A Vampyre Story Review

From the fertile imagination (and studio) of Bill Tiller (The Dig, Curse of Monkey Island, Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine) comes an equally unique -- and hilarious -- new adventure game. A Vampyre Story is a comic adventure about the life, loves, and tribulations of a young opera singer who has been transformed into a vampire. Having been captured by vampire Baron Shrowdy von Kiefer and imprisoned in his Draxsylvanian castle (until she swears her avowed love for him), Mona De Lafitte wants nothing more than to return to her native Paris, and to become a star at the Paris Opera.

Along with her closest friend Froderick -- a bat -- she must find a way to escape from the castle, and return to Paris. In the course of her adventures, she will encounter many interesting and unusual characters, and will need to use all her wits to solve some clever puzzles.

As with many cartoon-style adventure games, the game is played in the third person. Using a simple point-and-click interface, the user can move Mona around the screen, talk with other individuals, pick up objects for later use, or even transport herself into a bat and fly to nearby locations.

The humor in the game takes many forms: the witty dialogues that take place between various characters (particularly Mona and Froderick), the off-the-wall situations that occur, even the artwork. In typical exaggerated cartoon style, the richly-detailed landscapes and buildings and characters are all rendered in quite a colorful, whimsical fashion. The artwork -- thanks to Tiller -- is of the highest caliber, and greatly enhances the aura of the game. And while many of the scenes are predominantly 2D backdrops, most have some form of additional animation taking place somewhere (e.g., snow falling, candles flickering, water running), to keep the user connected with the story.

The game is played in a fairly free format. Initially, due to Mona's captivity in the castle, the game begins with a small footprint. This provides an excellent opportunity for the player to learn the basics of the game, moving Mona around, exploring and picking up objects, etc. One interesting game implementation is that, in almost every location, instead of having a single cursor that indicates things like "move forward" or "look at" or "pick up" or "talk to", there is a four-sided icon that can be used to talk, touch, look at, or even fly. This greatly increases the amount of activity that Mona can engage in. And while it may initially seem as though this could get tedious, the humorous responses when Mona tries to talk to something that won't talk back, or pick up something that she shouldn't -- such as fire -- keep the game light-hearted and entertaining.

To talk with other characters, multiple topics are listed on the screen, and the player selects what Mona will say. (Although I must say that if a player avoided some of the choices only because they didn't seem to make sense at the time, they could easily miss some of the funniest lines in the game!) Conversation with other characters also take place in many cut-scenes throughout the game. It is never really clear why certain conversations require the player to click through a series of one-line sentences, and other times the dialogue flows for several minutes in a cut-scene without any user intervention. For the most part, the balance between talking with other characters (either through user-directed dialogue, or the many cut-scenes) and the rest of the exploration and puzzle solving is quite good. Toward the end of the game, however, there was a section where I felt that the developers had suddenly run out of either ideas or time, and the balance shifted substantially to character dialogue -- in a few cases, seemingly endless, unnecessary dialogue. One conversation topic led to another, and much of the dialogue appeared gratuitous -- i.e., it did little to advance the story or the gameplay. Thankfully, that was only a small portion of the game.

The puzzles in the game are well-designed. There are many inventory puzzles, where the primary task is to determine what objects to use in what situations to further the game, or to overcome some hurdle that Mona is facing. Keeping with the whimsical theme of the game, Mona's inventory is stored in a casket. In fact, another unique feature of the inventory is that Mona does not superhumanly carry around with her the typical trove of items that adventure game heroes so often do, such as ladders, shovels, and other large items. Whenever Mona tries to take a large item into her inventory, her character mentions that it is too large to carry, but she will remember it for later use. Then, when that item is needed later in the game, Mona will go back and retrieve it, use it, and discard it again -- never actually carrying it in her inventory.

There are also several logic puzzles in the game, although they do not occur as frequently as the inventory puzzles. And at least one puzzle is an interesting combination of a logic and an inventory puzzle -- gathering many different items, and then trying to determine exactly how to use them together to solve the puzzle. I felt that the quantity and mix of puzzles in the game was just right for the type of game that Tiller created.

The gameplay is reasonably intuitive. While there are no journals or task lists to indicate what the player should be focusing on doing next, and there are very few direct verbal prompts (e.g., "I think we should go talk to so-and-so now"), most of the game can be figured out fairly logically. There are a few places where the feeling of "So what do I do now?" might arise; and in those cases, some "free thinking" can be quite useful. But for the most part, the game flows well, allowing a lot of free exploring, while at the same time being a fairly linear story-based game.

The musical background to the game is exactly what might be intended in such a setting: often "spooky" -- with frequent interludes of organ music (typically in a minor key, of course). I never felt that the music intruded on the game, and it definitely helped set the right mood to accompany the story.

At times, if the game were judged only by the excitement of exploration, or the satisfaction of solving an intricate puzzle, it might be considered somewhat superficial. But from the outset, those are not characteristics to anticipate in a game such as A Vampyre Story. Rather, from the very beginning it is apparent that this is a spoof -- that humor is the "name of the game," and the player can be confident that it will not run out. Some of the funniest lines are the wisecracks issued by the bat Froderick -- surely the most sarcastic bat to grace the adventure game screen. And those who enjoy pun-based humor will definitely get their fill in A Vampyre Story.

The game has a lot of content. Escaping from the castle, it turns out, is merely the start of a much larger adventure. And as the game progresses, the "footprint" increases dramatically. And even at times when it seems clear that the game must surely be "winding down," something new springs up to rejuvenate interest, offer additional challenges, and move the game into a new realm.

Without creating too much of a spoiler, the end of the game makes it very clear that a sequel is in order. That is not to say that the game ends without a resolution. There is one... of sorts. However, as Mona and Froderick "sail off into the sunset," as it were, there is a virtual "To Be Continued" message to the player, by indicating that this is merely Chapter 1 in the story. And those who visit the Autumn Moon Web site can see not only the press announcement for "Part 2," but also some artwork and screen shots that have already been posted for the sequel.

The game is rated "T" (Teen), mostly due to the themes of vampirism (e.g., blood and death), plus some mild language. However, the humor in the game is so great, and so continuous, that I found very little that would be offensive to most game players.

I often judge my own reaction to a game at the moment that I complete the game. Was I sad to see the game end, or grateful that it was over? Did I feel it reached a good conclusion, or did it leave me hanging uncomfortably? Did the game length seem too long, too short, or just right? In the case of A Vampyre Story, I would have to say that I not only enjoyed the game throughout, but at the game's ending I felt that it accomplished what it set out to do, the game length was perfect, and I was actually excited to find out that there would be a sequel to the game. I look forward with great anticipation to playing Chapter 2 in the story.

-- Frank D. Nicodem, Jr.