May 20, 2011

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Review: Curse of Slate Rock Manor

Review: Curse of Slate Rock Manor

It can be hard for an independent developer to create a title that is popular enough to allow them to continue producing more. Red Panda Games, based in Seattle, made their first title Bipo: Mystery of the Red Panda two years ago. The RPG puzzle-adventure title proved to be fairly popular, and Red Panda Games is all set to release their latest title for a rather underrepresented genre. But have those two years between titles helped the company produce a worthwhile visual novel? I got my hands on the latest build of Curse of Slate Rock Manor and I think that whether the game is worth playing  it isn’t much of a mystery.

Two things are considered highly important when it comes to visual novels: the story and how well it’s told via illustrations and sound. The game is divided into up to thirty-five chapters. Each chapter starts out the same way, giving you the first in many choices: do you enter the manor or wait outside? As you make your choices and view the endings, your progression bar fills up. Once it reaches the hundred-percent mark, you play through the chapter one last time. It is during the final chapter in which you can unravel the mystery of Slate Rock Manor. When I first went through the first few chapters, I was slightly confused by the fact that each chapter repeated one another. Finishing one chapter with one set of choices would lead to you starting back at the front of the manor as if you had never been there before.

With the story, I felt that it was likened to that of ones you might read in the Nancy Drew series. This isn’t bad, as that series happens to be one I enjoyed growing up. You take the role of Delilah, who doesn’t have much of a backstory (but neither do the other characters). Concerned for the disappearance of her friend and receiving an unusual phone call, Delilah decides to visit his last known location. She doesn’t go there alone. From the moment her other friend Lyle and she arrive, every choice you make as you search the manor brings you into contact with a few different individuals. From the maid trying to catch up on her work after-hours, to a kitten who seems to appear out of nowhere, there is a nice variety of characters. Each one can aid or hinder Delilah and Lyle in the search of their friend Trent. As you play through the chapters, however, you do learn more about her and the others. Even the mystery behind the manor is explained. There are a couple bad words used, and implied violence and sexual situations. But considering other games and shows you see on TV, Curse of Slate Rock Manor is definitely tame enough for young adults.

One aspect of the game that I had an issue with is the voice acting. I realize that as an independent title, they can’t afford well-known voice actors, but still, the work here is really hit or miss. Some lines that I felt should have conveyed some level of emotion came off flat and lackluster. It was as if the actors were just reading the lines off of a slip of paper. The only character’s voice that I thought was good was that of the maid’s. You are able to toggle the voices on and off in case you want to just read the lines and imagine your own voices, though. With that said, the background music never appears to drown out the voices or sound effects. The music is pleasing to the ears and the sound effects did a good job at sounding realistic along with causing me to jump out of my seat slightly at key points in the story.

The  game’s artwork is pleasing, with anime-style characters and background art that has a 3D feel to some of the scenes. There isn’t too much in the way of complexity with the backgrounds, though. It’s easy to tell what room you are in, as each “scene” is unique in appearance. The characters stand out, as they are more crisp than the background is. Not to mention that the backgrounds seem to try to be more realistic in looks than the characters. It’s not a bad thing, but I do think it would have been better if they had focused either on the anime style or taken the more realistic approach for a unified look.

As with any game, gameplay is a major factor in whether the title is playable and enjoyable or not worth the time. Curse of Slate Rock Manor is basically a point-and-click game. There are no mini-games where you scour the screen for a missing piece to the puzzle. Instead, you basically read through the text and make your choices when presented. This is, however, how the majority of visual novels work. The menus are easy to use, and the game is simple enough to play.

I completed the game in roughly an hour and a half, although it could take you longer depending on whether you click through the same dialogues you’ve already seen and how well you remember which choices you made in the previous chapters. The progression bar only fills when you reach a unique ending for the chapter. If you make the exact same choices as a chapter before, the bar won’t budge. Once you fill the bar completely, and play that last chapter, one of the paths available to you is altered slightly in order for you to solve the curse. Halfway through the game, you will get a clue to help you determine what the first choice is to solving the game. This clue helps in preventing you from replaying some of the endings over again. While the game has thirty-eight chapters, it only takes twenty-five to get a hundred percent on the progression bar. Once you see all the endings, there is no need to replay the game.

Curse of Slate Rock Manor is slated for a retail release on June 1, 2011, though you can pre-order for $9.99 until then. The current prototype that I have reviewed does not include the puzzle mode that is coming soon. But I will take the time to play through this mode when it is available, and add my thoughts to this review when that mode is released. This game is not one for everyone, though it is worth playing if mystery and visual novels are your passion, especially for the $9.99 price. The story isn’t a blockbuster, but I did feel that it was fairly well written. I do hope that the upgrade on June 1 fixes the small issues I had with the voicing. Hopefully the newly added puzzle mode will extend the time you’ll spend playing this game.

Curse of Slate Rock Manor
Platform: PC
Genre: Visual Novel
Release Date: June 1, 2011
Developer: Red Panda Games
Publisher: Red Panda Games
ESRB Rating: 14+
MSRP: $9.99