This is a very curious game indeed which I heartily recommend to fans of the genre. It had a pretty original premise and wildly offbeat humor.
First published on Just Adventure+ in February 12, 2003.
In The Shadow Of The Raven
We’ll take a look at this Czech adventure originally released in 1999 that was recently re-released with English subtitles. It seems that the Czech gaming industry has been blooming and producing some very interesting titles these past years and In The Shadow Of The Raven is no exception. For one thing, this game is quite unusual.
THE MEANING OF LIFE
John Severin is a monk that lives in a monastery run by an authoritarian abbot. His life is calm and peaceful – actually, it seems to be quite dull most of the time – except for his naughty disciples. Naughty because they’re reading an erotic book right now while Severin is sleeping. And they’re dumb also because they should remain silent instead of making all that noise which is disturbing his sleep. In fact, they make such a noise that Severin awakes in a bad mood and asks them for that thing they’re reading. The disciples give him the book but, ah cruel destiny, the abbot suddenly enters the room – and Severin is holding the erotic book. As you may have guessed, the book ends in the hands of the abbot which, of course, considers erotic stories a work of the Devil. Severin was reading such stories. Severin is possesed by the Devil! In the next sequence we see Severin being chased by the abbot until he wraps his “Rambo” scarf around his head and jumps out of the window.
At this point I was laughing the guts out of my body. The whole sequence is hilarious and I wasn’t expecting that final move. It certainly sets the tone of the rest of the game which is very funny and wacky. The plot, which takes place in the Middle Ages, is full of absurd twists and off-beat situations like the one I just mentioned although it all makes sense in the end.
Oh but I forgot to tell you what happens with Severin. He falls into a river and loses conscienceness. Then there is a strange dream sequence where a voice tells him he must find the meaning of his life. Then he awakes in a forest and, as it seems he lost everything, he decides to follow his dream’s advice.
I told you this game was unusual.
A GAME FULL OF LIFE
In The Shadow Of The Raven isn’t a very polished game – this is something that I must clearly state. Those who are looking for top-notch graphics and hi-fi sound making your ears bleed, well, look elsewhere. Instead, what In The Shadow Of The Raven has to offer is a charming though flawed adventure experience – but I’ll get to that point soon.
The graphics are hand-painted and have a childish look – not necessarily a bad thing at all – that makes them oddly atractive. They have a very “raw” style in a sense that you can almost see the brush strokes if you look hard. Accompanied with the minimal but effective soundtrack, which I’ll describe in just a moment, they really appeal. I know that, judging by the screenshots, they look decidely dull but seeing the game in action is a whole different matter.
As I said before, the sound won’t tax your last-generation stereo because the quality of the recordings leaves a lot to be desired but I was still very, very pleased. There are many sound effects filling each scene and giving the impression they’re bursting with life. Also, the soundtrack is absolutely wonderful and fits perfectly the ambience of the game. It’s a set of merry folkish tunes, very rythmical and moody. Actually, I don’t remember a game having a similar soundtrack.
To help Severin find the meaning of his life, you only need three actions: Walk, Look and Use. You cycle through these actions with the right button of your mouse and apply the chosen action with the left button – the usual point n’click interface. The inventory, which can be accessed from the lower-left corner of the screen or with the key ‘I’, is pretty common as well.
I found most of the characters interesting and funny and it was a real pleasure to engage them in a conversation. It’s a pity they don’t remember they spoke with you – save for a few occasions – as they will greet you and give the same lines each time you talk to them. So, while they were funny, they seemed to me like puppets at times. This is an example of how such a little detail can make a big change.
Also, the voice-overs are well done. Even though they’re in Czech, which I don’t speak, it was obvious they were done by excellent actors as they are very expressive. My only complaint is that, at times, the voices were terribly low as if the actors were mumbling – thankfuly, this didn’t happen that often so it’s not an issue.
I think the impression I had of the characters looking like puppets was also in part due to the dialogues, which are terribly stale at times. Not because of what the characters have to say – they’re very witty and hilarious – but because of the English translation. It was decidedly weak and it lacked that expression I felt in the characters.
