I really, really, really expected to like The Samaritan Paradox
, and so I'm surprised at how ambivalent I feel about it now that I've got it finished.
The game is an indie retro point-and-click set in Sweden in 1984, where young Ord Salomon is having trouble finishing his thesis in Gothenburg. Ord is recently out of a relationship; his bills are going unpaid, his plant, Herbert, is dying of neglect, and he's depressed. His best friend, Jurgen, has given him the latest bestseller by Jonatan Bergwall to try to cheer him up, and as soon as Ord opens the book to the page dedicating the story to Bergwall's daughter, he spots a cipher - codes and ciphers are his thing - which everyone else in Sweden has overlooked. Making use of a tangential clue that is lying around in his apartment, Ord - or you, rather - consults an unlikely source of information which just happens to be there, and quickly solves the cipher, which reveals a clue that starts the story rolling.
This is pretty much a microcosm of all that is wrong and right with this game. I solved the cipher on my own, and it was clever enough, but I was a little bothered by the way the puzzle was presented. Exactly every detail I needed to solve the puzzle was planted, awkwardly, in this location, waiting for me to gather everything up and make sense of it. On some level, of course, that's how point-and-click games work, but in this case the presentation was ham-fisted and forced.
Throughout the game, the clicky solutions to the various obstacles are scattered heavy-handedly, and sometimes bizarrely, in nearby drawers and closets. Some solutions are so obtuse that I ended up relying heavily on a walk-through, because whatever logic the devs were using is either native to Sweden or is a feature of a mindset that I can't penetrate. Even when I solved the most laborious of the problems, with or without help, I often felt that the solution was ridiculous, unlikely, or unfair. I probably did more than half of the heavy solving by myself, and a couple of the puzzles had really satisfying moments, but much of the problem-solving relies on information that the player simply doesn't possess in-game, which reduces the game to tedious trial-and-error-and-reload play, which means that this true believer is going to his walkthrough. Because it's just not fun.
To make it worse, the game doesn't like being ignored, and freezes and crashes when I switched screens. So in order to check the walkthrough I had to save, quit, and then restart and load on the other side. The Samaritan Paradox
is widely understood as being hard, but I don't think that's true. I think it's simply badly-designed. I get that it aspires to the old-stylee games that didn't help players along, but I don't think the mix is right. I was wondering if it was just me, so I read up a bit on the dev blog, and the designer is under the impression that the puzzles are light-hearted and irreverent. I think there's a problematic disconnect here, and that the devs really thought they were designing smart, sensible, amusing puzzles, and concealing them cleverly in the environments they had created. I don't think they have any sense of what it's like to play the game without having designed it.
And this is a shame, because the game is solid enough that I kept wanting to like it more. Alas, I was blocked at every turn. The characters, such as they are, are poorly written, and the conversation mechanic is limiting and poorly implemented - you generally know far more than you can ask, and the conversations are stilted. The translations are sometimes clunky, and combined with voice acting that is mediocre at best - the voices are pleasant, but the actors often apparently did not understand what they were reading - there is little to latch onto in a game-world that feels increasingly bland and sparse. There are some dreadful smug miscalculations, as when, in a bar, Ord tries to prove his (pseudo) intellectual superiority to some guy who is trying to pick up his cute blonde contact by dragging out a few pretentious name-dropping comments about philosophers. On its own, this would be bad enough. When the voice actor mispronounces the name of one of the philosophers and no one in QA catches it, it is simply embarrassing.
And yet, and yet. The game shoots high, and you have to like it for wanting to be better. It tells a mystery story in the main, and it also has a fantasy tale played through manuscript chapters of Bergwall's secret lost final novel, which Ord is hired to find by Bergwall's attractive, evasive daughter Sara. There's a menacing import/export company on Fardo Island, near Bergwall's working cabin, and a church which appears to be involved in some funny business. There are the disused bunkers left over from WWII. Or are they disused? There's an awful lot of plot, and much of the story is so brisk and busy that it isn't necessary to dwell on some of the crimes Ord commits in the course of his investigations.
And then suddenly, and a bit out of the blue, the game turns weighty and dark. The reveal at the end is plausible enough, but it felt mean-spirited to me, and while it makes sense of some of the quirks of a couple of the characters, it is serious enough that it pretty much knocks over the table and spills the previous chapters out onto the floor. The tonal shift is devastating, and I found Ord's response to a nasty truth to be appalling.
Add a poor interface and an excellent (and very repetitive) soundtrack, and I found the game to be a mixed bag. On the whole it is worth playing if you're a fan of adventure games, and it really represents a different voice, which is part of what I look for in indie games. On the other hand, it's a novice voice, and I don't think the game was made with players in mind. I was often frustrated. The two games I have played this year so far.