time, we’ll take a look at a more upbeat game. Till then, be good and keep on playing.

Alone in the Dark review

Welcome ghouls, ghosts and other things that go bump in the night, to our Halloween special review. And this evening, we’re going to take a look at the game that built the foundations of the survival horror genre: Alone in the Dark.

Alone in the Dark is an action-adventure game made by Infogrames and originally released in 1992 for DOS. It was re-released the following year in CD-ROM format and ported to the FM Towns and PC-98 computers. It was also ported in 1994 to Macintosh and 3DO and the following year to the Acorn 32-bit computer. And in 2014 it was released for iOS.

Alone in the Dark came to life when French developer Infogrames decided to do an horror-themed game using the new 3D graphics and animation of the time. Unfortunately, animating an entire mansion in 3D wasn’t possible, so the designers decided to just animate the characters and the objects in a prerendered 2D background, which forced the use of fixed camera positions. The team also decided to use the haunted mansion trope as their horror setting since it’s a well established classic, but this time combined with Lovecraftian horror elements.

But before we continue with the game itself, let’s look at these horrible visages, shall we?

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This is the most well-known cover of the game and I have to confess, it’s quite good, giving a proper eerie atmosphere.

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This an alternate cover, released only in Europe. It’s less colorful and detailed than the previous one, but it’s still quite eerie.

But time has come, children of the night, to boot this horror into our systems:

But before playing the game , I recommend reading the newspaper that comes with it, which not only presents you the background story, but it also helps you immerse in the 1920s atmosphere, although the text presented in the character selection is enough as a background story. Basically the story is that Jeremy Hartwood, an artist living in Louisiana, was found hanged in the loft of his mansion Derceto. The police consider the cause of death to be suicide and of course, we all know there’s more than meets the eye.

You can choose between two characters: Emily Hartwood, Jeremy’s niece, who doesn’t believe her uncle committed suicide but believes he left a note for her in his old piano. Or Edward Carnby, a down-in-his-luck private detective, who was hired by an antique dealer to find the aforementioned piano. The intro shows either character arriving at Derceto and heading to the loft, where then the game properly starts. I recommend acting fast when you start because if you take too long, two monsters will enter the loft to confront you and although they’re easy to defeat, it’s best to block their way in.

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“Welcome to my house! Enter freely. Go safely, and leave something of the happiness you bring.”

The game uses tank controls to control the character, which I personally don’t like and although they’re somewhat responsive, the animation is too slow. Luckily, the monsters also move slowly (and some even slower than you), so you’ll never be outrun or outpaced by any of them. Also, the game’s mechanics and controls are quite intuitive, so you’ll have no time getting used to them (it depends on your experience with tank controls, though). And as far as I can tell, there’s no gameplay difference between both characters.

Another aspect that becomes immediately apparent is the fixed camera views, which range from adequate to horrible. The perspective changes from one screen to another which can mess up the gameplay (especially if your character is running). Also, some camera angles are weird and although it might improve the atmosphere, it makes the game unnecessarily harder, like getting stuck behind a wall or fighting enemies that are just outside the camera view, among others.

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Who do you choose to face the horrors of the night?

The inventory screen shows your health, the actions you can perform and the objects you carry. However, unlike graphic adventures, you have limited inventory space in which you can only carry objects until reaching a weight limit. Unless specified otherwise, usually the bigger the object, the heavier it is. Luckily, you can drop objects and pick them up later and apart from weapons, most objects only have one use, so after using them in a specific puzzle, you can drop them to pick up other objects. And if for some reason, you need to pick up an object you dropped earlier, you can always backtrack for it. It makes the gameplay harder and more confusing but more realistic.

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Inside the loft.

There are four type of objects you can pick up and use: weapons (and ammo for the ranged ones), objects to be used in puzzles, books and parchments that contain the game’s plot and hints to solve the puzzles or how to defeat certain monsters, and health objects (potions or food). However, there are also some red-herrings (objects that have no use whatsoever or are dangerous to use). There’s also a reduced number of ammo and health potions, so you need to know when using them for maximum effectiveness.

The puzzles are somewhat hard to solve due to the small amount of hints and you’ll be forced to resort to trail-and-error in order to solve them. Some of them are typical adventure puzzles (using objects to get other objects or to gain access to new areas) while others are used to bypass or defeat a special monster (because not all monsters can be easily defeated by combat). However, the first half of the game is more puzzle-driven, while the second half is more action-oriented (which I’ll talk about later on).

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The inventory and status screen.

The game presents great sound effects, especially the screams when your character is hit by a monster or every step you take and every creak when you open a door, which contributes to the eerie atmosphere of the game. But the voice-over acting it’s average at best, although some over-the-top delivery can be quite entertaining. However, the soundtrack by Philippe Vachey is superb but it only appears in certain moments, which is a good point, because the silence works in favor of the overall atmosphere. In fact, the music is the only hint you have when a monster suddenly appears.

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Fighting a weird looking monster. Honestly, it looks like a featherless giant chicken.

But unfortunately, for me, the worst part of the game are the graphics. Yes, I know this is a 1992 game, but early 3D polygons have aged terribly. Although the backgrounds and the colors look good (especially in the latter areas), the texture of the characters and the monsters look terrible. All the monsters look more funny than scary (especially the bird-like monsters at the beginning). And the lack of shadows doesn’t help either although I do love the game-over screen.

But to properly continue the review, one has to peel back the nice cover to reveal the ugly truth behind it. In other words:

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Like I mentioned before, the first half of the games has more puzzles while the second half (after gaining access to the underground caves) is more action-oriented with some platforming. You even get a new action (jump) for said platforming. However, the moment you enter the caves you can’t go back the same way, so I recommend making sure you have all the objects, weapons and ammo necessary to finish the game.

And talking about the platforming, the camera perspectives make it very difficult to properly land the jumps and although you won’t die if you miss a jump, it won’t be easy getting to where you were initially. Also another small hint: avoid the water as long as possible. And to finish the spoilers, don’t think for a second that the game ends the moment you defeat the villain.

OK, spoilers over. Back to the proper review.

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The gruesome game-over screen.

So in conclusion, if you can get past the tank controls, the camera angles and outdated graphics, Alone in the Dark can be an enjoyable experience for Halloween. And despite its flaws, the designers did their best in delivering a proper horror atmosphere that will invoke tension and fear in opening a single door because you never know what awaits in every new room or area. So, give it a shot, you won’t be sorry.

Unfortunately, I can’t make a comparison with the other versions because I haven’t played them. Neither have I played the modern rebooted series (that started with Alone in the Dark: The New Nightmare), which inspired the infamous Uwe Boll movie (which unfortunately I did see).

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There aren’t many, but you’ll need every one of these…

Alone in the Dark had a tremendous success and was planned to be the first game of the Virtual Dreams series, but Infogrames decided instead to make a franchise based on it. However, it did unofficially became part of the Call of Cthulhu series, whose titles are referenced in the game (although they’re graphic adventures instead). But Alone in the Dark’s biggest contribution was its game mechanics (little ammo, health items and hints) and scary atmosphere, which inspired Capcom’s Resident Evil and the consequent survival horror genre.

So, where can you get your hands or claws or whatever on it? You can buy the entire original trilogy here on Steam or on GOG.com.

So, children of the night, did you enjoyed this review or Halloween in general? Let me know by commenting below or on Facebook and Twitter. Join me again next time and remember, keep on playing, whatever you are HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!