Saturday, 12 January 2019

Game Review: Abyss: The Wraiths of Eden Collector’s Edition (replay)

Developer: Artifex Mundi
Original Release Date: 29th October 2012
Platform: PC

I thought I’d try something new this year – let’s see how it goes. I’ve been playing Hidden Object Puzzle Adventure games for a while now, though admittedly I’m about as casual as a casual gamer can get (and I very rarely play other types of game). I really do love these games, and like everything I love I do tend to have a lot of thoughts about them. Last year, I wrote an academic paper on HOPAs for the 2018 IGA conference, and I’m intending to expand on that work later in the year. But I have a lot of (less academic, more fan) thoughts as well.

A couple of things I guess I should say… I really don’t play other types of games, so all these reviews will be of HOPAs. And I don’t get chance to play very often, so it might be that I’ll only write a couple of reviews this year. When I do play, I tend to get very immersed and focused (because I play these games when I need a complete distraction from everything), and so I usually play an entire game in one sitting. And I often get way more invested in the storyline and characters than is strictly warranted by a point-and-click hidden object puzzle. It’s quite possible that these will turn out to be ‘blog posts about games’ rather than ‘reviews of games’, to be honest.

That said, here are my thoughts about the first game I played this year: Abyss: The Wraiths of Eden Collector’s Edition. Artifex Mundi games were the first HOPAs I played, and the games that got me hooked on the format. I think Abyss was the second one I got, and I’ve played it through several times. (I do replay my favourites – sometimes a lot).

Robert Marceau is a famous diver who disappeared during an expedition. You play as his lover (also a diver), and you’ve undertaken to follow Robert’s tracks and bring him back safely. This background is told in the intro scene – the game begins when you discover the entrance to an underground city (and clues indicating that Robert may be inside). The city is Eden, a once-utopian underground settlement – now apparently abandoned and fallen into ruins. All the indications are that something bad has happened in Eden, and black wraith-like creatures float in and out of view at certain points. Other reviews tell me that this setting is very similar to the city of Rapture in Bioshock, but having not played that game I’ll happily take their word for it.

The wraiths are ‘Legates’, strange figures of evil that swarm around Eden and, it appears, have imprisoned or killed the human population. Something has happened to release or empower these creatures, and your interactions with a couple of members of the human resistance helps you to piece together the story behind the fall of Eden. Although your primary objective is to find and rescue Robert, this becomes entwined with a quest to uncover the truth about what’s going on and free the remaining survivors of the city.

I really like the storyline in this game – perhaps it’s helped by the fact that I’ve never played Bioshock? – as the dystopian vibe is definitely to my taste. The Legates are creepy, and I like the evidence you find of the resistance movement as well. Obviously, given the type of game this is, the story is only lightly sketched out – though Abyss does this better than many – and so much of the background about Eden’s utopian ambitions and failure is suggested rather than spelt out. Abyss is successful in its show-don’t-tell backstory, which is one of the reasons I like it so much.

The game is very much in the typical style of Artifex Mundi’s HOPAs. Scenes are detailed and beautifully illustrated (with some nice little incidental details here and there), and there’s a rich colour palette throughout. The HOGs themselves – though they are kind of the standard ‘junk piles’ – are designed in a way to seem vaguely plausible as the stuff left behind by fleeing inhabitants. NPCs are illustrated (but not cartoonish) and not fully animated, though there are voiceovers and mouth movements when you interact with them. The music is great and atmospheric, but it is quite a short loop so it gets a little repetitive (especially noticeable in the bonus chapter). Overall, it’s a stylish game with some nice effects and detail.

