Friday, 27 December 2013

Resonance (2012/PC)

Adventure games are a difficult entity. Not only to publishers and gamers due to their lack of selling power and replayability, but even when they’re really good, you can only gush so much about them without ruining things. Giving examples is hard, and plot revelation is a bit of a minefield. The better the story, the more you want to write about it, so the more you have to fight it. As has been the case more than once with a Wadjet Eye point-and-clicker, this has been the case, and Resonance is no exception.

There’s no getting away from the fact that a lot of games that are published under the Wadjet Eye banner recall the heyday of the adventure genre in the 1990s. Of course, this era is the yardstick by which all adventure games are measured, and on the evidence of what’s being put out, will continue to be so for some time. Many of this publisher’s titles go beyond that comparison, though, and are often directly comparable to specific titles. Resonance, as well as Gemini Rue before and Primordia since, all appear to be disciples of Beneath A Steel Sky, as if the year was 1995 and 320x240 window resolution was still considered to be acceptable. All three titles share the Amiga classic’s themes of dystopia and advanced technology, as well as moral quandaries. That’s not to say that each game tries to emulate Beneath A Steel Sky in too literal a sense, as each title has its own distinctive style and palette within similar graphic confines. The ancestor’s classic images of skyscrapers and futuristic industry are most readily seen in Gemini Rue, but the similarity is partially dispelled by the latter’s intertwining dual story thread, which often steps away from the generic sci-fi facility. Indeed, the beginning of the game almost evokes film noir, with the lead character in a coat, seeking shelter from the rain on a dark night outside some gates. The level of futurism is in fact evocative of Dreamweb at such times, answering the unasked question of what that title would have looked like if it wasn’t presented in plan view. While Primordia is presented mostly in shades closely resembling black, Resonance is a little more tangible. Its palette ironically paints a pleasant enough modern city, set perhaps an envisaged decade ahead of the 2012 release date. The steel-and-glass of modern architecture is spliced with the crumbling brick foundations of less affluent boroughs and stereotypically-cast public transport. Dystopia is merely a looming concept that grows in stature as the game progresses, rather than a way of life for the inhabitants.

Your line-up is the cop, the scientist,
the nurse and the reporter
A noirish introduction for the
old-fashioned detective
There’s more to the controls than informing you that pointing and clicking is involved. To get the most important feature out of the way, the answer to the question dripping off of the tip of the tongue of every gamer discussing this aspect of the genre is “Yes, there is dragging, not just pointing and clicking”. To buck the trend and cover all of the trivial points first, one of the weaknesses is not being able to change your destination once you’ve clicked, and another is the freeze when clicking to move on in a long walk. This, in a game with such a short visible travel zone and high level of panning for an adventure title, means frequent, metronomic clicking to a greater extreme than most adventure games. You could let Guybrush Threepwood cover a decent distance over five seconds with one click in The Secret Of Monkey Island, but you’re clicking about ten times as often here.

The inventory is still the mainstay
of the genre
Memories and objects outside of
inventory are used in the same way
The real meat and bones of the controls recalls another classic title, and pushes forth a concept that’s new to me. The four characters, initially playing through standalone paths, quickly converge as the plot thickens, and your roving band of non-misfits is pressed into Maniac Mansion-style teamwork, although the need to swap around inventory items and make use of “special abilities” of certain characters (such as the policeman being a bit stronger and a bit dumber than the particle physicist) is kept fairly low-key. What I found novel was the concept of long-term and short-term memory banks. This was a real double-edged sword in what it gave to the gameplay. Particularly with short-term memory, you can’t just learn something by examining a scenery-bound object and then go and chat to someone and have it appear as an extra dialogue option, so filling up your short-term memory with stuff is a slightly annoying habit that you need to get into. You then drag what you want to discuss with someone from your bank either onto that person, or into a box above the dialogue options at a convenient time, and it’s usually at this point where the character decides upon discretion. On the other hand, particularly with long-term memories, the process takes figuring out tasks out of the character’s hands and places more of it with the player, which serves to deepen the level of puzzling you have to do. The lack of narrative leaps made without direct input from the player makes the game more immersive in a non-atmospheric way, and makes you feel a lot more satisfied when finding solutions. The memories also provide good ways of providing helpful titbits and preserving key points without making you feel like you’re having a hint system rammed down your throat or like you’re playing a game that’s too easy.

