Anacapri: The Dream Review

Anacapri: The Dream is a first-person adventure game set on Capri, a small island off the coast of Naples, Italy. Developed by S&G Software (an independent studio created by Silvio and Gey Sevarese), Anacapri bears many design similarities to their earlier game, A Quiet Weekend in Capri. Anacapri contains more than 8000 beautiful photos of the island of Capri, and provides an outstanding opportunity to learn the history, literature, and background of the island of Capri, and about Anacapri in particular (which comprises the western half of the island), while exploring many areas of the island. Combining actual historical characters with over 40 fictitious ones, the game brings to light much of the history, legend, and myth of this romantic location. (Interestingly enough, today -- as I write this review -- marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Dr. Axel Munthe, a Swedish physician who plays an important role in the game, and in the history of Anacapri.)

Playing the role of a prominent archeologist and expert of ancient civilizations, you have been asked to come to Anacapri to search for a mystical artifact -- the "Obsidian Disk" -- an article of power and danger, reputed to pre-date known civilization. While much is rumored about this Obsidian Disk, there is very little fact to go on. It is your goal to locate this artifact... if, indeed, it does exist.

Navigation is simple point-and-click; and on-screen "hints" can be enabled, to assist the user in determining what paths are available from any spot. Transitions as you move from scene to scene are "dissolves" from one photograph to the next, typically 20 or 30 feet from the previous location. Very few scenes provide any panning capabilities; and the ones that do use a rather limited mechanism to accomplish the panning -- arrow buttons at the left, right, top, or bottom of the screen that must be clicked and held while the scene shifts. Even so, the panning is rarely more than about 15 degrees in any direction.

Each individual scene is a highly detailed photograph. While incredibly beautiful and detailed, this same detail can become a bane when playing the game. Computer-generated scenes -- even complex ones -- can use color, contrast, highlighting, and other methods to focus attention on a desired spot or object. Not so with photo scenes. Without using the optional hint system, it is virtually impossible to know what might be important in any of the 8000 scenes that comprise the game environment, and the level of detail in the photos can turn any scene into a "hot-spot hunt."

As an enhancement to the digital photographs, there is also some minor integration of computer-generated artifacts -- e.g., buttons to click, mailboxes to open, objects to pick up -- into some of the scenes. Many of the puzzles are computer-generated, and overlaid on the existing photo, so as to appear to be part of the scene.

Due to the "photo progression" nature of the game, the player may often move forward 20, 30, or even 40 "clicks" (i.e., scenes) to get to the next point where there is any action that can be taken. There were instances where I felt that I was watching someone's vacation pictures. You know the kind: where the individual -- to insure that they don't miss a single minute of their vacation -- takes endless pictures, often of virtually the same thing from minutely different angles... and then feels that they need to show them all to you afterwards. Moving through all of those scenes repeatedly got boring very quickly. A computer-generated game would have rethought that layout, and simplified it greatly. However, working with the real landscape of Anacapri, the Savereses did the only thing they could do -- and "mapped out" every inch of the island in photos, forcing the player to walk every step of it.

Thankfully, an in-game map with active "touch points" does continue to develop as one plays the game; however, there is really no indication of where to go, or what to do. The environment is huge, and most of the island is available to the user from the outset of the game. Thus, there is the very likely opportunity to wander aimlessly for hours and hours.

The soundtrack -- composed by Silvio Savarese -- can be supportive, as well as confusing and annoying. There are times when "anxious" or "stressful" music is being played, for example -- yet there is nothing anxious or stressful going on. And some of the more mundane tracks are eminently forgettable. I found myself turning the volume down or completely off on several occasions, just to reduce the annoyance.

There is a lot to read in the game -- almost too much. While much of it might be considered highly educational, it is also too long. At times, I found that picking up some document, diary, or book, and opening it to read through it, resulted in being diverted from the actual game for lengthy periods of time, reading mostly aimless letters, dissertations, etc.

Most of the puzzles are fairly straightforward, and can be solved using clues found in various documents or conversations. The puzzles are integrated reasonably well into the story line, and don't seem to be simply gratuitous.

There are many characters to interact with. However, conversations with the various characters do not employ any video animation. Rather, these interactions consist of multiple photos of the character in different positions, with "dissolve" transitions between, as they talk. These photos often seem "unnatural," though -- as does much of the dialogue. It was also unnerving to discover that everyone I encountered a) seemed to know me, and b) knew more about my quest than I did -- despite the fact that I was a visitor to the island. And there is an almost unnatural conflict between the seemingly intense significance of the quest for The Disk, and the nonchalant manner in which everyone talks about it. The actual quest -- finding The Obsidian Disk -- is portrayed as a critical task, one that can affect the fate of the entire civilized world. And yet, in virtually all conversations with the local townspeople, The Disk is discussed in a maddeningly "ho-hum" manner, as if it were a subject from the back page of yesterday's newspaper.

A word must be said about the voice acting, as well. Originally, Anacapri was developed in Italian. Later, alternate voicing was dubbed in, for distribution in English-speaking markets. Apparently the budget for this dubbing was severely limited, however. From the sound of it, the 40 or more characters encountered in the game are voiced by about 6 actors, each trying to change their voice (usually to comical extremes) to play multiple characters. The results can only be said to bring quite a bit of levity to the game.

There is a fairly robust interweaving of mythology and reality throughout the story -- even visiting creatures such as the Sirens, and Poseidon. I had mixed feelings about the implementation of this. Some of it aids the story; and some of it seems to "get in the way."

I was also confused by some apparent anachronisms within the game -- such as finding a tablet dated from the early 1800's that says "The Disk is still on the island," and then having this tablet presented as proof that it still is there today.

When there is a hint given by one of the characters as to where to go next (e.g., "Go talk with Dr. Munthe"), and you navigate through the entire town to get to a specific place, you are frequently told something like "Dr. Munthe's not here; he's gone for a walk." Or "Sorry, the shop is closed now. Come back after 4pm." Or "There is no bus here now; come back later." Following in-game clues, only to arrive at these kinds of results, becomes increasingly frustrating.

To say that Anacapri can provide the player with over 50 hours of game play (a claim made on the game's Web site) is both a good and a bad thing. Were this truly a challenging game, with well-thought-out puzzles, intuitive clues, less tedious navigation, more comfortable (and productive) dialogues, and better character acting, I'd gladly welcome 50 hours of game play. However, Anacapri turns that 50 hours (and more) into a chore.

The most common way to play the game is in interactive Adventure mode. Alternately, an Explore mode opens up all locations in the game, removes all puzzles (and interacting characters), and allows the player to just walk around Anacapri, see the sites at a leisurely pace, and enjoy the thousands of beautiful photographs of the island. (Not ever having traveled to Capri, I don't know if every day in Anacapri is like the pictures; but the developers certainly opted to take their pictures on an incredibly beautiful day.)

Anacapri has a lot to offer -- non-linear exploration in an environment with a huge "footprint," a combination of legend and reality, thousands of incredibly beautiful and detailed photographs, a moderately detailed story line that develops throughout the game, and a good mix of puzzles. What is missing, however, is something to pull all of those things together into an enticing, intuitive, challenging game that doesn't get boring.

-- Frank D. Nicodem, Jr.