Now, the real highlight of the game is John Severin. He’s one of the most lovable characters I’ve seen in a while. The way he presents his thoughts and comments on his surroundings, giving funny line after line, is simply delicious. He’s very charming and you’ll certainly miss him once the game is over.
HOW TO FIND THE MEANING OF LIFE WITHOUT LOSING YOUR MIND
First, there is the inconsistent puzzle design. There are “certain things” you can’t do until they’re secretly activated by some events. Allow me to explain – Severin won’t let you do some tasks, and he’ll tell you that you definitely can’t do them, until they’re required to be done. I know that sounds nasty but that’s the way it works. For example, you have to enter a town which is guarded by a keeper. There was something I tried that made sense (though I won’t tell you what!) but Severin told me he couldn’t do it. “Fine”, I said, “let’s try the other option”. And I did – this other option was supposedly the definitive way into the town and yes, something happened but it wasn’t enough to pave the way in. And then… I was supposed to do that very first thing I had already tried! I can’t tell you how annoyed I felt when that happened – I felt a sudden urge to eat my mouse (not advised though – it’s safer to just bang it against the nearest wall).
One of the adventures I recently played – Runaway – had a similar puzzle structure but, in this case, the main character hinted that the action I was trying to do could work in the future. So I didn’t simply toss the possibility away. But Severin didn’t tell me “Gee, that seems a bit drastic, let’s try another thing first” – instead he gave me a generic response like “I can’t do that”. Very unfair.
There was another problem in the puzzle design not as bad but quite unfair too. You can’t use objects “on” Severin – unless you’re required to do so! Early when the adventure began, I tried to use the only object in his inventory on him but Severin wasn’t even hotspotted. Then there was this particular scene where it really made sense using an object on Severin but, of course, it didn’t even cross my mind because I couldn’t do that. While moving frantically the mouse around the scene (a sign that you’re about to lose your mind), I suddenly saw the text “Use <object> on Severin” at the bottom of the screen – and I lost it. I lost it!
Then there are the illogical puzzles. Sometimes you’re supposed to do some weird lateral thinking, that is, instead of using objects in the most common way, you’re supposed to look for alternate solutions that, when you realize what they are, leaves you with your eyes wide-opened like the size of a dish. I don’t consider this a problem as long as the gameworld you’re in is “consistently illogic” (Hitchhicker’s Guide To The Galaxy comes to mind) but In The Shadow Of The Raven has some very clever and logical puzzles. So, when you stumble upon the illogical ones, you don’t have a hint of what to do. It’s as if the designers wanted them to be funny but, in the end, they become very frustrating. Thankfuly, there aren’t too many of them but, since the game isn’t that long either, they carry their weight in the gameplay.
Speaking of longevity, the game can be completed in one single day of intense gaming – no eating and no going to the bathroom (something your mother wouldn’t appreciate so it’s not likely to happen). I’d say about 8-10 hours – just a tad below the current average.
Finally, there was this difficult arcade sequence near the end of the game. It was cleverly fit into the storyline and it would have actually worked if it wasn’t for its terrible difficulty that required playing the sequence over and over again. It was frustrating, to say the least.
NOT AS GOOD AS FINDING THE MEANING OF LIFE
… but not that bad either.
I was very delighted with In The Shadow Of The Raven and I really wish I could say better things about it but sadly I can’t. Some design decisions and weak puzzle implementation do considerable harm to this game.
I should note that, no matter how much I tried, I couldn’t make this game run under Windows XP. The farthest I could get was making the game load but it wasn’t playable because the characters spoke so fast that I couldn’t read the dialogue. Of course, this is because XP is a very powerful system. No patch is currently available at the time of this review but we’ll update it if Rainbow Rhino releases one. Anyway, the game ran flawlessly under Windows 95/98.
As a bottom line – if you like adventures with witty and clever humor and you can overlook its technical limitations, you should consider this game. I’m not exaggerating by claiming that this is one of the funniest adventures I’ve played in quite a while. It’s a shame that it’s marred with all the problems I mentioned before – while they don’t kill the game, they certainly hurt the experience.