The story itself is a captivating one, with threads starting off loose, quickly intertwining and winding up very taut, and suddenly splintering off again. There is no perfect satisfactory ending, which will infuriate some players. But, more so than in films or books, the important parts of the story in adventure games are sometimes the points that you control rather than cutscenes provided as a reward for solving puzzles. This is Resonance to a tee, as most of the story unfolds in the middle of the gameplay. This is about enjoying the ride more than reaching the end.

Bennet can keep his cool inches away
from his stake-out target
The job flusters him a bit more
when murder and science are about
Your four characters, set in the supposedly grim but very generic-looking Aventine City, are Tolstoy “Ed” Eddings, a bespectacled dweeb of a mathematician, Detective Winston Bennet, a hardboiled cop with emotional and physical baggage, Anna Castellanos, an inwardly disturbed nurse, and a well-connected freelance journalist Raymond “Ray” Abbot, who is continuously derided as a blogger. We start with Ed going to visit his superior, Dr Javier “Javi” Morales at his laboratory to discuss some potentially dangerous new technology. A blackout occurs, and a very peculiar explosion at the laboratory stands as the key driving event for most of the game. The four characters are drawn in one by one by the death of Dr Morales, each by an apparent sense of vocational duty, although we are aware by this point that Anna is a relative of Morales. The game goes forth with the four characters seeking answers about the technology that caused the explosion, with each character using their social status to get access to different areas (such as Bennet being allowed access to the Police Administration headquarters on account of being a police detective). Some one-frame puzzles that you get in the cheap-and-nasty puzzle titles of the day do appear, but they’re nothing more than the occasional break from the dialogue-driven puzzles that move most of the game forward. A gamut of plot twists is pretty much a requirement, but Resonance doesn’t disappoint, and all but the very sharp and the very lucky will be caught surprised a couple of times. The characters are not fully developed, but this serves the purpose of keeping us guessing and focused on the story itself. There are a few silly sides like a score count and Steam achievements, but they’re not in your face and you don’t have to care about them other than worrying that you’re near the end.

Bennet can take one other character
up to interrogation in police HQ
The hospital is more open, but only
Anna can gain access to certain floors
The overall tone is pretty serious, far more so than Beneath A Steel Sky. The slight humour involved usually revolves around the reporter’s output being a blog, the occasional sexist lapse of the aging detective, and a receptionist’s dating exploits. It’s actually quite refreshing in a way, as almost all point-and-click games (and indeed many outside the genre) are compelled to refer to rubber chickens, the “death” of the genre, or some other not-so-subtle nod to an adventure game of the past in the form of an in-joke to veterans of the LucasArts 90s titles that still form a large part of the target audience of today’s independent point-and-click publishers.

The narrative compels you with
a magnetic force
The game asks us to make a simple scientific leap of fiction that’s easily digestible to the point where we can openly accept it as a driving force for the entire plot. In a game that isn’t set deep into the future or the fantastic, that’s quite an achievement. Resonance breaks very little new ground despite of the memory mechanics, but in spite of the obvious heritage (as shown by the sheer number of game titles in this review), it still feels fresh. What we lack in gameplay or graphical creativity, we get back in pure narrative, and this prioritisation shows in other Wadjet Eye titles like Gemini Rue and the very different-looking Emerald City Confidential. Like a good book, you can put Resonance down when you’re done with it and feel satisfied. It’s a gripping story that’s well told, not just a game with a plot that boasts being playable and challenging, and that’s what defines most of the best adventure games.