Sequels are a tricky beast. How do you maintain what your audience liked about previous entries, while still moving forward with enough new stuff to keep them interested? Sometimes it works well -- think the original Star Wars trilogy -- and sometimes it doesn't -- think any Friday the 13th movie after part five.
This issue can be especially problematic in the world of gaming. Because you're dealing with an interactive environment, on top of the usual issues you have to move forward with new features, new environments, and new puzzles, or you risk losing your audience to flashier titles. In movies, story is everything, but in gaming, it's only one part of the package.
The Delaware St. John series is facing just such a challenge. After a lengthy delay following the second episode, volume three is now available, and while the story and graphics are better than ever, the game itself is starting to seem like the same movie with different sets.
Before we get too deep into the new game, a little recap is in order for those coming into the story with no background. In the previous two games, we're introduced to bookstore owner and paranormal investigator Delaware St. John. From time to time, Delaware receives visions of haunted locations and lost souls in need of his assistance. With the help of his partner Kelly, Delaware visits these sites to investigate the reason for the haunting.
In The Curse of Midnight Manor, Delaware visited the namesake hotel where a group of teenagers disappeared suddenly, only to discover the hotel contained even deeper secrets dating back many years earlier. In The Town With No Name, Delaware was drawn to a remote, uncharted town whose population completed disappeared decades before. While investigating the tragic fate of its citizens, Delaware learned that he himself had ties to the town. In both episodes, Delaware was stalked by a mystical creature intent on making him the latest victim of each location.
And that leads us up to our new installment, The Seacliff Tragedy, with Delaware visiting an abandoned amusement park that was shut down after a terrible accident. Delaware's partner Kelly is along for the ride in person this time. Her friend Simon now plays point-man back at the bookstore while the two sleuths investigate the tragic park accident and its aftermath. And of course it wouldn't be a Delaware St. John adventure if you didn't have a certain beast popping up at the most inopportune times to chase you down.
I'm constantly amazed by the stories that are chosen for this series. Just like the previous chapters, the creators have managed to take the location of countless movies and books and turn something that should have been clichéd into a fresh story with plenty of twists and turns along the way. Adding Kelly in as a playable character really moved the story along, and while the play style is no different between Kelly and Delaware, it was nice to have a chance to flesh out her character a little more. And while almost nothing can be said about the story without spoiling it, I can say that we do get more insight into Delaware's background, and it's got me definitely on edge waiting for the next installment.
Another area that the DSJ series has never had a problem with is its graphics. Although a noticeably low budget affair, from the very beginning the developers have managed to put a great visual flair into the games, whether it's the ghostly apparitions that appear from time to time or the wonderful location graphics with their lived-in look and feel. And with each new installment the creators have managed to up the ante. The first game took place exclusively in the hotel, which resulted in a bit too much repetition. The haunted town offered a bigger taste of what the developers were capable of in the second game, before thrusting us into an abandoned orphanage that suffered from the same repetitive issue. But with the amusement park setting in The Seacliff Tragedy, Big Time Games gave themselves a wide open area to work with, and they have definitely taken advantage of it.
For starters, the 3D cutscenes are amazingly well done for a smaller-sized company, and not only do they really lend a nice feel to the game, they also allow us to get a better feel for the characters. And the in-game graphics have moved up the ladder as well. With a wider area to work with, the feeling of sameness that hurt the earlier games is no longer a problem. The various sections of the carnival are different enough that getting lost is not as much of a problem as in the past, and since you'll spend a good portion of the game revisiting locations, it's nice to have more to look at than the same hallways with different room numbers.
That's not to say that there aren't still issues. While the cutscenes are great, there's still no way to exit them early, so if you have to reload to a previous portion of the game, be prepared to sit through them all over again. And this is not just during the game itself, as when you start a new game you'll be forced to sit through the entire credit sequence before you can start playing. And while this isn't a huge deal, it is easily preventable, and it's something that takes away control from the player, which can be rather annoying.
Musically, Big Time Games seems to subscribe to the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" theory. For the most part the score is identical to the previous volumes, which is definitely not a bad thing in this case. They generally prefer using a minimalist approach, blending the music into the background instead of using it to force a mood or throw a fake scare at you. Another nice touch is hearing the main theme being integrated into the game itself in different ways. Imagine my surprise when I played one of the carnival games only to hear the DSJ theme song coming out of a horse racing game on the midway. Kudos to the development team for finding inventive ways to make music matter in the game without cramming it down our throats like many companies do.Continued on the next page...