Mini-Review: The Lost Crown

(Official web site)

Review written by Andrew Plotkin

I prepared for this review by -- well, by playing The Lost Crown, but then by watching a whole bunch of Zero Punctuation reviews in a row. So please imagine that I am typing at 180 words per minute.

I have a problem -- no, two problems -- with The Lost Crown. It is a fantastic third-person adventure game which is scarred by a very few interface design errors. And my problem is that, one, these errors turn what should be a fantastic adventure experience into a dragging chore. And, two, every one of these errors is an absolutely standard error made by dozens of third-person adventure games over the years. I mean seriously damn it, why I am writing these reviews? I could copy and paste chunks of my Next Life review in here and you'd be left with a pretty accurate impression of what went wrong with The Lost Crown. Except that Jonathan Boakes doesn't have the excuse of being Czech.

Jump back.

The Lost Crown is a fantastic third-person adventure game. It is long and broad and plot-rich and twisty. It has a bunch of characters to interact with and plenty of locations to explore. Boakes's visual design sense is as brilliant as ever; the world is rendered in black-and-white photography touched with color, like hand-colored postcards, further embellished by touches of animation and the 3D characters. The audio design is even better, matching in turn the desolate, claustrophobic, or theatening landscapes of the game with densely mixed soundscapes.

Boakes continues to explore the territory he staked out with Dark Fall: scientific investigation into the supernatural. TLC begins with your flight from a shady electronics job into the tiny British town of Saxton. Your ex-boss ambivalently threatens you and aids you, sending over a batch of "ghost-hunting gadgets" which form the backbone of the game -- audio and video recorders that can bring out supernatural detail in scenes. This is not to say they're the whole game. You get symbol puzzles, dialogue interactions, searching for physical evidence, fixing machinery, researching in books -- the entire spectrum of adventure puzzle design, deftly implemented. But the gadgets are what tie the gameplay together, as they're used in their varying ways.

More subtly, TLC has excellent pacing. The town starts out as a merely eccentric place, with just a few inexplicable touches and quickly-explained scares. Then, over the course of several days (and nights) of storyline... Saxton gets stranger.

Your course of exploration is managed with equal facility. You begin restricted to a few parts of the town. The rest opens up as you enter the main storyline; and then you reach the more distant parts of the landscape, one at a time, as they become relevant to the story. (Quite often, as you'd expect, you have to revisit a locale at night... when things are different. One way or another.) The game is pretty good at pointing you at these locations, and blocking off the irrelevant ones, so that you're always looking for plot in all the right places.


Which brings me to the first of the serious design problems.

It's the slow walking issue. Or, really, the issue of slow animations in general. Next Life had it. Okay, Next Life had it worse. In TLC, you can double-click on an exit to jump to the next room -- hallelujiah. But it still animates you walking into the next room. If you click to examine an object, it animates you walking over to it and bending down. In a slow... deliberate... series... of motions. Sometimes you turn your head. Turning your head takes at least five seconds. Every time you turn your head, I want to scream. Because I know the designers were thrilled at their clever, distinctive, story-conveying character animations... and all I wanted was a way to skip them.

Did I note that TLC is a large game? It's pretty huge. Walking across it takes forever. Several seconds per room. Double-click... new room... carefully designed walk-in animation... maybe a dragonfly fluttering by... and then you can double-click again.

And the thing is, Next Life had this problem. Syberia had it. I can scarcely think of a third-person adventure game which didn't have tedious navigation. The new Sam and Max series doesn't, and that makes Telltale some kind of damn geniuses, because they got it so right that I didn't even notice the hole where the problem used to be.

(In retrospect, the Sam and Max games survive by having cartoon characters that run unrealistically fast -- and by being tiny. Off the top of my cuff, no two locations in the latest S&M episode are more than seven rooms apart. In TLC, seven rooms barely gets you from your home base to the center of town -- and then you're much less than halfway to the outlying districts.)

To be fair, the designers of TLC clearly saw the problem. Character motion has been sped up by a factor of two, I think -- it's out of sync with the walking animation, so that everybody looks like they're ice-skating. And the double-click-to-exit scheme makes the game... mostly tolerable. Usually.

Except when you want to go check a location on the other side of the game, to see if anything has changed there, or if your current puzzle can be solved there. And then the tedium strikes. When you're trying to solve a puzzle! TLC is a game that punishes you for thinking outside the box. By the end of the game, I was reading a walkthrough frequently, because trying out my solution ideas was too painful to think about sometimes. Walking three rooms away just wasn't worth the wait.

It gets worse. You can't click to skip lines of dialogue. (Nor hit space, or escape, or return... believe me, I tried everything.)

Does that sound trivial? When you walk into the rented room that serves as your home base, the voiceover says "Home sweet home... for the time being." Every single time. You can't interrupt it. (Nor the walk-in-and-hang-up-coat animation.) You have to sit through it. You are trying to go advance the plot and the game is just yammering at you.

