82 – Veil of Darkness

Look, I’m not NOT proud of it, but I cheated. One puzzle was just beyond my reach. The solution in itself is clever in retrospect, but is one of those adventure game puzzles that’s just difficult to derive. There’s a man who’s been cursed to take the form of a tree. I’m running around asking every character about TREE and CURSE and no one’s giving me anything–I just can’t figure out how to uncurse him. The solution is to light the tree on fire, burning it into ashes, and taking said ashes to the monastery to get him revived back into human form. Once you have the ash pile, it’s extremely obvious what to do–the monk very specifically requests ashes rather than a corpse–but the bit about burning the tree on fire is left field (and, in fact, the man isn’t particularly grateful about the method you chose.)

Swaying me further from the solution is the fact that, in the forest area, which is sprawling and mazelike, a man tells you that the banshee “can reduce a man to ashes”, and so I’m wandering around the forest looking for a man who’s been reduced to ashes and just not finding one. I’m not even finding the banshee, and somewhere in the forest there’s a blue spinning circle that I can’t seem to interact with in any way. It turns out that the spinning circle is the banshee, and the reason that it’s not doing anything to me is that I happen to discover, hours earlier, a necklace that protects me from it. It’s a case where you’ve solved the puzzle but the game gives you no feedback that you have.

And so with the seal broken and the walkthrough consulted, I finished the rest of the game following it. I’d hit about the 3/4ths point. The rest of the game featured many more clever-in-retrospect puzzles, and maybe I would have solved some of them with more effort, but it didn’t matter.

There are tons of adventure games that people play over and over again–by the third time through Day of the Tentacle you’re not solving puzzles so much as you are performing them. Looking at a walkthrough is being handed the script as opposed to deriving the script through your own efforts, and maybe one is purer than the other, but in all cases you’re dealing with executing a series of specific actions.

And so the last bits of Veil of Darkness, the parts I played with the walkthrough, represented a shift in tone which actually matched what was happening in the game. The initial stages of the game are about investigation, about learning the world, about poking into crypts and meeting people and slowly uncovering the valley’s secrets. The endgame is about action–about your final preparations, about your showdown with the vampire.

The final showdown is a multi-level puzzle–essentially the head vampire makes a series of assaults that you need to be prepared for counter. He tries to hypnotize you, so you have to figure out how to avoid that. He tries to bite your neck, so you have to figure out how to repel him, and so on. You can methodically derive the counters to each attack, dying and restoring each time, and many of them are obvious (you’re gonna wear the garlic necklace you have, for example, because duh), but in a way it transforms the game into an interactive movie in the best of ways if you know exactly what to do. It shifts from the cerebral elements of investigation to the realm of the active. It’s almost like watching along with the final scenes of a horror movie, where the protagonist is gearing up for that final confrontation, and let’s face it, there’s times when seeing the hero die over and over again takes the fun out of it.

I think about how Ben Kingsley was in BloodRayne and admitted that he took the role out of a childish desire to run around in a cape and bite people on the neck. Veil of Darkness isn’t the deepest game I’ve ever played, it’s got its flaws, but hot damn, it was fun to be that adventuresome pilot running around Transylvania and trying to solve the mystery.

And more importantly, there’s a charm and a respect that comes from it. If Veil of Darkness is a Transylvania simulator, it’s an excellent Transylvania simulator. It’s pulp: It’s great pulp. You stake the evil vampire in a series of gorgeously-drawn panels (have I mentioned that the art is fantastic), you restore peace and sunlight to the valley, and you and the (admittedly damseled, look, it’s by the numbers) girl sail off to wherever life takes you. I mean I’ve got so much fucking angst in my life already. Do I really want to play a shooty game that yells at me for playing a shooty game?

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81 – Veil of Darkness

Anatoly Shashkin tells me that Veil of Darkness–another SSI game!–is a lost gem, and dammit, he’s right: A single screenshot on his twitter convinced me that what I needed to be doing today was playing this game.

Veil is one of those adventuresome games with some RPG elements–some light RPG elements, I stress: There’s no XP (an automatic strike against full-blown RPGness in my book), and everything seems to be built more around weapon types than any particular statistics: In other words, you’re gonna use a mace to bash a skeleton, and a silver sword to fight undead. Stuff like that. Combat, as is the case with a lot of these kinds of games, is horrible and awkward, half dice rolling and half finicky placement that, in my case, requires some shifting from mouse to keyboard and dancing around while you bop whatever enemy you’re facing, but for whatever reason, the combat is coming off as endearingly horrible and awkward.

Basically, Veil of Darkness is Quest for Glory 4 without the puns. You’re an incredibly Aryan, incredibly blonde, incredibly square-jawed fellow taking your daredevilly plane over mountains of Transylvania–as you do–when the local vampire flings a few bats at the cockpit, causing you to crash–there’s a great scene where the vampire is gloating in his castle as he sees a vision of your plane. The art is gorgeous, I must add. The valley is so isolated that nobody even knows what a plane is, and you’re prophesized to save everyone from the supernatural curses. The prophecy itself serves as a neat riff on the quest journal–it’s in the form of a cryptic poem, as these things usually are, and as you decipher each line and solve the related problem, it fades away, allowing you to track your progress as you go through the steps of the prophecy.

The game is very well-paced–it opens up new areas steadily enough that the initial stages give off a sense of progress even though most of what you’re accomplishing is simply meeting characters and learning the locations. Many of the quests are in several parts–find the goblet, the ashes of someone you want to resurrect, AND three somewhat-rare silver coins is a major one. I’ve found the goblet in the course of other branches of investigation, and while I don’t need to resurrect anyone just yet, this sequence is firmly held in a balance between the satisfaction of progress and the mystery of an unsolved puzzle. And in the same location, there’s a locked door and another character who has his own curse. The quests are very intricately knotted together.

Veil, being an adventure game made in the very early 90s, is, at its heart, a gigantic puzzle which uses its narrative as its puzzle pieces. There’s a keyword dialogue system, and not every keyword is decided for you: One character requires a certain herb, and you find another character chewing on a sprig of it. She suggests you ask her son; you’ve got to remember that and type the keyword in. Which reminds me that I haven’t been taking very careful notes; I think you need to take notes. The RPG elements are just kind of there–you can warp out to a healer with a couple of clicks at any time, it seems, and get freely healed to 100%–but the challenge of the game lies in untangling the knot.

The interconnectedness of it goes a long way towards worldbuilding. If everything is General Transylvania, it’s a fairly well-realized version of it, and the story even goes out of its way to not make it a simple Dracula retelling–there’s a short story in the manual which details a fairly original backstory for the main villain, and its one which, purple as it is, goes a long way towards reinforcing the plot. The characters all know each other, and many of the situations are a nice little soap opera of so-and-so wrongfully accusing so-and-so for someone else’s murder; a witch, who’s intent on wresting a secret from the monastery, has a spell cast on the wrongfully-accused man; her grandfather, in ghost form, is guarding the mausoleum–frankly, it’s hilariously ridiculous typing it all out, we’re practically in Dark Shadows territory. When it’s revealed that a catatonic woman who knows a secret was the fiancee of another character’s previously unmentioned dead son–I mean, this shit is awesome.