Dead Reefs - Review

As Amadeo Finvinerro, travel to the island known as Dead Reefs to solve the mystery of the horrifying madness that's overtaking its residents.

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Genre: Mystery/Horror
Release Date: July 2007 (N. America)
Platform: PC

Note:
 Originally published 15 August 2007    


As any gamer worth his or her salt knows, pirates and adventure go hand-in-hand. With Dead Reefs, Streko Graphics has found a way to capitalize on that affinity without featuring actual pirates. You’ll play Sir Amadey Finvinerro, an investigator for the Crown in 18th century England.  A Baron’s son has died in what appears to be an accident, but a potion-wielding witch has said otherwise. As Finvinerro investigates, he finds that there’s more to the island-town of Dead Reefs than meets the eye. 

The town was built by pirates who used the treacherous island reefs to lure sailors to their deaths. Relieving ships of their precious cargo, Baron Kasbert Wyndham amassed a fortune that included a monk’s relic. Unfortunately, it also came with a deadly curse. Every nine years, a peculiar madness overcomes the inhabitants of Dead Reefs…and someone dies. The anniversary of this tragic event is just on the horizon, and Finvinerro must unravel the mystery before his own life is in danger. 

The makers of Dead Reefs did a fantastic job of capturing the dark, moody atmosphere of the traditional gothic horror flick. There are ghosts (naturally), hidden passages, crypts, and a witch named Benish Sue who lives in the swamp. The 3D graphics are gray-washed and somber, and the musical score is hauntingly morose. One halfway expects Vincent Price to come sauntering out of the shadows. (Note:  If you’re unfamiliar with Vincent Price, your parents were much too strict to allow you to catch late-night summer movies on cable. You should bring that up in therapy sometime.) 

Gameplay

This is a third-person perspective game, which I always enjoy; it makes ample use of swinging camera angles, something I enjoy quite a bit less. There were many times I lost sight of my character entirely, and could only force a camera switch by going to first-person perspective. Although you can’t interact with objects in first person (except in puzzle mode), you can sweep your viewpoint around, up and down, and even see hot spots that bear closer investigation. Since the only clue you get that there IS a hot spot in regular mode is an action icon in the bottom right of your screen, this is a nice touch.   

I found the game to be a bit light on traditional puzzles, but there were enough of them scattered here and there to maintain interest.  Most of the puzzles were inventory or information based. The puzzles are integrated so well that I might not have noticed their sparseness had I not been playing for review purposes. The few traditional puzzles were only made difficult by the clunky interface, which I’ll address shortly. Half the difficulty seemed to revolve around figuring out how to manage the controls in any given situation.

While I felt the game was strong in storyline, atmosphere, and puzzle integration, it really fell down when it came to game play. For reasons known only to them, Streko Graphics discarded the point-and-click interface in favor of ham-handed and clunky keyboard controls. This was, in my humble opinion, a very unfortunate choice. It’s not that I have anything against keyboard navigation in and of itself. I’ve played a number of games requiring a combination of W-A-S-D, arrows, and other various and sundry keys. The issue was how they worked, or rather how they didn’t. I’ll explain the problems I experienced in a moment, but first I’ll fill you in on how the controls are set up.

Most movement is controlled with the left hand by pressing "W" to walk, "A" to move to the left, and "D" to move to the right. You can complete a full 180-degree turn by pressing the "S" key, something I had to do many more times than I would have liked. Three of these keys do double duty under different circumstances, and the arrow keys provide secondary functions (talking, using objects, and selecting items from inventory, etc.).

Now, whenever I first begin a keyboard-controlled game, there’s always a learning curve. At first, I thought this was what I was dealing with. By the time I was half-way through the game and things hadn’t gotten much better, I realized this was not a simple case of operator error.

For one thing, this game simply does not lend itself to keyboard controls. It’s as though they took a game destined to be point and click and changed game engines mid-design. More importantly, the controls simply weren’t responsive enough. In most areas I couldn’t execute a smooth turn while walking.  Oftentimes, I couldn’t execute a turn at all. The controls would freeze up until I would "jog" it back into responsiveness by doing a 180. Of course, by then I had to wait for my previous commands to catch up, resulting in my character revolving in maddening circles.

An even more annoying problem: my character wouldn’t stop walking when I released the "W" key. Instead, he would soldier on for a good four seconds (I counted), placing me far away from my intended target. Combine these two problems with hot spots you have to be right on top of and you have an adventure in frustration. 

Just for kicks, here’s a sample of what that looks like: In first-person mode, you see an "eye" icon indicating a hot spot right beside the mantle. Finvinerro walks toward the mantle.  Finvinerro passes it by. You attempt to turn around slightly. Finvinerro remains stationary.  You press “S” to do a 180. Finvinerro completes both turns. You’re now facing the wrong direction entirely. Carefully, you nudge Finvinerro into a turn, then gently tap the “W” key until he slowly gets into position, one painstaking step at a time. Now you still need to face the mantle. God help you. 

I know these issues were with the game itself because there were at least two areas where my character performed flawlessly: inside the crypt and in certain portions of the manor. This leads me to believe that a patch is desperately needed. Interestingly, these bugs may not apply to all computers equally.  I consulted another gamer who said that, while he had some difficulty maneuvering, he didn’t encounter problems of the same magnitude as I did.

Final Thoughts 

Now comes the difficult part. How do I grade a game that had so much going for it, yet had so many problems? Although my grade is low, I plan to keep Dead Reefs on the shelf and anxiously await the patch. This game has replay value because of the alternate endings. Let's hope I have an alternate ending of being able to play this game all the way through without frustration. Until that glorious day comes, I have to give it:

Grade: C+
 
+ Strong storyline, atmosphere and puzzle integration.  .
-  Confused gameplay control mechanics. 
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System Requirements:

    Operating System: Windows® 2000/XP/Vista™
    CPU: AMD® 1800+ (1.5 Ghz) or Intel® 1.8 Ghz
    RAM: 512 MB
    CD-ROM: 4x (or PC DVD-ROM Drive)
    Vide nVidia® GeForce® 5200fx or ATI® Radeon® 9200
    Sound: 16-Bit Sound Card
    DirectX® 9.0c
    Hard Disk Space: 860 MB

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