Dracula 3: The Path of the Dragon Review

It is September, 1920. Father Arno Moriani has been sent by the Vatican to Vladoviste, Romania -- a small town in the Transylvanian countryside -- to research the recently-deceased Dr. Martha Calugarul as a potential candidate for sainthood. However, upon arriving, he discovers that there is more to the story than the life and death of a simple country doctor. As he begins his investigation, documents, stories, and rumors continue to surface, many of which point to a medieval potentate named Vlad III, the former ruler of what is now Transylvania. Vlad III is also known as Vlad Dracul, and is the source of the legend of Dracula. Father Arno must carry out his inquiry and uncover the truth about a bloody history, amidst ancient legends and stories of vampires.

The game is played in the first person, as Father Arno, and takes place primarily in the village of Vladoviste, with brief trips to Budapest to do further research. Along the way, you will interact with many characters who are key to the story of Dr. Martha Calugarul, as well as the legend of Vlad Dracul.

Despite the title, the game has virtually no connection to previous Dracula games. It is produced by Kheops Studio, and distributed by Microids -- neither of which was involved in a previous Dracula game. And in the game itself, Dracula is non-existent for almost the entire game, other than through stories, documents, and other references. Yet because of how the game is designed, I learned more about Dracula in this game than in other games I have played that are based on that character.

One of the strengths of Dracula 3 is the quantity (and accuracy) of the history that is portrayed. In the course of the game, Father Arno does much research -- particularly into letters, books, and other writings dealing with the mid-15th century. Most of the history of Vlad Dracul -- who is often referred to as Vlad Tepes, or Vlad the Impaler -- is accurate, based on other external resources. Period artwork is also reproduced faithfully, providing an additional air of realism to the story. References to "The War" (WWI) that had recently ended -- creating a free Romania in the process -- abound.

As with most Kheops games, the hardware and software requirements are quite moderate (see the sidebar for details). The game installed and played well on my system, with no problems at all. I have always been a fan of Kheops Studio's games, and Dracula 3 is no exception. The quality of the development team is obvious throughout the game; yet there are also some departures from the Kheops' "norm".

From the very beginning, I noticed that the game design employs a number of extremely handy and welcome features. For example, all dialogues spoken throughout the game are recorded in text form, and can be recalled at any time for later reference. (This is almost a requirement, as many puzzles presented in the game are resolved by referring to some earlier conversation.) Similarly, all cut-scenes are stored in a Video Gallery, and can be replayed at will. A special Objectives section provides a measure of "helpful hints" by showing one or more goals that Father Arno should be working towards at the moment. As various Objectives are met, they are crossed off the list, and new ones are added, providing a "road map" for the gamer, without giving away too much. And there is extensive reference reading. (The game actually includes the entire texts of the Latin Vulgate and Bram Stoker's original Dracula novel, for your reading pleasure.) In addition, a subset of menu options allows a great degree of control over the audio/video portion of the game, such as the screen brightness, the music volume, speech volume, and other parameters. These can come in handy throughout the game when, for instance, the setting is so dark that brightening the screen may be required to complete a particular puzzle, or locate a specific object.

Another standard of Kheops' games is seen in the excellent artwork throughout the game. The scenes all employ full 360-degree panning; and the 2D backgrounds provide the exactly correct mood for whatever is going on -- from walking through a cemetery to visiting an academic in Budapest to investigating the ruins of an ancient castle. Smoke and mist effects are used exceptionally well. The characters are rendered well, and there has even been a certain amount of attention given to lip-synching their conversations. Cut-scenes abound, and even in stationary scenes, there will frequently be small animations that provide an increased level of detail and realism to the scene.

There are several times when you -- as Father Arno -- can stop to play a game with one of the other characters. It might be a card or dice game with the local gypsy, or "pitching pennies" with a young lad on the street. Each of these plays out in the form of its real-life counterpart, and some are completely optional. Again, Kheops has come up with a way to provide additional "local color" to the setting.

