Although The Dark Eye is apparently the most successful role-playing game in Germany, I confess to having never heard of it until recently. There have been several video game adaptations of the pen-and-paper series over the years, but Chains of Satinav marks the franchise's first venture into the adventure genre. Coming from Daedalic Entertainment, it's no surprise that the wonderfully atmospheric artwork is easily the best part of the game. The dull main characters and lacklustre voice acting quickly threaten to bog down the experience, but fortunately the gameplay and fantasy setting hold up over the course of a lengthy, substantial adventure, with some fun puzzles and a dark story full of intrigue and death.
Players take the role of Geron, a scruffy young bird catcher from the kingdom of Andergast. Since childhood, the townsfolk have regarded him as a source of bad luck, as he was foretold to bring doom by an evil prophet called The Seer just prior to his execution. Years after the prophecy, Geron sees a chance to prove himself by getting rid of a flock of hostile crows that have taken camp in one of the king's castle chambers, little realising that the birds represent more than meets the eye. Soon some of the heroes responsible for originally capturing The Seer are killed, spreading fear that the mystic man has somehow returned. Geron stumbles into the centre of all the ensuing trouble, where he's tasked with finding the only fairy who can play a Magic Harp powerful enough to cause Andergast to perish. But if rumours are true, the revived Seer is seeking the fairy as well, intending to force her to play the harp against her will.
I found myself bored for the first half hour or so in a slow start that sees you uncovering oak leaves for a competition that yields an audience with the king, but the game picks up the pace when an unexpected tragedy strikes and creepy figures begin their hunt for the fairy named Nuri. When Geron meets Nuri outside of Andergast, he wrestles with his conscience about how best to protect the kingdom, and ultimately rejects his mentor's instructions. Instead, he becomes determined to protect her from the evil chasing them and return her to the fairy land from whence she came. But with the wicked creatures closing in around them, it’s a race against time for Geron and Nuri.
The story is suitably grand, but it's let down by the characters leading the way. Geron is the definition of bland, with few characteristics that allow you to connect with him. Displaying neither the appropriate grief nor humour when circumstances dictate, the lack of genuine emotion creates a divide between player and protagonist. On the other side is Nuri, a woefully undeveloped character who frustratingly acts like a toddler throughout the whole game. It’s cute at first, like when she insists Geron create an imaginary friend from the forest, but over time her relentless childishness wears thin. I rolled my eyes when she instantly touched something dangerous after being explicitly told not to do so due to the potentially fatal consequences. An underlying love burgeons between Geron and Nuri, but the romantic element seems shoehorned in and isn't convincing. The two protagonists meet many other people and creatures along the way, but there isn’t much time spent with any of them. There’s the despondent knight who takes a keen eye to Nuri, a merciless merchant named Harm with a deadly skin rash, a talking raven who follows you around and a cheeky green imp who likes to wind you up.
Compounding the weak characterisation is voice acting that is best described as uninspired across the board. It’s not grating by any means, but it's often done in the same tone, and there is heaps of room for improvement in conveying raw emotion convincingly. Some secondary characters are hard to vocally distinguish from one another and most lines are spoken with little appreciation for what is actually being said. And there’s a lot of dialogue to be heard. The English translation from the original German is smooth, but conversations have a tendency to get bogged down with overlong exposition and fantasy jargon which can become boring after a while – when it drags, it drags. At those times I began to zone out and wish I could just get back to playing the game.
Geron’s journey sees him visit a smuggler’s ship, mingle in a bath house and venture through a fairy portal. The latter is easily the most fantastical location, being home to an amusingly misunderstood one-eyed ‘monster’ and a peacock that uses his giant plumage to tell the time, but there is a hint of the extraordinary everywhere you go in the people you meet and the stories they tell. Often your aim is to simply figure out how to move on from your current location, whether escaping danger or travelling elsewhere to meet someone. This means that a lot of the game's scenarios are spread out across only a couple of scenes each.
The tight linearity prevents the game from being very challenging, but nor is it a cakewalk. Excluding one particular puzzle relating numbers and rope positions that baffled me for a while, you should never find yourself stuck for too long, which helps keep the pace moving. Unbeknownst to others, Geron possesses a power to break vulnerable objects. As it turns out, Nuri is the yin to his yang, as she can put things back together. These powers are limited in their ability, however, so they're not overused in puzzle solving.Continued on the next page...