Wednesday, 1 April 2020

Shadow of the Comet – Final Rating

By limbeck

The first time I played Shadow of the Comet was probably some time in the late '90s or early 2000s. I was relatively fresh in RPGs and the Cthulhu Mythos, and still at university. So, a Cthulhu Mythos inspired adventure game definitely looked like just what I needed to fill my appetite for relevant pop culture.

I don't remember much from that playthrough, but I sure as hell remember being impressed by the fact that I could face some of the Great Old Ones (GOOs) and frantically looking for walkthroughs through my brave dial-up connection to get through the final stages.


“Frantic” is a word perfectly associated with some parts of the game
This time around, I had a mixed bag experience, though I think that my gameplay posts mostly focused on the negatives and contained quite a few rants. I am a man of small patience it seems. Nevertheless, the playthrough was by no means a negative experience. There were many things I enjoyed in the game, namely the setting, some of the character interactions and the story, cheesy as it was. However, as Ilmari and Vetinari commented in the introduction post, the clunky interface, along with some sanity breaking puzzles broke my immersion.


I am talking about you, dark chamber puzzle

But let's see how fair I am to the game using the PISSED rating. This is my first time, so please bear with me.

Puzzles and Solvability

We start with what frustrated me most in the game. It is an adventure game and puzzles are essential for the player's enjoyment. Unfortunately, many of the puzzles in the game were bad. They were bad in many ways. I may be overreacting, as I am a soft adventure gamer. I play the games mostly for the stories and, as mentioned above, I lose patience with an obscure puzzle easily. I hope you will agree with me though, when I say that these features do not make good puzzles:
  • Timed sequences when the time you have at your disposal is very little. I like it when the game gives you time to think and I prefer it if that time is not during a reload. There were way too many puzzles that I only had a few seconds to think of something before I died. At least I died with variety. Examples include the scene at the forest clearing at night, the temple of Dagon, all encounters with cultists and that damned JONAS chase.
  • Action sequences that do not involve clever thinking but just being able to press the right buttons at the right time. As above, I want to play the game at my leisure. I can understand that such fast paced encounters add to the atmosphere of the game. My fleeing from JONAS fits with the horror theme of the game, but it was not enjoyable at all.
  • Lack of clues and feedback. There were many puzzles when I felt I was stumbling blind. Sometimes, I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing and sometimes I knew what I had to do, but the options were so broad that it practically forced you to bruteforce it. What made it worse was that sometimes items that were completely unresponsive in one scene held vital clues after an event took place.
  • Pixel hunting. There were many puzzles when I had to be standing in a specific point, such as the one with the key to the Necronomicon under the carpet in JUGG's house. 

JUGG sure hid it well
  • Mini games. Sliding tile puzzle.
  • Dead ends. I only encountered one, when I forgot to refill my naphtha bucket, and Charles mentioned another one with BISHOP and the cemetery key. I think that in 1993, there was enough experience in design to avoid dead ends. Still not a big problem if you save regularly, as you were not walking dead for too long.
On the good side, though there were some clever puzzles, like the last one at the stone circle or the one with the wings at the top of the lighthouse, even if the latter made no sense at all. The UI did not allow you to directly combine items in your inventory, so the designers had to find other ways to challenge the player. Some of them were clever and they make sense, but most of the time, they make sense only retrospectively. I understand their intention of pushing the player to think logically and consider what he could see in the room, but they mostly relied on visual cues. I also liked the fact that you could reuse some of your items and you didn't have to throw them away after use.


I will keep that magnifying glass until I die

Overall, I must say I am not satisfied with the quality of the puzzles in the game, but there were good moments and many missed chances.

Score: 3

Interface and Inventory

This is another category where the game could have done a lot better. The tools were there, but they seem to have been only partially implemented. You may remember that in my first session I misunderstood the “laser sight” to work with any object I could interact with. I was wrong. It turns out that it was about what I could pick up. This made the whole game a lot harder. It meant that I had to be standing at the correct place to interact with something and the lack of feedback meant that I couldn't know if I was meant to be standing at a different pixel or that there was indeed nothing there. This is indeed a missed opportunity to improve user friendliness.

