Interactive fiction and entertainment
A good adventure game is as much an interactive fiction as it is interactive entertainment. Such is the triumph of King ART Game's The Raven: Legacy of a Master Thief. Like their previous title, The Book of Unwritten Tales, The Raven succeeds at drawing the player in and sweeping hours out from under him. Taking cues from Agatha Christie and Telltale Games' The Walking Dead, The Raven is an experience whose intrigue is only surmounted by its character development. As the first part in a three-chapter whole, this first entry, The Eye of the Sphinx, both satisfies and whets the appetite for what is to come.
Setting the stage
The time is the mid-1960s. The opening setting is an immaculate passenger train tolling across Europe. The Raven, named for his bird-like mask, is believed dead, shot by the now-famous detective Nicolas Legrande. That is, until the ruby Eye of the Sphinx goes missing in an understated, yet immaculate, one-man heist. The game opens on a newspaper headline: “Heir to the Raven steals Eye of the Sphinx!” But is it the heir? Legrande is on the train, sitting by a safe, bait for his old (or new?) foe. Our hero, the ever-relatable Swiss constable, Anton Zellner, sits reading the paper and hoping, finally, to do something grand.
The Raven, as he must, assaults the train. This begs the question: how did he do it, or worse, is he one of the passengers Zellner has boarded? Everyone is suspect, even if they're not suspicious. No one shares their whole story. Only the boy, the rambunctious son of a single mother, seems free of doubt and only then because of his age. As the story unfolds, the motivations and whereabouts of each passenger ratchet the temperature incessantly higher.
Each of these elements would be for naught without the wonderful protagonist that is Zellner. He is unusual in many respects but most are founded in his utter grandfatherliness. He is past his prime, balding, and soft around the mid-section. He is good with children and enjoys mystery novels. Zellner carries a self-awareness uncommon to video game characters. He attaches himself to the Raven investigation with the pluckiness of a young man with something to prove. And when he throws his heart pills into the ocean, there is a quiet sadness, as of too many years and too few accomplishments.
Delving into the mystery
The pieces at play form the framework of an entrancing whodunnit. Between puzzles, Zellner travels from area to area in quiet monologue of the objects and people he encounters. Clicking on these first reveals his thoughts while the second time enables an interaction. With people, this means entering into conversation. The voice acting is excellent nearly across the board and feature well-written and genuinely compelling dialogue options. You won't find the memorable life and death choices of The Walking Dead, but you will find the same gray areas in understanding each character. The Raven lets you get close but never enough to feel like you know anybody. Unfortunately, characters harbor a marionette-like quality that fails to deliver on the same level. Overall, however, it works well.
Most of the game is leisurely-paced and allows you to explore at your pleasure, but certain conversations trigger cutscenes and drive the story forward. These most often result in puzzles which need your attention. Puzzles are not complex and usually require you to acquire, combine, and use sets of items found in the environment. Others come from other characters, making revisiting each person after major story events an important element of gameplay.
This style of gameplay, while not new or innovative, fits the setting exceptionally well. As a constable, Zellner is a resourceful man, so making the most of his environment seems natural. The process of exploring, combining, re-exploring, and re-combining items can be tedious, but it is at least logical and will leave you thumping your head for not figuring out yourself. Making a torch, for example, requires soaking a curtain in grease, tying it to a broken chair leg, and lighting it with a strong enough flame. King Art sets these puzzles up well, so there's rarely a question of what needs to be done. The challenge lies in how to do it and completing each step of the process. Thankfully, a limited hint system is in place which highlights unexplored objects in each area.
I was happy to use the hint system since it ensured I could progress at my own pace, but it is close to being a gimme. The core of The Raven's gameplay is founded on exploration. I would rather have seen each object have a larger space to click on than a hint system simply tell me where to click. Yet without using hints, I found myself using my mouse to trace narrow grids in hopes of finding what I had missed. Exploration can also be undermined by the rare bug that causes certain objects to appear clickable when they are not. Players wishing to avoid the hint system can use Zellner's notebook which automatically records important conversation points and story beats.
Exploring the possibilities
Chapter One includes two locales, the train and the cruise ship, and the ship makes up the bulk of the games 9 hour playtime. The space is used wisely. As any mystery fan will tell you, settings and characters separate the great from the mediocre and that applies to The Raven. There is much to discover in each half and to make the most of the experience, everything should be explored at every new stop in the story. Characters and objects can often be interacted with twice before conversation and monologue options run dry. The added depth they provide is well worth the time and serve well to draw you into the experience.
Everything in the game is underscored by a wonderful orchestral soundtrack. Two of the available unlockables, on top of concept artwork and 3D models, are the complete compilation and a video of a live performance (though these both remained locked during my play-through). The power of a well-timed music cue is profound and is expertly applied here. It would be an understatement to say that The Raven wouldn't be the same game without its soundtrack. While Zellner is slowly exploring and schmoozing information from interviewees, the aural experience keeps you planted and ever reminds you of the game afoot.
The Raven: Legacy of the Master Thief is an easy experience to recommend. The mystery is well-written and expertly delivered. At times, it feels as if gameplay is a support to narrative instead of the other way around, but it remains cleverly crafted and fun. It is unfortunate that a hint system replaces more accessible design, but those quibbles fade away before the larger experience. There is no mystery here. With the next two chapters included at the already budget price, this is a game you shouldn't miss.
Great story with likeable characters. Voice acting. Excellent Soundtrack.
Hint system. Sometimes frustrating puzzles.