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Echoes of the Past: The Castle of Shadows is the second game in the Echoes of the past series, by developer Big Fish. Having never played the first game in the series, I wasn't sure what to expect, other than it being a first person puzzle and adventure game. If you would like to try Echoes of the Past, download the trial here.
Sadly, this Echoes of the Past download trial is timed to 60 minutes rather than being a set quantity of the game, which I found rather distasteful. Theoretically, if you were fast enough, you could complete the game in that slim trial period. Anybody who completes the game in the timed trial period this Echoes of the Past download link offers will be awarded the following prize: One free playthrough of Echoes of the Past: Castle of Shadows.
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Entering the Castle
The story begins with an e-mail invite to a museum exhibition wherein you are treated to the history of a cursed noble family, by a haunted painting of a noble Lady. I imagine her to be a countess, but she didn't bother with a formal introduction; apparently I'll believe any old story about power hungry witches and lost souls and enchanted family jewels spread across the kingdom, so long as it's delivered by a talking painting. Shortly after the tale is told, the player is flung into the past, without any real say in the matter, so if I want to get back to my own time, guess I'd better get adventuring.
You win this round, Countess Von Pushy.
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The game begins inside the family castle, which is for the most part a static image. Items sparkle and torches burn and there's the occasional animated set piece (which can be rather incongruous with the rest of the scene) but most locales are somewhat lifeless. My first impressions were that Echoes of the Past would be vaguely reminiscent of Myst (Click here for a summary of Myst.), and 7th guest (A summary of 7th Guest can be found here.) but with a lot more hand holding.
Thankfully this can be scaled at the player's discretion, it is after all supposed to be a puzzle game (though judging by the prologue it could just as easily be a kidnapping and forced labour simulator). The puzzles in question range from spotting hidden items in cupboards to aligning pictures in rows along awkward slot machine mechanisms, to shape and pattern recognition puzzles masquerading as something technical like fuse box repair.
There is some traditional adventuring, using found items on a character or some other item, but for the most part it's a series of mini games. The use of the mouse to simulate certain actions is a nice touch (e.g. moving the cursor back and forth to simulate sawing), though it is hardly a new idea at this point, and it is not applied in anywhere near the quantity or uniformity to make it a key feature or an involving aspect of the game. Free flash games have in fact used this feature to great effect, Dark Cut 2 being a good example of this.
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I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream
Another feature of traditional adventure gaming that is conspicuous in its absence is dialogue. There aren't really any characters apart from ghost folk, and they're more objectives than characters. They talk at you in poorly voice acted monologues once you free them and hand you another piece of the family crest. Just like in real life! If you happen to be a time traveling mute with Stockholm syndrome that is. I have it on good authority that 41% of the Bright Hub reader base is, so it's just as well.
The whole setting just feels like one big missed opportunity: It's a spooky castle with an abandoned township. A family curse spilling over into the surrounding lands, trapping the peasantry between life and death. You, a time traveling paranormal investigator and talking art enthusiast. But there isn't much story exposition; no found diaries detailing the noble house's battle against the evil witch, no accounts of events leading up to the catastrophe that brought the situation about from conversations, no detailed descriptions of items to build atmosphere and depth. Nothing.
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Future Maid 2 - The Cleanening:
If anything the setting is just an excuse for the puzzles, since it isn't immersive or atmospheric or scary or anything really. It just... is. That's all well and good if you like the puzzles, but I didn't. I found them wearing and repetitive. By the third time I had to engage in another "find the hidden item" screen, I was getting quite tired of the whole charade. There is at least some effort to dress it up with reversals of the game rules; having to replace the cupboard with found items from earlier scenes or create new items. In one early example, you are tasked with finding a lit candle and at your disposal is an unlit candle and a box of matches, upon the side of which you must strike a match to light it.
That sort of thing is at least a little compelling, but not enough is made of it, and the repetition of puzzle types gives the impression of filler and laziness of game design. If anything, I was ritually and increasingly irritated that the constant appearance of these games took time away from the more traditional adventure gaming aspect. The main focus of the game seems to be cleaning up other people's junk. I have plenty of my own junk, I don't need video games to simulate the cleaning experience for me, and if I did there's always the seminal Microsoft Spring Cleaning Simulator 2000.
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Feather Duster of Ages: Interface & Controls
The interface in Echoes of the Past: Castle of Shadows is laid out clearly and neatly. As well as explicit labels for items and objectives depending on the mini game or scene, the inventory is ever accessible during non-mini game sections and the dairy panel which doles out clues and notes on your findings is easily navigable and concise.
