Watchmaker, The Download (2001 Adventure Game)

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The Italian-produced mystery The Watchmaker is somewhat of an enigma in the realm of graphic adventures. The story is fairly solid, though sci-fi based, and the background and environments are quite beautiful in places, but the voice-acting, pace, gameplay, and interface conspire to set the entire production only slightly above amateur material. The sum of the small irritations and unfortunate design aspects negate what would otherwise be a strong entry in the genre.

The voice-acting is dull, uninspired, and in some cases, unintentionally laughable, as the actors who dubbed English for Italian sound exactly as if they're reading from scripts. Obviously they are, but the idea is not to let on -- in this aspect they failed. You can switch between the two main characters, Darrel Boone (one can hardly keep from thinking "Daniel" when hearing the name) and Victoria Conroy, with a touch of the Spacebar. Incredibly, the two have the same script and utter the exact same phrases when looking at objects or commenting on surroundings.

Adding further to the unpolished doings, the faces of the two main characters, as well as the NPCs they meet in the Austrian mansion, don't blink and barely move when they speak. The mannerisms are stiff, limited in movement, and not fluid. For example, turning a character around means holding the arrow key while the entire body revolves slowly in place, without the arms, legs, or head moving, before you can move forward again. Running and walking animations are fairly realistic, but when standing still to view an object or talk, the characters repeat arm patterns, head nods, and mannerisms.

During exploration, the camera angles are dictated by the game and can lead to awkward views or hard-to-see visuals until they snap to the correct viewpoint. The first-person perspective is limited to viewing objects up close and you can only swing the viewpoint roughly 45 degrees in either direction. Extremely irritating is the fact that you can't back up or move forward while in first-person mode. With no option to even turn around, the only choices are to look up, down, left, or right. Another annoyance is the lack of discipline with the mouse pointer; if you access the menu bar at the top of the screen, then close it, your character is left looking at the ceiling.

The poor interface presents problems in unexpected places, too. For example, just when you've gotten used to the arrow keys for movement, you suddenly discover you can't climb or descend stairs with them. You must switch to the mouse and use the RMB to click on the staircase in order to execute the move, at which time you're subjected to a short "loading" delay (an icon to that effect even displays in the corner of the screen) -- and it's not fast. Walk up to a door using the arrow keys and again you'll have to click with the mouse, since the control key, though listed in the manual as the keyboard equivalent to the right click, didn't work.

Considered "non-linear" by the developers, the game contains a surprising number of dead ends that are unlocked only after performing specific tasks or moving forward in time to a certain point. In one place, Jennifer opens a patio door, but won't exit since she wants to "look around here some more first." You have less than a day, game time, to finish the quest, but the clock only advances after you've met certain objectives, making the timing aspect immaterial.

At times, the dialogue is simply goofy or inane. For example, "If Anderson had taken on Adolf Hitler we'd all be better off" says the cook, when talking about Greta the housekeeper. When talking to the gardener, Darrel asks "Does the cook and the gardener have much to do with each other?" Whether intentional or not, some slights are apparent -- Jennifer or Darrel, after repeatedly commenting on beautiful landscape paintings, come across an ugly, abstract painting and offer "It was probably painted by an American." Excuse me? Characters also make observations about objects they couldn't possibly know: "I'm sure that barrel is empty now," after simply taking a look.

Graphics problems include full character shadows on the wall (no connection to the character's feet or body) and odd resets of character positions. Move Jennifer to the end of the hall, switch to Darrel with the idea of moving him to join her, and Jennifer will magically be back in the middle of the room with Darrel. Since the two characters essentially have the same lines, but elicit different responses from other characters, you basically have to do everything twice to make sure the bases are covered.

The mansion is huge and expansive, exploration takes a great deal of doubling back, dialogue becomes important to unraveling the mystery, NPCs must be continuously revisited, and the puzzles are fair but not too difficult. In-game movies and cut-scenes help move the plot nicely and the surprises are fun when discovered. Unfortunately, the pace is slow and the suspense doesn't ever really grab you, since the time limit is artificial and the character movement is abysmal in spots.

Despite the lovely backgrounds and nicely designed mansion and grounds, The Watchmaker is beset by design problems that date the program as being three years in development. The game is reminiscent of many of the DreamCatcher mysteries that flooded the market around the turn of the century, with gorgeous backgrounds, nicely detailed interiors, and a decent story -- none of which, unfortunately, is supported by the presentation.

Graphics: Graphics are the highlight of the game (other than the story itself), but dull, uninspired characters, poor shadow design, stiff movement, and slow scene loads hurt the continuity and suspension of disbelief.

Sound: Voice acting is abysmal -- dull and obviously scripted. Character remarks range from condescending to ludicrous, but the overall effect is boredom mixed with unintentional humor. There's little that brings out the character's personalities.

Enjoyment: The slow pace, uninspired characters, and interface problems negate any excitement that might be generated by the story. For a 2002 release, The Watchmaker plods along. You find yourself just wanting to get through it.

Replay Value: Solve the mystery and be done with it. No reason to replay other than to look at the nice backgrounds.

 

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