That lack of feedback annoyed me many times. My laptop's L (Look) key would be worn out if it was made of a slightly less durable plastic. I think I can see the letter fading away. And yet, in most cases I would never get a description (see my rant about the naphtha pool). It wouldn't hurt to have a description of the room and something more helpful or even just some flavour text.


That rifle on the wall holds a vital clue, but it took me
some time to really look at it. Maybe that's my fault after all.

Another problem was the clunkiness of movement. I played the floppy version and there was only keyboard support. That's not a bad thing per se. The game was well designed around it, but it always felt that it was responding too slowly. That was a real problem when I had to act quickly, such as when being chased by JONAS. I did not have the courage to try the same in the CD-ROM version, but I remember moving with the mouse was much clunkier.

Other than that, inventory management and controls were very simple and intuitive. There was no way to combine objects at will, but that may have hurt the variety of the puzzles, not the interface.

Score: 4

Story and Setting

The story of the game is based on what is considered a typical Lovecraftian story (I think some of the best of his stories do not follow that pattern, but that's not for this post). A small, quiet town which hides a disturbing secret, usually a cult to some horrific extradimensional beings with unpronouncable names. The protagonist is slowly introduced to the underground of the town and the story reaches a frantic conclusion, usually in a short time span, which is sufficient to kill or drive the protagonist mad.


In this game, kill more often than turn mad

Seen in that setting, the story is a bit cliché, but it works. The writers may have been a bit too excited and included too many GOOs too close together, but for someone not so much into the Cthulhu Mythos, it should not be a problem. What could be a problem, though was the way that I was railroaded into some situations, without really having any idea why I should be doing it. The whole storylet with the lighthouse and the gypsies is my pet peeve here.

The motives of the characters are explained in a satisfactory way. Each character has a small background story and their relationships are shown through your conversations with them. I empathised with some of them, particularly poor, tragic CURTIS and even BISHOP, while at the same time, could not help getting annoyed by Miss PICOTT and ZEKE. Regarding the villains, for most of the time they remained distant and I only had second-hand information.


A nice example of unnecessary, but entertaining, background fluff

In summary, it is a passable, but cliché, story, with memorable, but cliché, characters in a nicely fleshed out little town.

Score: 7

Sound and Graphics

I am torn with this one, particularly about the graphics. So, let's start with the sound first.

In the floppy version, which I played, there were only two or three different background music scores, which they repeated a few times after loading or after some scenes, but there were long periods with no music at all. The themes were very nice and fitting to the atmosphere. If they had more storage, they could do better. I want to believe that the CD-ROM version had more variety.

Sound effects consisted entirely of digitised recordings and they were annoying for the most part. They would usually play once when you entered a new screen. For example, the same bird chirp would play every time a forest screen loaded and the same very annoying cat meowing would repeatedly play in all cemetery screens.

There was no speech in the floppy version, but the little I saw of the CD-ROM version did not leave me much impressed. MorpheusKitami's comment in the first gameplay post seems to imply that there is much to be desired from the speech in the CD-ROM.

Now to the graphics. As I mentioned above, I am torn. The technique used to digitise photos for the exterior of the buildings gave some nice realism and added to the atmosphere of the town. Another thing that struck me as ugly were the cutscenes. It was a mix of faux-3D and 2D animations, with too sharp angles and very flat colours. That dived quite deeply into the uncanny valley.

The interiors were almost entirely hand-drawn though and this was a mixed bag. Drawing was clear. You could understand that a desk was a desk and that there was a lamp on the mantelpiece. However, sometimes the proportions were overblown, as someone commented early on.


My room is a good example. It would be impossible
to warm it up in winter and the door is twice my height

I need to praise some of the locations that were very nicely drawn and coloured appropriately to enhance the atmosphere of the particular location. That goes for the cemetery at night, the crypt of the HAMBLETON family and even JONAS's maze. I think the colours and drawings were just right there.



Anyway, all things considered, I am sorry, but I cannot go very high on this one.