The controls are satisfactory; they don't particularly engender strong feelings either way, so at the very least it implies a competent implementation since there won't be any occasions where you are struggling against them to make things work. Everything is mouse controlled from item handling to operating the various buttons that appear throughout the game. Pretty much everything boils down to clicking on something.
The exception to this is the previously mentioned occasions where use of an item is simulated with the mouse (painting with a brush, winding clock hands, striking a match, etc). These sections, few and far between as they are proved to be smooth and intuitive, which if anything serves as a persistent reminder of the wasted potential of having it be more prominent feature of Echoes of the Past: Castle of Shadows.
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Past Echoes - Sound
The sound effects in Castle of Shadows at least, are good. They sound like the things they are supposed to portray, and the various creaks and clunks are satisfyingly weighty, enough to be convincing. The ambient noises of the castle and its surroundings contribute to the atmosphere, but not to the extent that it makes the game atmospheric exactly.
In part this may be due to the score, which is fitting, if generic. It's also quite repetitive, with the same phrase being looped over and over, most notably in the scenes outside of the castle. Had there been more interplay between the setting and the score, it would have made for a more involving experience.
As mentioned before, the voice acting ranges from mediocre to irritating, though that's hardly surprising considering the quality of the dialogue, which ranges from... yes, mediocre to irritating. Ironically, the best written and acted section was the introduction, with the painted countess, though in retrospect that is not so shocking considering how she managed to convince the protagonist into doing her historical chores, with her sliver (paint) tongue.
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Moving and Speaking Pictures - Graphics
Earlier in the review, parallels were drawn with adventure games from the 1990s. This is primarily, because of the way the visuals are put together in this Echoes of the Past game. Prerendered static images, with occasional prerendered animated element (a movie file looped over the scene). What is meant by "prerendered", is that the art in the scenes is not generated during game play, like it would be in a modern 3D game, but constructed outside of the game environment, and imported in.
The art direction in Castle of Shadows is congruent, if a little lifeless. Though the times when animated objects are in the scene can be jarring since they do not gel particularly well with the art style of the rest of the scene. While the painted locales and objects are nice to look at, they don't give the impression of being particularly interactive. The end result is two methods of presentation appearing in turn.
A kind way to describe the overall effect would be "nostalgic", and a less kind description would be "primitive"; there's truth in both. Upon first sight, this Echoes of the Past game instantly reminded of older adventure games, because it appears to use the same sort of graphical choices in its construction. There's nothing inherently wrong with that, but it begs the question of "why?". It could be to make the game accessible to those without modern or fast computers, but even then it seems like it could've been done in a way that didn't evoke the peak of graphics technology over a decade ago. The few human characters that appear don't even have speaking animations. While not a fundamentally bad thing, these individual small production choices mount into this overarching atmosphere of sterility and limitation.
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Foregone Conclusion: Gameplay and Overall Score
It is clear that I am not the target market for Echoes of The Past games, and people who like endless mini games are. While the puzzles do get progressively more involved and complicated, I'm not sure how challenging they would be to seasoned puzzle game players. Supposedly The Castle Of Shadows lasts around 4 hours, but if I had had to endure the entirety of it for the purposes of this Echoes of the Past game review, it would have seemed, much, much longer. Beyond the challenge of the puzzles, Castle of Shadows has this air of pointlessness:
The story for one is depthless and flimsy; in the opening act it's revealed that everyone is saved by a someone from the future so there goes any tension as to whether everyone will be saved or not! At the very least there could have been something made of the time travel aspect, possibly involving becoming your own ancestor or some such. Paradoxical incest livens up any experience. Of course you'd need some actual character interaction to pull that off. At this point, I'd wager the entire debacle is just another of the lies of the painted nobility to lure the unsuspecting into the past to do their housework.
Furthermore, the puzzles themselves, while having some range and variety are punctuated by the same repetitive gimmicks. There is definite potential, and I did at times feel engaged during the beginning sections, but nothing is ever done in regards to the setting interacting with the puzzles in any meaningful way. It's not all that bad as puzzles games go, but it's not all that good either. Perhaps this Echoes of the Past game review comes across as harsh, but even in the context of being a casual game for a younger audience, Echoes of the Past still falls short in capitalising on the ideas it presents or hints at, and in turn fails to be anything but acceptable.
If you're looking for atmosphere and immersion and depth of storytelling, look elsewhere. If you want a glorified haunted domestic chore and odd job theme park, then rejoice, for at long last, your niche has been catered for. I weep for you.