Review

The Dark Eye: Chains of Satinav Review (PC)

How much control does the individual have over their life? Some would argue that it’s society at large that determines the individual, and the circumstances of their existence, rather than they themselves.

Take driving a car, for example. The driver of the car decides where it is that they wish to go, but they do so across pre designated paths. They may only follow what has already been laid out for them. With satellite navigation, it is even more pronounced, a disembodied voice dictating their every move and chiding them for deviation from its commands and how it has decided the path should be travelled.

After many days of analysis, it would seem that it was indeed an ex-crow

Despite how it might sound, The Dark Eye: Chains of Satinav, is actually nothing to do with sat-nav, or the laborious pseudo philosophy of someone desperate for a workable introduction. What it is, is a point and click adventure game, set in the realm of The Dark Eye, which is for all intents and purposes German Dungeons & Dragons. If that sounds peculiar, it’s because it is peculiar. Every computer game adaptation of The Dark Eye has been an RPG up to now, and the same can be said of non-Germanic Dungeons & Dragons too.

So it’s unusual, that instead of the more direct translation of tabletop to digital role playing game, we get something which is solely focused on the adventure aspect of a high fantasy world, away from dice rolling and statistics.

Those unaware of The Dark Eye would be hard pressed to discern it from Chains of Satinav, which begins strongly with some well conveyed Middle Ages grime and superstitious fear, just before slapping the audience around their collective face with the trout of inexplicable fantasy jabberings.

The abrupt nature that fantasy world logistics insert themselves into Chains of Satinav’s beginning is jarring, but its disorienting appearance is forgivable, as immediately after the game hits a comfortable stride into the realms of dark fairytale, and never looks back.

CoS has this fluid atmosphere about it; it segues between playful whimsy, medieval gloom, epic questing, dream-like surreality, and even crushing despair with consummate ease, though all are held together by the story’s persistent dourness. That’s not to say that there isn’t humour in CoS, but it’s few and far between. It’s actually somewhat refreshing for an adventure game to not be so adamant about being funny.

CoS has a certain dichotomy. It deals with the fantastical and the magical, but it’s couched in what is not exactly realism, but a desire to keep its feet firmly on the ground in terms of presentation. Once it gets going, it never lets its events or concepts supersede its characters, which leads to some very strong, human, and relatable story telling.

It doesn’t hurt that CoS looks fantastic. Every scene and character is hand painted (if digitally), and lovingly filled with intricate detail. The brooding nature of the art is a great boon to Chains of Satinav; as beyond its technical excellence, it couches the game with certain sense of wonder, which emphasises the magical nature of the tale.

When it comes to the visuals, CoS’ dichotomous nature rears its head again, for as great as the art is (and it is great), some of the animation is… unfortunately minimalist. The talking animation is noticeably stilted, and in an adventure game, it’s an animation that will be seen a lot. It’s simply a shame, because it mars the otherwise wonderful presentation.

The score that periodically makes itself known is also quite good; the game’s main theme is evocative and sorrowful, and the majority of the music has some melancholy to it. The main theme’s refrain shows up a couple of times, though in different guises, from urgent to triumphant, and it’s always a welcome return. The music isn’t a big part of the game, although it is very prominent in the short interludes that play between scenes, and they exemplify CoS’ storybook aesthetic.

On the whole, the sound design is good, if a little unremarkable. It certainly brings life to environments, but whether it brings them to life is debatable. The voice acting on the other hand is impossible to not take notice of, unless your speakers aren’t on, and is yet another example of Satinav’s dichotomy.

Ye olde hygh streete

The hapless protagonist and his lady companion are excellently voiced. At times, superlatively voiced; overall, their interactions are stellar. Their exchanges are well written to begin with, but the performances that express them really make these characters jump off the digital page. Their story, which interweaves with the tale of the fate of Anderghast, the protagonist’s home city, builds into something gripping, and in the face of magical cataclysm, their personal journey resonates most.

