Caught Red-Headed

August 28, 2008

Summertime is the dry season for professional games developers, as the easy cash and consumerism of the holiday season is more fertile for sales.  While this makes good business sense, for me, it never really made practical sense.  After all, summer is the time when people actually have time to relax and enjoy the games.  Thankfully, indie developers have made the best of that free time, and we’re at the tail end of a great season for indie game releases, appropriately closing with the release Grundislav’s seventh, penultimate chapter of the Ben Jordan series.

The Cardinal Sins, which finds Ben Jordan solving the murder of a priest in Rome, is a clear progression for the series, as it improves upon aspects both technical and artistic.  The game comes with full voice acting for all characters, which is quite entertaining throughout, if somewhat varied in quality.  The artwork has also improved considerably; while some backgrounds could use a little more attention (with nary a straight line throughout), the scope of the effort is truly impressive, as the backgrounds are both expansive and imaginative. These sweeping, yet detailed backgrounds make the Rome of the game world feel believable.

On a more practical level, the gameplay and story are solid.  While the puzzles are not particularly difficult, and can usually be solved in a few steps (which may or may not be a plus), they are always appropriate to the plot, and are paced to keep the story progressing at a good clip.  The story features good characterizations throughout, and the patter between Ben and his friends is generally fun and quick enough. Yet, as well-layered as the humor and mysteries are throughout, the ending is extremely frustrating.

The ending will really be a love-it or hate-it matter for those who play the game.  While it is necessarily a downer and a cliffhanger (with only one more episode, how could it not be?), this is not why it is so difficult.  Rather, without giving away too much, the ending disappoints because it really isn’t keeping in tone with the rest of the game, or for that matter, the adventures which preceded it. The series so far has involved Ben and the gang getting into somewhat dangerous (and spooky) situations, and the general plot of this episode is somewhat darker than the others (revolving around the murder of a priest), but the dangers have generally been passed off as comic.

In fact, Ben’s ability to remained fairly upbeat and plucky, despite the fact that he’s mixed up in some awful, no good mysteries is what has given the series its persistent charm.  This earnestness is evident in this title as well: when his friends confront Ben about how dangerous his sleuthing can be (particularly the breaking and entering), all he can muster is a kind of “aww-shucks” and a smile. Thus, the ending’s sudden seriousness and violence is about as jarring as it would be if the Scooby-Doo gang foiled Old Man Murphy’s plot to terrorize the amusement park monorail, only to have him subsequently eviscerate Velma and Fred in reprisal.

This should not be read as a condemnation of the game, however. It is only because the game is such fun, and demonstrates tremendous accomplishment from the series’ more humble origins, that the ending is so trying. So, I heartily encourage you to play through The Cardinal Sins; whatever challenge the ending may present, we can only hope that with his next installment, Grundislav will bring it to an even more stunning denoument.

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