Lightning crashes and rain pours down in a constant stream. You’re visiting a secluded school to check out its suitability for your daughter, but it looks eerily abandoned... until a witch abducts your child and crazy tree roots burst through rock and stone blocking your path. Yes, it's just another day in the haunted casual game neighborhood in ERS Studios’ lite adventure Gothic Fiction: Dark Saga. Here you’ll encounter the developer's signature lush hand-drawn artwork along with a ton of exploration. As the title hints, there’s an involved backstory to unravel as you try to save your daughter, but you'll have to machete your way through some bad acting, very easy puzzles, and the feeling that the designers put more effort into the Collector's Edition bonus play than the main game itself.
You and your daughter Hannah have moved to a new town in England, far away from your old home in New York. As a bus drops you off in front of the school Hannah will be attending, you notice that the building looks more than a little worse for wear. In fact, you discover that the school has been closed for more than 40 years. Why you don’t discover this until you arrive is never revealed – an important detail that would have saved you a lot of trouble – but the reason for its abandonment soon becomes apparent when a nasty witch appears in billows of smoke and abducts your child. As soon as she does, the school and its environs become overgrown with gigantic vines, trees, and roots, gnarled and twisted and very much alive and menacing.
The story behind your daughter’s disappearance mirrors the tale in a strange book you find, which is missing most of its pages at first. Your investigation leads you to its scattered pages, which are pretty much the only vehicles for this story, as most of the folks you encounter in this school are either dead or ghosts. The lone exception is one Christopher Warden (or Worden, a frustrating inconsistency that the game spells one way while the journals write it the other way), a man charged with watching over the children. He also has a dark secret, and may have had an encounter with the witch before the school began its decline.
The search for your daughter takes you through scenes choked with hand-drawn detail everywhere you look. Tree roots more like monstrous tentacles curl around doorways, their green bark split open with blinking, yellowed eyes and vicious mouths full of sharp teeth; paintings featuring mythical beasts dripping with fire and knights shimmery in their armor hang askew along the school’s halls. If you play on the game’s harder level, where the hotspots no longer sparkle, you may find it difficult to find inventory objects given the large amount of detail in every scene. Even your inventory menu at the bottom of your screen is made of intricate curlicues of green ironwork. It all can be a little bit much at times.
Going with a botanical theme, the colors are awash in greens, greys, and earthen browns. Despite the large number of scenes you’ll explore, this heavy-handed color palette and the wild abundance of overgrown vines and trees make many areas seem just like the one you’ve just left. Whether I was poking around an old sanctuary, a creepy child’s dorm room filled with abandoned toys, or a laundry room, since everything is covered in tree limbs and roots, every scene felt rather monotonous to me.
Set against these backgrounds, ERS has once again turned to full-motion video to supplement the hand-drawn aesthetic. Rather than adding to the game, unfortunately, I found the use of FMV to be extremely distracting. The acting, or rather overacting, in many instances only added to the dubbing distraction that the designers attempted to disguise rather than embrace. No character can say anything without wind blowing their hair across their mouths and faces or turning their backs to you. I wondered why the designers went with the FMV choice since they chose to obscure the actors so much. It felt like some strange pantomime at times. The voice acting is just fine, and I would have preferred animated voiceovers to poorly implemented FMV. An additional distraction is the fact that the actors playing children appear to be much too old for their parts and often dress in very bad fashion: One young man wears a dark seventies disco reject with white shoes, a black three-piece suit, and white flyaway lapels. These “children” look to be more in their late 20s rather than school age kids.
The ambient animations, on the other hand, do a fine job of setting the mood. Every scene is crawling with roots swaying and hundreds of eyes peeping and jaws snapping. Some animations, however, are downright annoying. The game provides you with two journals, each of which goes through a short animation every time you click on it, which dissuaded me from clicking too often either to read more about the witch’s story or to gain insight into my own. Other animations are much more successful. Shadows flickering in your peripheral vision across a car's side mirror instill fear. Other juicy scenes involve a nail gun and the unearthly screams of a plant and the blacked-out moments just after a car crash. You awaken and see a dark screen where dozens of spooky eyes suddenly light up; high pitched voices whisper: "Wake up, wake up, wake up." I found these instances to be deeply creepy and wished that the designers had focused on more of these types of animations rather than the distracting FMV.Continued on the next page...