Shakespeare probably never imagined that one day his immortal words would be emblazoned across tote bags and baseball caps. It is equally unlikely that he could have foreseen Ophelia, the tragic heroine he created for Hamlet, hob-nobbing with the 15th century poet François Villon, and the inebriated Russian monk, Rasputin. In Absurdus' 2002 release Eye of the Kraken, however, such encounters are frequent, with the developers uniting a host of famous literary and historical figures, as well as original characters, in an entertaining third-person detective game.
Eye of the Kraken opens with a grainy black and white animation sequence, intended to look like an old movie. A chase is in progress, and a disguised thief speeds to the docks and boards a ship (along with much comedic fist shaking from the pursuer). The next morning Abdullah, an emissary to the Sultan, receives a message asking him to recover the stolen artifact - the Eye of the Kraken. One of the passengers aboard the Glutomax is guilty, and it is Abdullah's responsibility to track the culprit down before the ship reaches Hyade Island in five days' time.
Unlike standard detective fare, however, Abdullah's suspects aren't the usual bored housewives, shifty-looking ex-husbands or grudge-ridden domestic staff. Instead, Abdullah encounters icons of literature like Odysseus and Count Dracula, historical figures such as Villon and Rasputin, and unusual new characters, including Olaf the Viking and Aboubakar, a powerful African marabout.
The plot remains quite superficial, retreading the familiar paths of cliché as yet another megalomaniac tries to affect world domination using a stolen artifact. There are enough red herrings to keep you from guessing the culprit too early, though, and despite his most intrepid efforts, Abdullah frequently finds his investigation hampered by obstacles, including narcotics, transfiguration and the alarming 'vampirization' of key witnesses.
One of the major selling points of Eye of the Kraken is its unique blend of humor, which swerves from highbrow cultural references to slapstick, scatology, and the plain bizarre (cockroach racing, anyone?). With such a renowned cast of characters, references to the classics are irresistible, and those with a literary background will delight (or perhaps despair) in the game's numerous allusions to The Odyssey, Hamlet and Moby Dick, as well as references to Picasso and Oedipus Rex. Much of the humor is generated by dialogues that challenge or flagrantly disregard the traditional portrayal of these characters. Rasputin has a particularly lively explanation of how he escaped the grisly fate prescribed by history, and contrary to Hamlet's "get thee to a nunnery" advice, Ophelia spends most of her time onboard flirting, and becomes Villon's mistress. When Ophelia announces "I can't wait to try out my new bikini!" I'm certain that I felt the ground shudder as Shakespeare turned in his grave. It will depend upon your own preferences as to whether you find this brand of humor endearing or irritatingly pretentious. Personally, I enjoyed most of the literary references, but felt that the humor became a little strained at times, particularly towards the end of the game. At this point you are introduced to the two "Neo-Botchist" characters, whose pseudo-intellectual gibberish really misses the mark. Fortunately this is offset by some genuinely funny moments when the game designers flag up the anachronisms and impossibilities in the plot. At one point Ophelia comments on the lucky coincidence that, despite coming from a number of different countries, everyone speaks the same language, while another character muses on the unusual fact that the passengers tend to regurgitate, word-for-word, the same responses when asked the same question twice.
Eye of the Kraken was made by the independent developer, Absurdus, and built using the Adventure Game Authoring System (AGAST). Unlike most modern games, there is no voiceover work for the characters. Although a little disappointing at first, this doesn't generally detract from the gaming experience, but quickly becomes farcical when Abdullah attends an opera recital. At this point the lack of speech is painfully evident, especially because the music cuts out, and the gamer is left in silence to contemplate the text-only arias. The subtitles allow the game to be played in French, Spanish or English. Although I can't vouch for the other versions, the English dialogues are good, and only occasionally become stilted, presumably because of translation.
The aural elements are the weakest part of Eye of the Kraken. The game's soundtrack consists of snippets of music of the 1920s-1930s, which seem to jar with the setting. Because the music plays indiscriminately on a loop, it is often at odds with the events unfolding onscreen. Tense situation? Same tinny soundtrack. A light-hearted interval? Same tinny soundtrack. A moment of great dramatic portent? Even Abdullah could solve this one... same tinny soundtrack. At times the music became so intrusive for me that it was necessary to switch it off completely. My other gripe with the audio (and this is petty, though nonetheless relevant) is the "ca-ching" sound that the doors make when you open them. Since when did doors start sounding like cash registers? You may think this an extraneous comment, but trust me, there are a lot of doors to open and close in Eye of the Kraken, and sooner or later it will really get to you.
The game is played from a distinctive isometric perspective, with graphics which, although sparse and simplistic, are not without charm. This is fortunate because as a "closed-room" adventure, played out entirely aboard the Glutomax, you will see the same interiors over and over again. I particularly enjoyed the attention to detail in each of the passengers' cabins. Additionally, the interface is well-designed and simple to use. Inventory items appear at the bottom of the screen and when the cursor passes over a hot-spot it turns red, opening a drop-down menu to allow interaction.
The majority of puzzles aren't very taxing, and can easily be solved with simple inventory manipulation and the standard talk-to-everyone-about-everything approach, although one or two require vast leaps of the imagination. Many of the tasks that Abdullah has to accomplish are bizarre, such as the aforementioned cockroach racing, though the solutions are nearly always logical and clearly signposted. Each day is split into three time blocks, and certain actions need to be completed in order to progress to the next one. In several cases there are additional things to do, which though superfluous to the plot can create some comic scenes. Even with these distractions, the relative easiness of the puzzles means that gamers can only expect 7-10 hours of gameplay.
Unfortunately, the detective element in Eye of the Kraken is frustratingly downplayed, as it is not so much your investigative abilities but rather your errand running skills which are put to the test. This is particularly annoying when you have to repeat certain tasks twice, such as the gathering of water, salt and sausages(!) needed to manufacture ice. Abdullah's notebook, in which he records his observations on each character, proves monumentally unhelpful in tracking down suspects. Appropriately, therefore, the thief is ultimately exposed not from Abdullah's efforts, but from a rather more unusual source, completely undercutting your own investigative attempts. All in all this leaves the impression that Abdullah, though ill-favored for a career in NYPD, would make a truly marvelous bellhop.
Eye of the Kraken is a generally enjoyable debut adventure from an independent developer. Due to the limited detective element and vast amounts of busywork, experienced gamers may find Eye of the Kraken somewhat lacking in substance. Certainly the game's unique brand of humor and increasing levels of absurdity won't be to everyone's taste. On the other hand, the game's engaging and original premise separates it from the mass of other detective adventures available, and those with a love of quirky puzzles or a background in classical literature are sure to have a blast.
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