Game Review: Belladonna

Frankenstein: The Game

Developer: Neckbolt
Publisher: Neckbolt
Platforms: Microsoft Windows (reviewed)
Disclaimer: Copy provided by the developer/publisher
Available on: Steam

Point-and-click adventures were a dead genre. And not unlike the protagonist of Belladonna, they didn’t stay dead forever. In a sea of modern adventures that eschew traditional puzzles in favor of character development and moral choices, I was interested in tackling a traditional point-and-click adventure game. Especially one with a horror aesthetic.

Belladonna’s influences become obvious very early on. We start our game on a slab in a laboratory, suffering from amnesia, of course. We are a reanimated corpse and our goal is to piece together the events that lead to our initial demise. So you can see how Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein plays a key role in the creation of this game, even before the game clumsily makes a reference to her within the first five minutes.

The laboratory we’re in happens to be housed inside the dungeon of a castle, occupied by Dr. Wolfram von Trauerschloss. Now if that name doesn’t sound silly to you, it’s probably because you don’t speak German, because “Trauerschloss” literally translates to “Mourning Castle”. So you can see why this was one of the early warning signs about this title, for me at least. The good doctor, true to his inspiration, tinkers with the elements of life to bring back recently deceased organisms.

Unfortunately, we don’t really see him do that. You see, Belladonna is more of an investigative story than one we’re directly involved with. We’re here to run around the castle, looking for clues and objects to solve puzzles and uncover what actually happened. That means, we’ll be collecting a handful of journal entries that explain to us the events and character motivations. It’s a rather clumsy attempt at delivering a story, mostly relying on exposition instead of actual story development. The problem with this however is, besides being a rather weak writing tool, that a lot of what we’re reading easily foreshadows upcoming revelations. This makes the story seem to be a paint-by-numbers affair, which it actually is, and does little to engage the player.

This is only further exacerbated by the fact that almost every interaction with this world seems to yield a “funny” response from our main character. The game obviously follows the example made by the old LucasArts games, but unfortunately it undermines the gothic horror atmosphere the rest of the game wants to invoke. And the reason I put “funny” in quotation marks is because the humor constantly falls flat. Besides, this isn’t a funny story, none of the elements are amusing at all. This is a story about personal loss, about tragedy, interpersonal relationships, envy and madness. Disconnected, sarcastic humor doesn’t really fit well when contrasted with the serious nature of its themes.

This wouldn’t be a problem in most other games where gameplay is king, but unfortunately, adventure games rarely contain any gameplay outside of inventory management. If I’ve counted correctly, there are maybe 4 or 5 puzzles you have to solve, most of which have solutions that are immediately obvious to anyone playing. Inventory management is very basic, you can combine two objects in order to solve puzzles with the resulting combinations. And if that weren’t enough, the constant vocalizations of our protagonist makes the solutions even more obvious. We’re rarely required to get creative or think outside the box.

The only aspect that registered positively with me was the visual presentation. We find ourselves in a lovingly designed, very detailed environment that manages to give the game some semblance of a gothic horror atmosphere. And the music helps to underline that. But unfortunately, this is largely undone by the aforementioned tonal discrepancies between the world we’re in and the theoretical gravitas of the story, and the lighthearted nature of the simplistically written dialogue.

Now some of you might be perplexed by the low number of puzzles presented to us and ask how long this journey through Belladonna actually takes. And to be perfectly blunt, it takes less than an hour and 30 minutes. It’s a very short affair with no secrets, and the fact that the story is entirely linear also means that there’s literally no replay value.

So at this point, the only thing I can say is that, in spite of its beautiful visuals and nice soundtrack, the game unfortunately doesn’t manage to capture the charm of popular point-and-click adventure games. The story would’ve had potential if it would’ve focused more on the more polarizing and grotesque elements in there, but in this state, you’re probably better off watching the Universal version of Frankenstein. Or if you like a bit more humor in your horror, why not go for Re-Animator instead? Because in the end, you’re about as passive in Belladonna as you are while watching a movie.

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