There are many things I admired about fragilebits' new adventure game, The Ward. I just wish I could say I enjoyed it more.
The Ward is an ambitious point-and-click third-person pure adventure from Croatia. It begins with a truly "ooh-" and "ah-"inspiring cutscene depicting an Apollo moon landing, a few minutes into which things go terribly wrong and our hero quickly finds himself a prisoner inside an alien colony on our moon!
Your hero is immediately beset with several pressing problems. First of all, he's got some kind of insidious ankle bracelet strapped on him that keeps him from leaving his immediate vicinity. Second, he's surrounded by computer screens but (not surprisingly) can't make heads or tails out of any of the alien controls. Third, there's the troubling little fact that he's been plopped down in the middle of a deadly firefight between warring alien factions!
But his problems are nothing compared to the problems facing you, the player ...
From this abrupt and admittedly promising beginning, The Ward spins an increasingly complicated tale of adventure, intrigue, and cosmic destiny. In fact, the game's story would make a pretty good science fiction novel.
I just wish it made for a better game. Alas, certain features of the game seriously undermine the enjoyment and fun factor.
The point-and-click interface, which includes a whole lot of inventory wrangling, is a bit clunky and definitely takes getting used to.
Next, there's the save system. Once again, I'm afraid I have to trot out Ray's Gamebuilding Rule #345: the save and load system is no place to get creative. The Ward uses a rolling cycle of quick save game slots in addition to "regular" save game slots. It's explained in the manual, and it does work properly, but it's still needlessly baffling. I never like the stress created when I'm wondering if I've really just saved my game or not.
Next, there's the game's difficulty. Maybe my brain is simply turning into mush after ingesting too much aspartame, but this is one wickedly difficult game. In fact, it may be up there with Dog Day as the most confounding adventure I've ever played. Part of this difficulty comes from the game requiring you to make tremendous leaps of logic in dealing with the various gadgets and computers that you encounter through the story. Think Myst and Riven and Lighthouse had tricky gadgets? Hah. You're forever having to program and reprogram everything from robot drones to entire space ships, and figuring out how to do so can be quite vexing.
Also, there's the fact that you have to keep track of mountains of dialogue that's filled with directions, explanations, and directives. I advise you to brush up on your shorthand while playing this game, because if you don't take very careful notes, you'll be sunk. Yes, the game does provide a replay feature for the major cutscenes, but there's absolutely no journal or mission objective log to help you keep track of what you're supposed to be doing. This is a big problem, because in conversation after conversation, you're given reams of instructions and assignments.
Then there's the puzzles themselves. Many of them are timed, and I don't mean generously, either. Several times during the game, even when I knew exactly what do to, I had to try seven, ten, or more times to accomplish the given goal before the timed puzzle's deadline expired and my character died. I died so often I began wondering if I'd stumbled into an action game.
And get this: The Ward even contains (drum roll, please) a timed slider puzzle. That's no misprint, sports fans. You read correctly. A timed slider puzzle. Talk about sucking the fun out of the game!
The graphic are a mixed bag. The cutscenes involving space ships, tunnels, and other large objects are truly stunning, frequently in both conception and execution. It's great that the game has a feature to replay these attractive movies. However, the cutscenes involving characters are pretty wooden.
The characters in the play screens are pretty ho-hum as well. And while there's mountains of dialogue to read, there's very little that's actually spoken aloud. The listless character sprites wander in and out of the scenes, seemingly at random, and you have to shuffle around and around and around, engaging the same people in dialogue again and again. The whole effect is troublingly reminiscent of Bethesda Softworks'Zero Critical (shudder!).
The most critical element for any game is that indefinable "Is it Fun to Play" quality, and unfortunately, The Ward just didn't inspire me to stay up past my bedtime while playing.
I am sure there are adventure purists who will enjoy The Ward more than I did. It's certainly a breath of fresh air for those who think adventure games have gotten too easy. Those who enjoyed the baffling mysteries of Dark Side of the Moon; those who thought the puzzles in 9: The Last Resort to be too mundane and obvious; or even those who finished Drowned God in one day might consider The Ward a feast of challenging puzzle-solving.
I'm thrilled that new pure adventures are popping up all over the place. I support independent game development. However, I can't help but wonder just how much has fragilebits really been listening to the adventure gaming community if they think something like a timed slider puzzle would be considered "fun." However, I certainly applaud the talented game design team creating such an ambitious title, and I do hope their next title is a bit more player-friendly.
Final Grade: C-
If you liked The Ward:
Play: Dark Side of the Moon
Read: Titan by John Varley
Pentium 133 MHz
16 MB RAM
130 MB hard drive space
1 MB Direct X video card