That level of quality isn’t consistent for many of the lesser characters though, whose voice acting falls short. Often they are simply passable, though a few veer into mediocrity; specifically a certain Alice in Wonderland-esque mad queen whose dialogue doesn’t so much exude menace or paranoia as it does a person putting on a silly, high pitched voice in an attempt to portray what they think a mad person sounds like. It’s the kind of thing that diminishes the overall experience; particularly within the adventure genre. It isn’t uncommon to regard these minor characters as vehicles for puzzle solving alone, which flies in the face of how superb the writing, and experience that Satinav offers is on the whole.

Of course, no adventure game would be complete without puzzles, and CoS’ good old dual nature comes out to the fore once again. Chains of Satinav feels quite traditional, but it presents that traditional, even classical experience through a refined medium. It’s sort of like being served a medieval feast on a holographic platter. CoS boasts a ‘casual’ and ‘hard’ mode; ‘hard’ is the same interface as every other 2D point and click adventure game, but ‘casual’ includes a button that for a short period, shows everything on screen that can be interacted with. It’s so simple, but in one fell swoop, pixel hunting, the scourge of adventure games, is dead forever; dead and gone. Now let us dance on its grave for three days and nights.

Pixel hunting was already defunct in 3D adventure games, but to have a function that ensures it can never return to create more frustrating time vortexes that involve feverishly trying to find the correct tiny square to click on is a massive relief and a labour worthy of commemoration through song and interpretive dance.

CoS doesn’t stop there though, as it also includes a helpful highlight system that indicates whether an item has any more potential uses in a situation, in an attempt to curb frustration and let the player know when it’s time to move on. An inspired feature, but the similar addition of inventory items being highlighted when they’re compatible with other objects might be a step too far.

The irony is that none of these features are ever actually pointed out to the player, so it only becomes clear after a little time spent familiarising with CoS, and experimenting with some of the mysterious icons that sit there in the interface unassumingly.

The puzzles themselves, however, are a satisfyingly based in logic, although a few instances of familiar adventure game rage remain; the difficulty stemming from the lack of in game clues, rather than the puzzles themselves. There’s a fair amount of variety amongst the types of puzzles to be found in CoS: Among the expected item combining and switching, accompanied with the expected trickery and thievery, is less usual fare like deciphering ancient tablets for answers or interpreting maps with the aid of stalagmites, or the universally applicable activity of visiting your local library.

Dialogue puzzles also play a recurring role, which is commendable as not only is it something often less focused on in the genre, but also because it helps to round out the experience by utilising all the tools available to their fullest degree.

Surprisingly, Satinav features branching dialogue. Consequential choice on the whole is an alien concept to adventure games, so to have these choices that potentially shape the outcome of things is almost intimidating, but ultimately a bold step.

However, it’s somewhat deceptive a feature, since for the most part, events stay the same. What these choices really allow is a modicum of role playing, as players are able to shape the protagonist to a degree; whether he’s humble or boastful, whether he’s honest or manipulative. Chains of Satinav is all about fate, and the presentation of choice in a story with only a single ending plays upon those themes in a way that connects with players outside of the story.

The characters are still drawn to their fates, still dancing to destiny’s tune no matter what they decide, but they can still affect the way in which they reach their destination, even if the ultimate conclusion is the same. There are events that will make you wonder whether you could do anything to change them, or if they were fated from the beginning, and the discovery that some events can be changed gives CoS some immediate replay value, which is especially unconventional for the genre.

Judging by the central point of the disc, the solution can only be a giant Philip’s head screwdriver

Chains of Satinav leaves players just as enthralled by, and railing against the machinations of cruel fate as its characters. It’s a flawed gem; full of great ideas, but aching for that last bit of polish needed to complete its status as an undeniable treasure. This is especially apparent in some of its resource management, as despite being played on a computer that vastly exceeds its requirements, it still chugged at times.

Regardless of its technical shortcomings, CoS provides a superbly engaging story driven experience, that feels uniquely its own. When a story makes you care about its characters, it’s a triumph, and in this, Chains of Satinav excels.

Best Game moment: Talking down your former nemesis from suicide… or letting him kill himself.

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