Tuesday, 28 December 2021

Missed Classic 104: La Secte Noire (1990)

 By Ilmari

It's time for another of our traditions: the annual end of the year game! This time, it will be a tale of horror - but will it be a horror to play? Only time will tell!

Our readers know their adventure games and their relative merits and faults. Indeed, usually their predictions on what a game will score is spot-on. In the rare cases they miss the mark completely, we are usually covering some not-so-well-known game, which only the most hard core adventurist have even heard of, let alone tried. One of these games was Lankhor’s Maupiti Island, which most people thought would land in 30s, but managed to get a middling 41 PISSED rating.

Of all the games I’ve played for this blog, Maupiti Island has definitely been one I’ve been most conflicted about. It had a complex story that it was intriguing to unravel, but it had enough problems, like impossible puzzles, that made actually playing the game a slog. Despite the faults, the game made an impression on me, and I was waiting to get to play the next and last Lankhor game on our official list, Black Sect.

Doing some preliminary research, I noticed that Black Sect was a retelling of Lankhor’s earlier game, La Secte Noire, which I decided to play as this year's final game. La Secte Noire also had a sequel, La Crypte des Maudits, which I'll probably play as a Missed Classic at some point before tackling Black Sect itself. I also noticed that we hadn’t really discussed Lankhor itself, when reviewing its games. This is a perfect opportunity to delve a little bit more to the history of this game developer.Like many gaming companies that began their career in the 80s, Lankhor had roots in a family business. Among its founders were two siblings, Jean-Luc and Béatrice Langlois, who began their career in games in 1986, with an Elite clone called Wanderer. The little I’ve read about the game suggests a flippant attitude to storytelling, as the game is set in a future where cats have become a rarity and form a main item of commerce.

Not satisfied in the manner their publisher, Pyramide Soft, treated their creation, the two siblings found another game company to partner with, Kyilkhor Création. I've managed to find very little information about the latter company, but it appears that Mortville Manor was originally developed as joint product of Kyilkhor Création and Langlois siblings. The game was programmed by Bruno Gourier, who I assume was behind Kyilkhor Création, while the Langlois were responsible for the synthetic speech, which was the primary selling point for the game. The cooperation was apparently fruitful, since Langlois siblings and Kyilkhor fused into a new company, choosing as their new name an obvious portmanteau.

We’ve come to know Lankhor a producer of detective games, and indeed, Mortville Manor and Maupiti Island were the games the founders of Lankhor were most involved with. Their actual catalogue was more varied, with a lot of educational and action games sourced from other developers. In fact, their most successful game was Vroom, a formula game for Amiga and Atari ST.

La Secte Noire was one of the outsourced games, its creators being Jean-Claude Lebon and Jean-Pierre Godey. It was published in the same year as Maupiti Island, but while the latter was a state of the art point-and-click game for 16-bit computers, La Secte Noire was a very old-fashioned text adventure with crude graphics, made for Amstrad CPC, one of the 8-bit computers of the 80s. You would think that the market for both text adventures and 8-bit games was not that huge at the start of the 1990s, and you’d be right: only 3000 copies of the game were sold, a mere trickle in the company’s cash flow. For some unfathomable reason, Lebon and Godey continued producing more of these text adventures for Lankhor, which even published similar low-budget adventure games from other developers. I guess they were just so cheap to make that selling them made sense.

On another occasion, I might take a closer look at the whole collection of Lankhor’s text adventures, but now I'll concentrate on La Secte Noire. Although it was finally converted to 16-bit computers, I want to experience the game in its original platform - this will be the first time I am using an Amstrad emulator. Before I start the first game, I want to bring up the topic of language. I do have rudimentary command of French and have been able to play point & click adventure games with text in that language. Text adventures, which require me to write the commands in French, will most likely be a more difficult matter, since I won’t have as good a sense of what verbs and nouns to try as with games made in English. I will therefore probably have to rely on hints and walkthroughs more than usual.