Same deal when you start a conversation with an NPC. You get the same little hello speech for that character, or the same tired joke -- they're all tired after the tenth time -- and you can't interrupt it. When you end the conversation, the same little goodbye speech. And, as with most dialogue-menu games, this is an unavoidable part of gameplay. When you're stuck, you have to go talk to everybody to discover the next clue. Or ask them about a bunch of topics you've already raised, in order to see if they say something new. (They typically won't, but can you afford not to try?)

It's just like the puzzles; after a while, I could not face the prospect of talking to people. I found myself arranging alternate plans: I'll click on the professor and then go get a drink of water, so that he'll be done greeting me before I get back from the kitchen. More and more, the plans became "read walkthrough". No, not every time -- not even at the end of the game, when I was really tired of slow dialogue -- but plenty often enough.

You think I'm kidding, but if this one issue were fixed, I would have enjoyed The Lost Crown instead of suffering through it for the good parts. Did I mention that the voiceovers are slow? Your character talks like... like he moves. One... phrase... at a... time. "I should accept... the station master's invite... a possible lead." "Three... crowns... a link to the mystery." "Can I ask you about... something else?"

I'm pretty sure that a lot of these lines are literally stitched together out of separate sound files. "A link to the mystery" turned up a lot. So did "Can I ask you about..." You can hear the periods between the chunks. Other characters' dialogue had less repetition -- simply because the bulk of the game information comes in the protagonist's voice -- but even for them, some lines were reused in multiple situations.

I imagine it saved disk space... but it was a bad, bad decision. Nothing slaughters the sense of story development like getting the same half-clever banter repeated, by the same characters, two story-days after you first heard it. With exactly the same phrasing and intonation. Do you care, Mr. Protagonist? Have you learned anything about your new friend? Have you any shared experiences to draw on or refer to? No, you are repeating lines like a robot. Oy.

One may raise two objections to my objection to this use of the voice talent.

First: Sam and Max does it! (Yes, S&M has become my first counterexample to all sorts of things. That's because S&M is the first third-person adventure game which doesn't get anything wrong.) In fact every adventure game with voice talent repeats lines. If you repeat a (useless) action, or retry a dialogue topic, the game plays the same sound bite you heard before.

True! But, nearly always, this is an explicit signal of failure. The game is communicating that your action did not change the game state. (And you can click to interrupt, so it's not boring.)

TLC uses this convention. But then it also repeats lines when the state has changed. For example, the scene where you're working with a partner with an energy sensor, locating ghost activity in four rooms. All four times, your partner begins, "I'm picking something up, but it's very mild..." I'm not saying that this is confusing; just that it wrecks the sense of a narrative advancing.

Second objection: text adventures repeat lines! (In other words, I do it, whaddaya think of that?) All of the failure cases I mentioned above, and also room descriptions, default success messages ("Taken"), action responses... Text adventures are full of re-used chunks of text.

To which I respond, true -- but voice has a lot more bandwidth. Play a sound file twice, and it's excruciatingly obvious that the intonation is identical. Read a printed sentence twice, and you are free to imagine that the speaker is wearier, more excited, or simply aware of having said it before. The intonation is in your head, and so context can creep in.

Plus, text adventures can easily tweak the flow of words. If the designer thinks his text is getting repetitive, he can drop in a conditional word ("I'm still picking something up...") or have a phrase be randomly substituted. Furthermore, he can do this at any point in development or testing. With voice acting, changing one line is a big old nuisance.

I have to compare The Lost Crown to Barrow Hill, a game which uses many of the same voice actors. Barrow Hill does not have dialogue menus; the plot is carried by NPC voices, but they occur on the radio or the phone or behind doors. You cannot respond. Nonetheless -- or because of this -- the voice work in Barrow Hill is delightful, perhaps my favorite aspect of the game. It's natural and engaging; it conveys the characters with great immediacy. TLC manages to take the same voices and throttle all the life out of them.

(I'm particularly dismayed that the protagonist of TLC is voiced by Jonathan Boakes himself. One day I'm going to meet him, and I'm going to stammer something incoherent about how I'm a big fan and I enjoy his work so much. And he'll start to respond "Thank you--" and then I will reflexively punch him in the throat. Because, having finished TLC, I am so sick of his voice.)

(Emma Harry, on the other hand, can talk at me all day long.)

So do I recommend this game? Well -- hang on, I have a couple more nitpicks in the notes file. Like apostrophes. I noted about Dark Fall that Boakes's spelling and punctuation are lousy. He's using a spell-checker now, but he still seems to think that apostrophes are magic pixie dust which make words happy. Work on it.

Also, the game crashed on me twice, each time blowing an hour or so of progress. Which took at least 45 minutes to replay, because you can't skip any dialogue or animation. Save often, folks.

So, do I recommend The Lost Crown? Reluctantly, and with the warning that it may drive you nuts -- yes, I recommend it. The environments, the soundscapes, the deep and detailed storyline, the sense of history, the skillful construction of puzzles and interactions out of the game elements: these are worth the effort of barging through the game's shortcomings.

Anyhow, there's room for a sequel -- which I want to play, because Boakes just has to fix a few things in his game engine. And that'll be great.

(I also see an upcoming Dark Fall 3. I want that too.)

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