Dead Reefs Review

Dead Reefs is the latest offering from Streko Graphics, developers of Aura, and The Sacred Rings (a.k.a. Aura 2). This time, it is the late 1700's, and the scene is an island off the coast of England -- a place known for pirates who lure ships onto the reefs, slaughter their crews, and steal their cargo. During one such foray, an ancient relic of incredible secrecy and power was taken into the possession of the pirates. Ever since, a horrible murder has occurred on Dead Reefs every nine years, on the anniversary of this occasion. Amadey Finvinerro, a detective from the mainland, has been sent to look into these murders, and to find the killer. Playing the character of Finvinerro, the player navigates through exquisitely-created scenes, gathers information from many other characters, and solves fascinating and challenging puzzles along the way.

One of the first things that I notice about a game is the graphics -- that "initial impact" when the game starts up, and I see for the first time the environment, the artwork, the level of detail, the use of color and texture and light. The drabness of a remote 18th-century English isle town is portrayed excellently -- in the architecture, the landscape, the decor, even the characters. An example of the game's visual impact and attention to detail is that, as Finvinerro explores indoors and walks by a mirror, the mirror accurately reflects his exact movements. (See sidebar for screenshots from the game; note particularly the details of textures such as wood and stone.)

The characters are rendered admirably well, though they might have benefited from a slightly higher resolution. The voicings seem representative of 18th-century Britishers, with accents that are not so heavy as to make them incomprehensible.

I did experience some problems with rendering some of the graphics. Textures would disappear or become transparent, or change unexpectedly. A more common occurrence would be that entire sections of walls would disappear, "exposing" everything on the other side of the wall. Often simple artifacts would flicker on the screen, or flash with color.

The story line is the heart of the game, combining elements of 18th-century history, unexplained murders, a mysterious ancient artifact, even sorcery and a battle against other-wordly forces. Throughout the story, Detective Finvinerro keeps a journal of observations and useful information, which is valuable for hints and suggestions for "what to do next."

As in most "murder mystery" games, the story drives the game. And while this is a plus in many regards (such as overall continuity of the game), it also creates a fair degree of linearity in game play. At the start, there is an opportunity for Finvinerro to explore a bit more randomly -- until the story begins to take shape. Once that happens, there are many places where specific actions must be done in a specific order.

One of the most useful features in the game is a map that Finvinerro obtains shortly after beginning his investigations. As new locations are encountered in the game, they are added to the map. Returning to any location requires only to click on that spot on the map -- rather than the somewhat tedious method of traveling back and forth between places within the game.

There are many brief cut-scenes throughout the game, and all are done at the same caliber as the rest of the artwork, and provide good "bridges" from one scene to another. Uunfortunately, these cut-scenes cannot be replayed, and it is easy to miss critical clues contained in them. The background music and sound bytes contribute greatly to the mood of the game, and are not "overplayed."

The puzzles are a mixture of both inventory and logic puzzles, with an emphasis on the former. The pure inventory puzzles were sometimes disappointing. Without sufficient clues to make them intuitive, solving these puzzles sometimes turned into a case of "try every inventory object on this 'hot spot'." There was one logic puzzle that was unnecessarily difficult due to the obscurity of knowing what to do -- i.e., knowing the "rules" of the puzzle. And in some cases, there are really no clues to a puzzle, and it becomes a matter of trial-and-error.

Although the inventory is simple to operate, I did experience a couple of minor problems related to its use. An inventory item inexplicably disappeared from inventory and returned to its original location, although I was able to retrieve it again. Another time I got some documents "too early" in the game. They shouldn't have been available, but I was able to retrieve -- and read -- them. As a result, I was privvy to information that should not yet have been available at that point in the story, which caused some confusion.

There is one "bad" puzzle in the game -- the puzzle that brings about the ending of the game and the culmination of the story. Using all clues that pointed to this puzzle, I tried again and again to solve it. I not only tried the "right" way, but several "wrong" ways, as well. I eventually discovered that the developers had "goofed" in their clues -- and that the clues gave the wrong information needed to solve the puzzle! I understand that they are working on a patch to correct this; but until that time, the only way to solve the final puzzle is either through an extremely tedious trial-and-error scenario, or by getting the actual solution through an online help forum.

I found the game controls very awkward to use. There is no mouse interaction at all. All navigation is done using a 4-key combination (WASD). However, instead of using the 4 keys to move forward, backward, right, and left (as in other similar games), there was only one direction of movement -- forward (W). The other three keys simply face the character in another direction. Navigating through the game -- which is most of the user interaction that is performed during game play -- had to be done entirely with the left hand (something I am not very adept at).

Then, the keys used for performing other common adventure-game tasks -- picking up an object, talking with someone, looking at something, etc. -- were the four arrow keys. Thus, the arrow keys -- which are intuitively "directional" -- were used for tasks, while the non-descript alphabetic keys (WASD) were used for direction. Even by the end of the game, I had not managed to get used to this arrangement. Simply flipping the two sets of keys would have been a vast improvement on game play.

Not uncommon in an adventure/story game of this type is that the main character can die -- through a variety of "misfortunes." However, there is no "do-over;" rather, you have to restart at a previously saved game. This demands frequent saving, as there is usually very little forewarning of impending doom. Fortunately, there is no limit on the number of saved games that can be created.

Dead Reefs does contain multiple endings. But unlike the more common approach of playing through about 95% of the game, and then taking some "decision path" near the end that produces one of several different conclusions to the story, these alternate paths in Dead Reefs are available closer to the middle of the game. Since the alternate storylines end the game, complete with detailed cut-scenes and story wrap-up, it can be easy to misinterpret any of these as the final -- or only -- conclusion. Making the wrong choice in this situation could result in a player missing out not only on a large portion of the game, but also a truly successful ending to the whole story.

The game length (playing to a successful ending) was suitable to the story, providing about 20 hours of game play.

In summary, the game had a number of technical problems, but I feel that these were mostly overcome by a fascinating story, excellent graphics, reasonably challenging puzzles, and a well-crafted environment overall.

-- Frank D. Nicodem, Jr.