I’m not going to say much about the basic mechanisms of gameplay here, as it’s pretty standard HOPA stuff. You move from room to room, picking up stuff, using things from your inventory, and finding mini-games and HOGs along the way. There are three difficulty modes, but no custom option. I play on Expert, so I don’t have an interactive map or sparkle-indicators (these are available on the other modes though). The mini-games are all fairly straightforward puzzles (Hint and Skip are available with different recharge times depending on difficulty mode), and the HOGs include some interactive ones. The game does include an option to switch from a HOG to a domino game instead, which some players seem to like. I guess it makes a change if you’re tired of junk piles! Most importantly, the puzzles and progression are fairly logical – it’s usually pretty clear what you’re looking for, why you’re looking for it and where you go next. On the whole, the items in your inventory are used in a logical way (so if you find a glass-cutter, you’re likely to need it to cut some glass and not for another more obscure task).

I don’t really have a lot to say about the gameplay for this one, because I mostly want to talk about characters. In fact, there’s a small chance that I only decided to write this post in the first place so I could rant about one of the characters. Because, you see, although the story is great, the design is great, the gameplay is great… Abyss: The Wraiths of Eden has one of the worst characters ever in it. He’s just a bad person, and I need to tell you that. I need to tell you how much I hate Gregory Logain.

HOPAs have a bit of a problem when it comes to non-player characters. These are single-player, first-person games, which revolve around the player-character’s interaction with objects. Even this object interaction requires a bit of suspension of disbelief (easier in some games than others): we have to just accept that we have no equipment to begin with, and that we don’t keep hold of items after we’ve used them. Interaction with people is even trickier – these games just wouldn’t make sense if we were accompanied by a helpful NPC (animal companions notwithstanding), and there’s (almost) no mechanism for dispatching a hostile one (save the ‘kill the boss’ mini-games that usually involve clicking on swirling shapes to counter an attack). Some games get around this by only using NPCs in cutscenes, but others allow for limited interaction – usually cut short by the NPC running away, being abducted or dying before they can offer any material help. Essentially, HOPAs only really work if you’re wandering around an empty landscape on your own.

Abyss, like some other titles, attempts to create more meaningful interactions. And it’s here that it falls short. Most of the members of the resistance you encounter are dead (including one who, worryingly, looks exactly like the baddie in Artifex Mundi’s Enigmatis series), so that’s fine. You run into a couple of helpless children, who ask you to find things to help them, and that’s also fine. But then you meet Gregory Logain, a member of the resistance. Logain is clearly more than capable of looking after himself (since he’s survived this long), and he seems to know the location of various helpful items. But he doesn’t lift a finger to actually do anything. His niece and nephew are imprisoned and injured in a cage, but he insists that you should run around Eden looking for ways to free them, while he sits around in his bunker doing a big think. And there are various useful items in the bunker itself that he’s clearly never bothered to pick up. I’m not going to go through all the interactions you have with Logain (as some of these would be spoilers), but the guy is seriously a waste of space. After a while, it gets really annoying listening to this idiot saying ‘You go and find all the equipment we need, and I’ll wait in the bunker and do a big think.’ Sadly, the game does not allow you to hit him with any items from your inventory (and trust me – I’ve tried them all).

Seriously, he’s a terrible person and I’m surprised he survived as long as he did in Eden. I think the Legates just keep him around for a laugh.

I’ve got the Collector’s Edition of the game, which has some bonus content. However, I’m not sure how many of these extras are specific to the CE – I think most of them are also included in the Standard Edition. There are no collectibles in this game, but there are achievements. You have to play more than once to get all of these, as one requires the completion of all the HOGs and another requires the completion of all the domino games. There’s also a bonus chapter, but this is quite short and a little repetitive.

There is, of course, another massive problem with the bonus chapter. It’s a prequel chapter, which Artifex Mundi have used elsewhere (e.g. Enigmatis: The Ghosts of Maple Creek) and which I normally quite like. The problem here is – and I apologize if this is a bit of a spoiler – your character in the bonus chapter is… Gregory Logain. And I hate that guy. I really do.

Overall, Abyss: The Wraiths of Eden is still one of my favourites. It’s stylish and atmospheric, and it has a decent storyline. The HOGs and mini-games aren’t the most difficult or intricate I’ve played, but they are reasonably logical and intuitive. Even having played several times, I still get around five hours of gameplay each time (on Expert mode).

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