Score: 5

Environment and Atmosphere

Reading previous reviews, it seems that this criterion is the one that presents the most difficulty to reviewers. I count myself to be on the lucky side. Looking at a Lovecraftian horror-themed game like Shadow of the Comet, I believe I knew what sort of atmosphere I should experience. I was expecting a slow burn at first and a flood of horrific revelations at the end. What started as a quiet stroll in the park would end as a frantic dash through a dark forest with clawed hands reaching for you.

The game managed to achieve this feeling quite well, provided that you would not get stuck in puzzles for too long, but maybe that was part of the horror experience. Illsmouth I think is the perfect little town, with its inhabitants following their daily patterns and only speaking to you if they feel like doing so. I come from a large city, but have spent far too many summers in my parents' village on the island. I can see the similarities and hope that my village is not built over a forgotten temple of Dagon.


I believe I would have noticed

The horror part is also well presented, but less so. There are scenes and locations that take you in, but many times it feels forced. The appeal of Lovecraft's stories is that you do not really know what you are dealing with until the very end. Here, you are fed with a lot of exposition and are immersed in lore. I understand that this is an adventure game and not a horror story, which is also why it is not easy to get the atmosphere just right.

Still, there were scenes which worked very well, and I will mention again the discovery of CURTIS's corpse and the section in the cemetery and in the crypt. One could say that the chase by JONAS also works towards the horror atmosphere, but I died too many times to appreciate it.

Score: 7

Dialogue and Acting

The game has a lot of dialogue, but less than half of it offered multiple options. In most cases, dialogue played as a cutscene and my only contribution was to hit enter and read the next line. The designers introduced dialogue options when they considered them critical for a puzzle or to lead me to a different branch of the story, usually my death.


Exhibit A

I believe this approach worked quite well in the building up of the setting of the game. Illsmouth locals got their life through these chats, either with PARKER or among themselves. I also enjoyed the dialogue puzzle at the town hall which opened the path to the Mayor's office. In most other cases, however, my options seemed inconsequential, even though some answers seemed clearly more appropriate than others. A potential dead end via dialogue was reported in the comments, with BISHOP potentially leaving without ever giving me the cemetery key, but I did not have a saved game before that to verify. I am willing to give the game the benefit of doubt, but other design choices make this benefit very small.

The quality of the dialogue is adequate and mostly appropriate for the type of game. Some horrible one-liners aside (“Say hello to SATAN”), the dialogues were written keeping the characters and overall story in mind and were not too cheesy (SATAN line aside).

I cannot say much about the voice acting of the CD-ROM version. The little that I saw seemed awkward and there were problems with the synchronisation with the speaker's sprite. May be too much to ask from a game of that era, but I think the Case of the Serrated Scalpel did it better (if it did not, I apologise. I played most of the game with sound off because of a bug).

Score: 5

So, that gives us a PISSED of 31 / 0.6 = 51.666, rounded up to 52. There was a wide range of guesses, as high as 62, but ShaddamIVth guessed correctly. That makes it two games in a row, after the Journeyman Project.


 

I hope you enjoyed the game and the review and that I'll be able to write something more before Prisoner of Ice in 2025 or so.

CAP Distribution

100 points to limbeck
  • Blogger award - 100 CAPs - For blogging through this game for our enjoyment
32 points to TBD
  • True Companion Award - 25 CAPs - For playing along with most of the game and providing useful commentary
  • Obscure music reference Award - 5 CAPs - For putting monster mash in my radar
  • Adam West Award - 2 points - For knowing how hard it is to get rid of a bomb
28 points to Charles
  • True Companion Award - 25 CAPs - For playing along with most of the game and providing useful commentary
  • Superhero mashup Award - 3 CAPs - For the mental image of Bruce Wayne changing into his Batman uniform in a Gotham City phone booth
25 points to MorpheusKitami
  • True Companion Award - 25 CAPs - For playing along with most of the game and providing useful commentary
15 points to Laukku
  • Free betting cash Award – 15 CAPs – For guessing that I would not be able to solve the photo development puzzle and almost getting it right.
13 points to ShaddamIVth
  • Psychic Prediction Award - 10 CAPs - For guessing the final rating for Shadow of the Comet
  • Pipe Master Award - 3 CAPs - For enlightening all of us on the functionality of a sprague (totally unrelated to Prague)
5 points to Vetinari
  • TLDR Award - 5 CAPs - For summarising my review in less than 50 words
5 points to Andy Panthro
  • Nicholas Cage Fan Club Award - 5 CAPs - For reminding me that there Colour out of Space is now a movie
5 points to Patryk
  • Miskatonic Theology Professor Award - 5 CAPs - For debating the position of world religions in the otherworldly mythology of the Ancient Ones, as described by H.P. Lovecraft and the curators of his works

