Dracula: Origin Review

Frogwares Game Development Studio departs from their highly successful series of adventure/mystery games based on the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes in their newest offering, which itself is centered on a well-known character in literary fiction: Count Dracula. The new game, Dracula: Origin, is rooted in the classic novel by Bram Stoker, and brings Professor Abraham Van Helsing to the forefront as he continues his relentless pursuit of the vampire. True to the original story, Professor Van Helsing enlists the aid of a former student, Dr. Seward, to save a young lady who has become a victim of the vampire. Other characters from the novel -- such as Jonathan Harker and Mina Murray -- are reproduced in the game, as well. From that beginning, however, the story is a completely new adventure, with locations, activities, puzzles, and turns of events coming totally from the ingenious minds at Frogwares.

At the beginning of the game, Van Helsing is already intent on pursuing Dracula. However, his interest is spurred even further after the disappearance of Harker, and the knowledge that Mina has become the next target for the vampire.

The game is played in the third person, as Van Helsing. As with Frogwares' Sherlock Holmes games, the majority of the game consists of exploring various locations, talking with many other characters, gathering information, solving puzzles, and seeing the story line unfold, as the drama increases throughout the game. With the freedom of a completely new story line in the game, Van Helsing travels from London to Cairo, to Vienna and -- finally -- Transylvania, and Dracula's castle.

The same features that have made the Sherlock Holmes series of adventure games from Frogwares so popular are prevalent in Dracula: Origin, as well: excellent, highly-detailed artwork; good 3D rendering and animation of the characters; a good mixture of inventory and logic puzzles; and a wonderful music soundtrack. As can be seen in the screen shots in the accompanying sidebar, the scenes in the game are of the highest caliber, down to the finest detail. In fact, those who have played previous Frogwares games will recognize the attention to detail, and the complex artwork. Scene after scene creates a level of realism that displays the skill of the game's artists quite clearly.

In addition to the 2D and 3D artwork, there are also video cut-scenes, typically for showing some action or transition to a new location. Each of these is of the same high quality as the rest of the artwork. (The only thing I would have wished for is the ability to replay these videos after they have been viewed, in case I missed something.)

The game interface for Dracula: Origin is quite similar to the previous Sherlock Holmes games; players of those games will feel quite at home. And gamers new to Frogwares offerings will have no trouble acclimating to the simple and direct ease-of-play. Very intuitive controls and menu options make it easy to accomplish most tasks. Actions are accomplished through point-and-click means. All dialogues are saved in text form, and can be reviewed later, which is quite helpful. Documents that are encountered during exploration, and notes of interest that Van Helsing comes across, are also kept in an inventory, and can be reviewed at any time (which is important, as they often provide clues to puzzles later in the game).

Since there are many inventory puzzles in the game, it is important that the inventory be easy to use and manipulate. And such is the case with Dracula. Items in inventory may be utilized to interact with other objects, or may be combined with other inventory items to create further useful tools. The inventory can become quite large, yet it is always manageable. The only time that inventory size became a problem was when I was stuck at some point, not knowing what to do, and I resorted to the "try using everything in inventory on any active spot" method to progress.

The inventory puzzles consist primarily of finding and manipulating items to achieve a specific goal (such as opening a locked door). These all fit quite smoothly into the natural progression and movement of the game. There are also many logic puzzles, which are typically more tangible puzzles -- normally taking the form of a full-screen close-up of some mathematical or mechanical creation requiring complete attention to solving the puzzle (such as entering the combination to a safe, or decoding an encrypted message). Once again, Frogwares has created a great balance between their puzzles. In fact, most of the logic puzzles are quite unique -- to the point where I found myself frequently saying "I love this puzzle!" None of the puzzles were unsolvable; the degree of difficulty ranged from moderately easy to challenging.

Given the highly-developed story line, as well as the "follow the clues" approach to the game, it goes without saying that Dracula: Origin is a highly linear game. Adventure gamers who thrived on roaming through Zork, or freely exploring the many facets of Riven, may feel a bit limited in their movements. At times, for example, game play is all but stopped because the game is looking for one (and only one) particular action to take place, before the player can progress. There is, however, a positive side to such design, in that it allows for more complex plot development, and more controlled game play. Personally, I am more of a free-style explorer; yet I have enjoyed every one of the Frogwares games immensely.

I also enjoyed the music soundtrack that accompanies the game. In a semi-classical style (yet consisting of predominantly new composition), the background music within Dracula is quite enjoyable. Strings are a common motif, and the music always suits -- and enhances -- the mood of the specific situation in the game play. As a classical musician, I thoroughly enjoyed it; as a gamer, I felt it made a positive contribution to the environment.

For those not familiar with recent Frogwares offerings, it should be noted that Dracula: Origin has some fairly rigorous hardware requirements (see sidebar for details). While perhaps not quite as demanding as the last one or two Sherlock Holmes games, Dracula: Origin does make use of the Aegis PhysX graphics accelerator. As a result, the ability to control the textures and shadings in the game are extensive. (For systems that do not have a PhysX hardware accelerator, a software emulator is installed along with the game. However, the difference in performance between the hardware accelerator and the software emulator is quite noticeable -- as I discovered for myself.) Dracula: Origin is one of those games where it can be quite advantageous to aim for the high end of the "requirements", rather than the "minimum", and result in a more satisfactory gaming experience.

The game is rated "T" (Teen), and that rating is justly deserved. Due to the vampire theme of the story, there are often scenes containing blood and gore (and occasionally body parts) -- typically in the aftermath of a "visit" from The Count.

The combination of a classic story with a new spin, the travel to exotic locations, and the outstanding graphics and puzzles created by the Frogwares developers, make Dracula: Origin a fascinating and enjoyable game that should appeal to all adventure gamers.

-- Frank D. Nicodem, Jr.