The Dark Eye: Chains of Satinav
is the kind of game I love to love. It's a beautiful and luxurious point and click adventure, solidly built and carefully crafted. This game is my first encounter with the German game system and setting The Dark Eye (Das Schwarze Auge). It's a little chafing, in truth, to play a point-and-click setting of a role-playing-system, and at first I couldn't shake the feeling that the game wasn't giving me a proper range of choices and freedoms - but the game is the game, and though the base system might be all RPG, this Daedalic creation is not.
The story, which is revisited in Memoria
(which I haven't played yet), follows young Geron, a down at heels odd-job birdcatcher who, despite clearly being drawn as a hero, is the scapegoat bad-luck character in his town of Andergast. We meet him being beaten up by local bullies, and the player's first job is to extricate him from his whomping. Soon enough his guardian, Gwinnling, starts growling about ominous signs and portents, and the King's Palace is beset by an insistent infestation of crows. Our hero is troubled by dream-memories of the mighty Seer, who was burned at the stake when Geron was a child, and who picked him out of the crowd and called him a doombringer. Clearly, it's time to get gaming and save the world.
Geron ventures out into the country and meets Nuridarinellavanda (Nuri for short), his fairy sidekick. Nuri is an adorable and infuriating stubborn Gaean flower child, drawn as a smoking-hot wide-eyed innocent and voiced wonderfully (in English, at least) by an actress called Nova Kane. <-- not kidding.
The two set off into the world, or really the worlds, and there's a lot of toil and strife before the eventual conclusion.
Nearly every scene in this game is breathtaking - the painted backgrounds are detailed and full of atmosphere, though there is far more art than there is interaction, which always seems like a lost opportunity. In the standard manner of point and click adventures there are few bystanders; streets are mostly empty, and almost everyone is there to serve a plot purpose. That's the nature of the coding beast, of course; if you can talk to them, that means someone had to write them in and voice them.
Still, those who do exist in-game tend to be paper-thin, more characteristics than characters. The dwarf is concerned only with money and the state of his beard; the knight is all proud bluster, and later he is devastated and paralyzed by his loss of honor. (Though it is cute when he tries to pick up Nuri.) The king is crabby and bossy, the scholar is little but a vessel for exposition, the rogue is a rogue. And so forth. I had no sense that any of these folks were people, so much as designated roles. The worst of the lot is the ridiculous Minka, the attendant in the baths, whose speech is peppered with (poorly placed) Yiddish bits. Surely a German developer should have sense enough to refrain from sticking caricature Jews in their fantasy setting - it is pointless and a bit offensive, and Chains of Satinav
In general, while the plot is solid, the writing throughout is not, and that's a crippling weakness in an adventure game. The game has been widely criticized for its voice acting, but I think that's unfair; I found the voicing to be quite good, overall. The lines, however, are rudimentary, and the actors are left with bland, undercooked characters and trite cliches. A major aspect of the story, for example, concerns a lie that Geron tells with terrible consequences; this ends up being an intellectual rather than a visceral experience, and the game has no chance to explore the hero's villainy. I wish it had done so - it's another opportunity missed.
But this is not a book, though if it had been approached as one it might have been a true classic. The gameplay here is a little primitive, but robust. Animations are not that great, and experimentation on some of the harder puzzles can wear away patience quickly. By now developers really ought to understand that giving players non-skippable animations as we try to flex our inventories into some sort of solution is a convention that needs skipping - it adds boredom to frustration.
Some of the puzzles in Chains of Satinav
are complicated and weird, though I think all of them are in line with the mad conventions of the genre, and I was comfortable consulting a walkthrough for some of the tougher conundrums. For the most part the game put me in the right place to identify and solve what was set before me. I found many of the tentpole puzzles, perhaps half?, to be brain-stretching, and the rest were easier and fun. Only a few of the solutions left me baffled once I knew the answers, as in the devilish "Three Impossible Tasks" section. A couple of the variables there didn't seem to work as they were clued. But, as I like to say, that's why the Internet gods gave us walkthroughs in the first place.
I played this game for weeks and found it impressive - and, seriously, just gorgeous to look at. At the end of the day, though, I don't think I had as much fun as I wanted to have, and I think the problem lies in the writing. The brightest star in the game is Nuri, who will either make you fume or smile. Still, a lot of the experience is slightly laborious; the game is a story told, not a story experienced.
Howlongtobeat.com puts the game length at 10-15 hours, and honestly I don't understand that. I like to take my time with games in general, but I was in there for at least twice that and probably more (I played the GOG version, so my time wasn't tracked.) I missed a ton of the in-game achievements, some of which leave me curious, so I may go back for an informed second run at some point; achievements are slightly bugged in general, and oddly enough I didn't get the achievement for finishing the game, perhaps because I didn't watch all the way through the lengthy end-credits. I also missed the Easter Egg clip in which Geron and Nuri have sex, though you can find that on YouTube if you're curious. The game also tells me that two of the videos did not unlock, so I'll have to hunt for those. This year's gaming to date