At the beginning of the game, the puzzles in Dracula 3 tend toward being inventory-style puzzles. And, in keeping with other Kheops games, the inventory is handled in a similar manner, with a tabbed interface that allows you to sort inventory items by any groupings you prefer. This can often keep related items close together and easier to find, once you start accumulating large numbers of inventory items. The early puzzles require locating and using fairly common tools, gathering letters and other documents, and so on. In fact, there are even some items that, once you have seen and interacted with them, will show up in your Documents list, even though the item itself will remain in its original location. In this manner, you can quickly refer to things that you've read elsewhere, without returning to the place where you found them.

As the game progresses, more logic puzzles are included -- to the point that, nearing the end game, there is one puzzle after another. These include some typical "figure out how to open the safe" logic puzzles, at least one picross tile puzzle, and what, in my estimation, is very possible the best maze I've ever encountered -- a dynamic maze that appears to change as you navigate through it.

And in a departure from some of the more common puzzles, there are some tedious and repetitive puzzles in the game, as well. For example, you may solve the "logic" of a particular puzzle, and carry it out successfully, step by step. But you will then be required to perform an almost identical process again -- repeating the same steps perhaps 6 or 7 times. This seemed a bit much, and rather unnecessary; and it gave the appearance of artificially trying to lengthen the time of game play. (One logic puzzle near the end game is actually a layering of puzzles that is so interwoven, and so convoluted, that solving it requires solving many other puzzles first.)

Some puzzles simply were not solvable without some amount of trial and error. That is, mathematically there was more than one solution to the puzzle; and the only way to find which solution was the "right" one was to try every "correct" possibility. Even the inventory puzzles occasionally fell prey to the problem of being so unintuitive that the only response was the "try-using-everything-in-my-inventory-on-this-object" process. The most difficult puzzle of all -- in terms of having no right answer, being completely unexplainable, and totally unintuitive -- was, thankfully, also optional. (Which was a good thing, because even after it was solved, it still made no sense at all.)

As far as the game's difficulty, I felt that much of the time, it seemed a little too "helpful" for my tastes. Father Arno constantly talks to himself, saying such things as "I should go talk to so-and-so now", or "I'd better go check my mail" -- obvious "nudges" with regard to what to do next. Sometimes it was more obvious than at other times; yet I almost wish that there were less clues of this nature, and more ability to explore freely, and discover things randomly.

Perhaps the most thorough and complex part of the game is the story line, with all of the accompanying documents, books, letters, references, literature, paintings, and local stories and legends. In between sessions playing the game, I was constantly Googling various parts of the story, only to find that the vast majority of the history and background were completely accurate. I learned a great deal about the 15th-century rule of the "Vlads" -- Vlad I, Vlad II, and Vlad III -- and the lifestyles and times of the day. Of course, various vampire legends are also interwoven with the story -- including an indirect "guest appearance" (through the means of a letter) by Bram Stoker himself -- author of the original Dracula novel.

The audio made a great contribution to the game, as it provided all of the right "atmosphere" at various time throughout the game. It was quite well done, without being overbearing. And the ability to independently control the music, the background sounds, and the characters' voices was a great asset.

I have to admit that I did not like the ending of the game (and the story). To avoid any spoilers, I won't go into detail, but only say that it felt anti-climactic (and a bit disappointing).

The game is rated "T" (Teen), and that rating is justly deserved. The history portrayed in the story is an exceptionally bloody -- and true -- one. "Vlad the Impaler" got his nickname from the cruel and unusual way in which he killed thousands of his subjects (and visitors to his realm) who displeased him; many of the stories in the game hinge on that subject. Also, as you explore through the game, there is the inevitable carnage and the remains of those who have been here before you -- mostly in the form of numerous skeletons -- perpetrating a continual theme of death.

Once again, Kheops Studios has come up with a winner. Despite the subject matter (and the fact that the game is not for everyone), the artwork is outstanding, the game play is entertaining, and there are plenty of puzzles to keep you busy for many hours of fun.

-- Frank D. Nicodem, Jr.