16 comments:

  1. Congrats on finishing your first game for the blog.

    The most you missed without voice acting was the hilarity of badly acted incomprehensible babble from the banished Hambletons :)

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  2. The graphics and general art direction was baffling to me from seeing your screenshots. You mention the room in your rating, and I agree entirely with your remarks. The screen with the gun that you mention earlier in the rating also stands out, who decided it was a good idea to have a third of the screen as the featureless brown ceiling? We've seen so many games on this blog try and experiment with visuals and the framing of a scene, and this reminds me more of something from the mid 1980s in how each screen has been drawn.

    Great review though, look forward to your next one!

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  3. I think it wasn't present in your version, but in the CD version I played through because of the voices, the conversations either stopped dead whenever you were waiting for the voices, or skipped massive chunks of them. That makes it simply unplayable in my opinion, regardless of the lovely music and the likeable mugs of Dennis Quaid and Vincent Price.
    Actually, the music is nice, but it didn't feel right in the game. I mean, I guess its not that different than the music in the 11th Hour, a game I did like the music in, which had not exactly background music for its background music. Good, but out of place applies to most of the elements of this game. Like most of the artists are technically competent, but their work feels really off, most of the time. Like the shading and the way things look is very good, but the way they're placed feels odd. Might be the programmers screwing with things after the fact; Might just be a bad request by the designer. Looking at the graphics team, we have a bunch of people who worked on Alone in the Dark, and two people who worked on Eternam, one of which worked on Drakkhen.
    Now, the guys who worked on Eternam can be blamed for the people artwork looking weird, that's what they were capable of producing at this kind of resolution and color palette. The guys who did Alone in the Dark? Personally, I remember that looking gorgeous and not at all funky...in terms of background art, before you talk about big lips and mustaches. I can only offer the explanations I previously gave as to the worse art.
    If there's one saving grace, in my humble opinion, its the museum that comes with the CD version. Now this is worth the price of admission. Its also how you can tell something wrong happened with the in-game art, since this, without the constraints of whatever was causing issues, has no graphical flaws in my opinion.

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    Replies
    1. Thank you for the additional comments and for filling the gaps. Yes, I don't know what went wrong with the art, which is not totally bad, it just feels off in places. It could be that's what they could do within their limitations. Maybe, as you say, there were a bunch of people with different styles and it was not possible to make them (the styles) work together.
      Anyway, there have been (and will be) worse.

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  4. Ween is a much better game and has a lower rating. The rating system is flawed. The Puzzles score should represent 75% of the total rating. Dialog and Story should be a single section too. These are games, not movies. Interactivity is the key element here, not a B-movie quality story or some badly translated dialogs.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. the scores are inherently subjective, not least because of the scoring system, but also because we have a team of reviewers who do not always agree.

      The "key element" of any given game is rated by that games reviewer, and they get to decide what scores they would like to give. Then we get the fun of discussing it in the comments!

      There is no rating system that would please everyone, and personally I find the rating system works exactly as you would want it to.

      If you are seeking "objective" reviews of pieces of art, you may be looking in the wrong place.

      Delete
    2. Everyone has different priorities for what they are looking in an adventure game, be it puzzles, plot, dialogue, or something else. If you are only concerned about puzzle quality you can go to the spreadsheet and sort by P. The fact is, a huge portion of adventure games are focused on storytelling (it's a primary strength of the genre) and that shouldn't be ignored in a rating attempting to be balanced. Besides, Ween only got a score 4 points lower, well within subjective margin of error.

