Sunday, March 6, 2011

Review: Baron Wittard: Nemesis of Ragnarok

Platform: PC

Developer: Wax Lyrical

Publisher: Iceberg Interactive

# of Players: 1

PEGI Rating: 7+

Official Site

Score: A

Despite the market overloaded with fast-paced shooters and action games as well as plenty of licensed properties that get a lot more press coverage, point & click adventure games are far from dead. The genre, while not getting the massive ad budgets of the aforementioned "Triple A" action blockbusters, continues to forge onward with a number of excellent releases from publishers brave enough to slow things down to a more cerebral pace while giving fans the mystery, suspense and puzzles they crave. Wax Lyrical's Baron Wittard: Nemesis of Ragnarok is an excellent new game that features a nicely (and increasingly) unsettling atmosphere, brain-bending puzzles and a solid story that grabs you right from the start. From the photo realistic pre-rendered visuals, excellent sound design and music that will have you looking over your shoulder every so often, the Baron is a worthy addition to any adventure fan's library.

You play as a hapless photographer sent out to merely get a few pictures of a now shuttered city located within a massive building. Wittard Utopia is a massive, deserted monument to one man's obsession and much like the more action-oriented Bioshock, something's gone terribly wrong in Paradise. Rumors of missing persons, ghosts and the general decay of the property have kept most people away and that remote location doesn't help either. As the game begins, you've pretty much drawn the short straw and are sent off to snap a few pictures and if possible investigate the place for a potential story. Given that all you have is a camcorder, flashlight, cell phone and a good pair of walking shoes, this shouldn't take all night, right?

Naturally, things take a turn for the strange as soon as you set foot inside the Utopia gates. You're locked in with no escape and as you press forward, that simple job you're doing snapping pics on a deserted property ends up turning into a battle for the fate of the planet against a rather nasty Nordic demon named Fenrir. The plot spools out through a combination of of phone calls from your editor, the occasional overheard conversation, plenty of found notes and even a few visits from the Baron himself. Spoiling too much more would knock some of the game's more interesting moments out of your hands, but I'll give you the basics. In a nutshell, you need to find ten hidden runes located throughout the Utopia and extract the power within each in order to seal Fenrir away for good. I'd gather that the developer was also inspired a bit by H.P. Lovecraft, as parts of the game feel close enough to some of the "cosmic horror" in his work (with perhaps a bit more sly humor and less pure, unrelenting madness and gloom in the air).

As in a good adventure game, there's a decidedly more laid-back approach to gameplay, so don't expect rapid-fire action sequences or bodies falling to the floor every 1.5 seconds. This is first-person point and click gaming at its finest, so expect lots of poring over meticulously detailed environments for clues, keys to locked doors and solutions to some pretty baffling puzzles. The interface is simple to use - movement, interacting with objects and looking around are all simple tasks and the gorgeously rendered environments are chock full of elements that are both intriguing and a little frightening in some areas.
Getting into the main building and around the game world requires paying close attention to the clues you've uncovered and the non-linear format Wax Lyrical has chosen means you can explore at your leisure (for the most part).

A number of areas are inaccessible until you can find out how to open certain doors either through found keys or combining items for some creative problem solving. You'll want to keep a real-life notepad handy, as the game relies on you memorizing numbers, types of symbols and even colors among other things. You don't have an in-game journal (What? but you're a journalist!), but if you're careful in your searching, you do get a hand-drawn map that's very helpful if you get lost. Then again, it's fairly impossible to get stuck in the game (well, in terms of navigation), as you're constantly being urged to search every nook and cranny and even backtrack to complete certain tasks.

Once you manage to enter the basement area, you acquire a rather strange amulet, whereupon the Baron makes himself known to you and lets you know you're no longer a hapless photographer, but a guy who's now tasked with saving the world from certain doom. His handy clues help out as much as his puzzles task your brain power, but the game isn't a breeze at all. Some puzzles are simple, most are quite complex and successfully completing all are necessary if you want to see one of the endings. There's a nice nod to Norse mythology throughout the game's plot that makes you want to go do some reading up on the subject. Not that there's already a ton of memos, letters and other things to read as you make your way around the Utopia proper. There's more than enough back story here and all of it does a great job of keeping interest high as the game progresses.

The visuals are outstanding pre-rendered still images "shot" from different angles as in Scratches, Barrow Hill and other point and click games. While forward movement is methodically paced, you're able to quickly free look around and even toggle close-up views in some areas in order to study puzzle elements or get a better look at important objects. As noted above, the environments are packed with detail such as cryptic graffiti, trash and assorted debris as well as readable signs that give the Utopia its haunted vibe. As you move about, you can see from the wreckage that people lived and worked here and the eerie sound design adds a slightly to moderately scary element to the imagery. Pop on a pair of decent headphones and the game creeps right under your skin before you know it. There's no graphic violence at all and only a few mildly unsettling images here and there. The majority of subtle to moderate frights work well enough as the game relies heavily on totally immersing you into its atmosphere (and succeeds brilliantly overall at doing so).

Depending on your puzzle-solving skills and how much you need to backtrack (as there are a few puzzles that require paying really careful attention to counting certain images), there's about 15-20 hours of game here (or less if you happen to use a walk-through). Granted, that time could be longer if you're one to stretch out your entertainment dollar or shorter if you're really clever and can get around with a minimum of traveling. On the other hand, true adventure fans will want to scour every screen and search every room, savoring the trip for as long as possible. While the game currently isn't available at US retailers, I'm sure Iceberg Interactive won't mind you supporting them by purchasing the game from a digital download site if you're intrigued by the premise and gameplay.

As for the future, I'd actually love to see Wax Lyrical somehow get this game onto portable systems or consoles, as the ridiculously low system requirements (a 1.0 Ghz processor!) means this could run on nearly anything anything made in the last dozen years (or your microwave if it had a monitor hooked up to it). I'm not sure there's a publisher in the US willing to take a chance on a solid game such as this in the current climate of casual games and mindless shooters aplenty crowding hard drives across the country, but perhaps if enough adventure fans put their feet down and vote with their wallets for the genre, we'll see some necessary changes to the current formula. In the end, Baron Wittard is a great new genre entry guaranteed to send a few chills up your spine as it teases your brain to it's fullest. Absolutely don't pass this one up if you're a true adventure gamer.

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