The manual tells a story of a village Issegeac, in the Périgord noir region. Apparently the village had been a setting for strange apparitions, but then the exorcist Honorius had given the villagers a spell book to protect them from evil. The book was entrusted to the grandfather of the protagonist. At the beginning of the game, the grandfather has been killed by a mysterious stranger and the spell book has vanished, while the protagonist is then faced with a task to retrieve the book.
First, some general remarks. The game’s not a pure text adventure, but comes with images for each screen. Some screens also have little musical vignettes to create some atmosphere. I’d trade both the pictures and the music for decent textual descriptions . Just look at the picture above: how on Earth I am going to figure out what’s important and what’s just scenery? I am pretty sure the cat in the picture belongs to the latter group, or at least I haven’t figured out what word to use for it. That’s also something where even a short textual description would help, but no, it’s just pure guesswork to find the usable nouns. And don't get me started on that useless dragon filling the right side of the screen all the time!

The game is kind enough to tell me the directions that I can use in each room, which at least has helped me with mapping. It also tracks the time of the day. I am not exactly sure what triggers the game to change the time, but it is probably some combination of the turns you use and of the real time you spend in front of the screen. The manual indicates that the time of the day is important and might change what you can do in a room, which has been a common feature in Lankhor games. At least the progress of time changes the colours of the images, everything becoming darker in the night.

I got stuck really fast, with only few rooms to explore and few objects to interact with. I tried to use the in-game hint system, but I needn’t have bothered. The best help it could provide was to indicate in a graveyard that I was there at the wrong time and to note in one room that I was walking to a right direction, and when that road ended with an impasse, it hinted that it wasn’t really an impasse. Otherwise, it just insulted me.
“Use your brain.” Thanks for that piece of advice
In the screen above, I finally made some progress. I had tried searching the tree trunk, with the game only telling me that it was deep. After a while, I tried the same command again, and now the game decided I found a sieve. Was I searching at a wrong time first? Apparently not, but the game required me repeating the same action twice. Listen game, if you want me to do that, you’d better give me better motivations.

I had found my first inventory object, but I had no idea how to use it. With nothing else to do, I turned to the only walkthrough I could find. It was of the simplest kind: a mere list of commands. It’s always a bit risky to try to use such a terse walkthrough, because they usually point out just the shortest route, not such that would make any sense storywise. Indeed, the walkthrough told me to sieve the water, and as I did so, I found a key. Now, this is not really moon logic, since I could catch a key in a river with a sieve. Problem is that there has again been no motivation why I would have wanted to sieve the river, with no indication I should be interested in it.

The key still failed to help, because I didn’t find any place to use it. It was time to check the walkthrough for the second time.
I had noticed I could interact with the tree above - not much, but at least examining it had told me that there was something fishy about it. The walkthrough told me to push the branch. No wonder I had got nowhere, since I had tried to interact only with the whole tree. This was not going well.

Luckily, behind the branches, I found new rooms to search. In particular, I found some ruins, and examining one of the walls there, I discovered some words “23… Astaroth”. Making a wild guess, I returned to the graveyard, where the hint system had indicated I was there too early or too late. I waited until 23.00 and wrote Astaroth. Three robed figures appeared and killed me. Continuing again with the ruins, I noticed some bushes and searched them. Apparently something bit me and I died again.
At least the game has a nice death screen
Restoring and going forward, I came to a crossroads, with a small chapel. West of the crossroads I discovered a calvary, east of it a well. From my previous experience with Lankhor games I suspected I should enter it. Just like in those earlier games, I drowned. You’d think that you’d notice the water before you climb into a well, but apparently it just surprises you.
Next, I investigated the chapel. It contained a cross, with the Christ missing, and a statue of John the evangelist. Remembering my hassle with the tree and its branches, I tried to do something with the raised hand of the statue. Indeed, pushing it caused a sound of water flowing somewhere far away. Yes, the well had been emptied.