      I think the current system is fine. Kyrandia 1 has crappy puzzles but has such good graphics, music and charm that it's fondly remembered, with an appropriate PISSED rating (well above average but not great).

      Delete
    3. As Andy says, the scores are my interpretation. It's possible that a reviewer with different tastes and expectations would rate it differently. What I tried to do is present the game from my point of view. I myself am sometimes puzzled at why games that I like (such as Loom) would get a low (to my eyes) rating, but the ranking for me is secondary to the experience of the reviewer.

      Delete
    4. I would suggest that the only good criterion for declaring a rating system "flawed" would be if it gives results that fail to capture reality - if you find yourself saying "This game was great but gee shucks, the rating system says it is terrible" or conversely "This game was awful but it managed to rules-lawyer out a high score."

      Delete
  5. Congrats on finishing the game, limbeck!

    As for the rating, a little harsh but overall fair, even if I would have probably given a point more in Story/Setting or Environment/Atmosphere (which would have resulted in a pissed rating in-line with my guess, but I'm not complaining ;) ).

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    Replies
    1. I would've maybe given a higher Environment/Atmosphere score but definitely not Story/Setting. While solid, the story's inability to pass beyond clichés, lack of impressive character development and some incoherence (what was the point of visiting the lighthouse?) IMO limit it at a 7. 8 would be on the level of Serrated Scalpel and Fate of Atlantis, which feels wrong. Although the rating could have indeed been a hair higher, the game still scored in the 50s which is where I think it belongs.

      Delete
    2. Great summary, this seems to be a comprehensive and unbiased review of a game that sparks some controversies among many adventure gamers. It has a cumulative score of 3.9 on GOG while most old adventure games score better. Even something like The Dig has 4.5.

      I was wondering how the game could fare if the reviewer has no previous (or a very cursory one)introduction to the Cthulhu Mythos.

      My 5 cents: Sure, the story is somehow cliche but at least you meet several people with some believable background stories that can be learned through dialogue. I have a soft spot for learning other life stories in adventure games. For me this is one of the most important part of a decent adventure game.

      And thanks for giving me this highly esoteric award. These are my first CAP points and this is actually some sort of relief during the lockdown. This is also a great encouragement to comment more often :).

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    3. If the player knows nothing about the Cthulhu Mythos, I suspect it would seem like a typical horror B-movie scenario (I won't say Carpenter movie, because he is definitely influenced - see In the Mouth of Madness). They would probably not consider it over the top, just a bit weird. That's my experience in my circle anyway.

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    4. I'm not completely unfamiliar with the Cthulhu Mythos, but I'm close. It's been referenced in enough games that I'm very vaguely familiar. I've read lots of horror fiction, but never Lovecraft.

      This game has given me significantly more lore on the subject than I've been exposed to before and I can't say I'm a fan. Like limbeck said, I find it a bit weird rather than scary or interesting.

      But the story of this game was enough to keep me playing by following a walkthrough for most of the second half. So it was at least interesting enough that I wanted to see how it ended.

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    5. A fun read through the blog it was too, I have never read any HP Lovecraft so it is great to see some works influenced by it too.

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  6. Great playthrough! And generally i agree with the score; it's a game that practically did most things wrong in the puzzle design and interface/control areas but the story, setting and atmosphere are not bad, it was charming in a way and kept me going to the end to see what will happen (well ok i knew more or less but you know)

    On a side note:

    - I was also confused with the dotted line for the pickable items (even though the manual states this in a way) and the L which applies to other objects in the scene.

    - The CD version i played is not bad, the museum extra section is good, and i manage to overcome the dialogue issues with the Enter key most of the times which skips the spoken line, so when a voice over line finished i pressed enter to skip the text also.

    - As i mentioned in a previous post, in the CD version you don't have the naphtha filling bug.

    For sure it's not among the best adventure game of the era, but it is a classic for me.

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