Monday, September 29, 2008

Belief & Betrayal Review

By Zeus Poplar, Official Out of Eight Adventure and RPG Correspondent

Belief & Betrayal, developed by Artematica Entertainment and published by Lighthouse Interactive.
The Good: Intriguing premise, worthy soundtrack, nicely directed cutscenes
The Not So Good: Detestable lead character, uninterruptible error messages, sporadic crashes, laughable puzzles, questionable translation, unfriendly interface
What say you? A frustrating point-and-click religious thriller so bad it could have players losing their religion: 3/8

Imagine a gray haired man with his back to the camera. His voice is flippant, shrill and condescending. He's Jonathan Danter, a journalist and something of a ladies man, at least according to his editor, who's worried he'll waste time “looking at girls in mini skirts and sexy tops.” But there's no way any girl could tolerate the presence of this goofy-looking goose in shoes. He's undeniably irritating, the kind of guy you couldn't wait to get away from. And that's before he busts out his lovable little chestnut: “cats whiskers!” It's the catch-phrase that's sweeping the nation, or at least sweeping me off to the darkest tides of madness, as my grip on sanity was loosened every time I heard it. Before he can score his interview with Cardinal Gregorio, Jonathan Danter is summoned to Scotland Yard, to help investigate the murder of his uncle, who he was told had died ten years ago. “I guess I'd better go to London,” Jonathan says. “Goodbye, cocktails with little umbrellas in them!” (I don't think his editor had much to worry about).

Except for Jonathan Danter, the voice actors are mostly professional, with a standout performance from the woman who voiced Katrin McKendal; the German website, a voice sample proves what a fine character Jonathan Danter could have been. The music is tense and unsettling; it would fit just as well in a medieval title. Expect your patience to be tested by Jonathan's limited supply of error messages. Even though it's possible to skip (important) dialog with a left mouse click, you can't skip error messages. Before long I was afraid to try anything, so great was my Pavlovian response to the annoying pause and shrill, insulting comments from Jonathan. An error message should either fit the situation or be as generic as possible. Trying to feed a hungry bum and hearing, “I'm sorry, I left my Swiss pocket knife at home!” is simply absurd. I didn't say stab him, buddy. Visually, characters are fuzzy, almost like a game from the turn of the millennium. The CGI cutscenes are skillfully directed and the prerendered backgrounds are nicely done, if a bit sterile. Oddly enough, the best looking screen in the game is the main menu: a brooding gargoyle sits high overhead, watching the city burn at night. Then you click New Game and it's all downhill from there.

Belief & Betrayal has an interesting premise: it's a Da Vinci Code inspired adventure game (a Da Vinture game!) complete with ancient mysteries, secret societies and corrupt cops. Unfortunately, the story is lost in a sea of bad dialog and worse game design. Although it runs smoother than Immortals of Terra or Art of Murder, there's a weird pause after you click on a hot spot, so there's no telling if you clicked it or not until a second or two later. Menus are auto-hidden. Drag your mouse to the edge of the screen to see your diary, notebook or inventory. This means if you want to walk to the far side of a room, you might click your notebook by mistake. The problems with the interface don't end there: Hover the mouse over an object on top of the fridge, clearly marked as a tin. Try to pick it up. “Hmm... I don't think it's a good idea.” Look at the tin. “And what's this?” Try to pick it up. “I don't think it'd be wise!” Look at it again. “It looks like... a tin of tuna!” Only now is it possible to pick up the tin. I haven't had this much trouble interacting with objects since text parsers went out of style.

These kinds of problems also affect the storyline. In The Straw Men by Michael Marshall, a grief-stricken man named Ward visits his parents' home after attending their funeral. He notices something odd about the placement of his father's favorite chair (he was very particular about these things) and takes a closer look. Hidden in the chair is a note, written in his father's handwriting: “Ward, we're not dead.” Eerie and gripping, it's an opening that makes you want to stick with a story to the end. Belief & Betrayal has a similar scene, and (surprise!) they botched it. Jonathan Danter returns to his uncle's house for the first time in over ten years. "Now that's strange, those books are all messed up. Why should Uncle Frank have left these books in a mess?" he says, as if the books were torn to shreds. Then he instantly and inexplicably whips out his notepad and writes down “Book Sequence.” Not the actual sequence of numbers, mind you; just the phrase “Book Sequence.” It's a bit like a witness to a hit-and-run accident writing down the phrase “License Plate.”

Jonathan soon finds a cylindrical object on his uncle's television set. “This doesn't look like any fishing trophy I've ever seen!” he squeals. It's an ancient looking device, a combination lock with six roman numerals (did he really think it was a fishing trophy, or was he joking? It's hard to tell. I wouldn't be surprised if Jonathan's voice actor was listed as “Random Guy We Found While Chatting On Xbox Live”). So, we've got a mysterious device with six roman numerals and six noteworthy books with numbers on them. The solution is obvious, but for some reason I can't operate the device, so I try to combine it with the phrase “Book Sequence” from my notebook. Since I can't actually see the numbers, that should be enough to solve the puzzle, right? Wrong! Dragging the phrase “Book Sequence” onto the device merely zooms into its controls. I still need to set the combination lock, but I have no idea what the book sequence is, because the game just wrote down “Book Sequence.” That means I have to walk back to the library and physically write down the numbers myself. As a friend of mine said, “So the in-game notepad just provides outline titles for YOUR notes that YOU have to keep on ACTUAL PAPER.”

Belief & Betrayal isn't all bad. Once there seemed to be multiple solutions to a single puzzle: in order to bribe a bum, you could either discover a well hidden bottle of unopened wine in some garbage, or make your own “wine” out of tap water, an empty bottle, and a melted strawberry lollipop. The ability to switch between three characters is appreciated, especially if you get stuck and need to take a breather. But once I was able to play Katrin McKendal, the game began sporadically freezing when I'd hit spacebar to highlight hot spots. These glitches got worse as the game went on, until avoiding the spacebar wasn't enough to keep it from freezing. When I gave my photo to a computer hacker, he sat typing up my fake I.D., clackity clack clack. A minute went by, then another. Clackity clack. Clackity clack. By that point I had to put up with so many bad design choices that I honestly couldn't tell if the game had crashed again or if they were just messing with me (hint: it crashed again).

“How low can I rate this?” isn't the best thing to run through your head while playing an adventure game. It's better to think things like “Ah ha!” or “Eureka!” or even “Cats Whiskers!” And yet this game had me checking Out of Eight's archives to see if James had ever given anything a 2/8. It turns out he had, although I decided to rate it 3/8, because I'm saving 2/8 for a game that gives me rabies. There are some strong points here, but Belief & Betrayal fights the player every step of the way, almost as if it had a personal grudge. It's the kind of game that makes work seem fun. Once I even caught myself cleaning the bathroom so I wouldn't have to put up with Jonathan Danter and his bug-ridden, user-unfriendly, badly translated game. Buyer beware, although office managers might want to install this on their employee's computers since productivity would go through the roof.