Down the well, I found a wall with a hole, through which I could hear people mentioning the name of Astaroth, and a locked door. Trying to unlock it with my key, I gave up and checked the walkthrough. I made the important discovery that some rooms had floors that could be interacted with. This is perfectly reasonable, but it hasn’t been a common feature in text adventures I’ve played.

Checking now floors in all the rooms, I found, firstly, a magnet at the calvary, and secondly, gloves at the ruins. I couldn’t yet figure out what to do with the magnet, but the gloves had a clear purpose. Putting them on, I searched again the bushes with the deadly snake. Now I found a vial of acid, which was enough to open the locked door down the well. Behind it, I found a storage room.
So much to take! Well, not really, the picture was full of decorative stuff, and the game acknowledged only the existence of a cord. I had an idea that I should probably attach the cord to the magnet and fish something of iron through the hole I had used for eavesdropping. I was on to something, but I was at loss of finding correct verbs after tying the cord to the magnet. Checking again the walkthrough, I read that instead of the hole, I should plunge the cord-with-the-magnet in a pool at the bottom of the well. Pulling the cord back again, I found a small Christ.
The Christ was obviously the one missing from the cross in the chapel. Attaching it opened a secret door. Inside, I found a sacristy with some robes. It was evident that I had to put one on and go to the graveyard.
Shadowlords?
The black figures invited me to follow them, and the game told me to change the disk side. This is a perfect place to stop and let you, dear readers, guess the score. The exciting end of this tale will be revealed during the final day of the year!

12 comments:

  1. I have no idea how this one will measure up, but I'm gonna take a wild guess with 23 (because "mystical") - Happy Holidays All!

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  2. I'll guess 31.

    I can only assume the sieve you found was more the sort you might use when panning for gold? maybe there is some hint in the game that there might be something glistening at the bottom of the river.

    It certainly seems to be an interesting mystery game!

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  3. I'll guess 29.

    By the way, its not going to be relevant for a while, but there's a fan remake of the sequel:
    https://brocantygames.itch.io/black-sect-2-the-cursed-crypt-pnc-remake

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  4. Hey, I like the graphics and the puzzles and story seems pretty decent so far. I hope your difficulties with the french language doesn't drag the game some points down. My guess is a round 30

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  5. It's French, so it could be innovating beyond our wildest expectations, frustrating beyond belief, or both. I am guessing it will be a bit of the former and more of the latter so going for 27.

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  6. Vingt cinq.
    That's french for 25.

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  7. Also, I keep forgetting to mention this, but the Christmas logo is very nice.

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  8. Hi everyone! Been following the site since I found it a year ago, but this is my first time actually commenting :)

    Just wanted to add that there is a fan remake of this one too, and not just its sequel: https://www.adventuregamestudio.co.uk/site/games/game/1578

    And since I'm here, a humble suggestion for a Missed Classic: La Abadía del Crimen (The Abbey of Crime). It's a 1987 game from Spain, an unofficial adaptation of Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, which is now a cult classic and was highly influential in the Spanish-speaking world, and has been remade a couple of times too. The story of its production and its creator, Paco Menéndez, is also very interesting (though also tragic in Menéndez' case).

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    Replies
    1. Nice to have you on board! I am intrigued by the suggested Missed Classic, since I really like the Name of the Rose. Sadly, I don't know much Spanish, so I might have lot of difficulties playing it.

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    2. I've heard of it, unfortunately I don't speak Spanish either. At least not enough to play a game in the language.
      Also, there's a spreadsheet somewhere on the left where you can add that and any other titles you think we should cover. A few have been played, so they're not dumped in there and ignored.

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    3. I've now found that there's an English fan translation of the original Amstrad CPC version. Don't know what the blog's stand is with regards to fan translations though (I saw there was some debate about them in an article about Japanese adventure games here).

      But anyway, I'll add the info to the spreadsheet! And if ever it's played and you guys need a hand from a Spanish-speaking person (Argentinian here), for research or anything, I can help :)

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