Adventure games are a lot like those connect-the-dots pictures of old that we, as children or very bored adults, would carefully delineate by tracing a sequential point to point system. As an abstract concept, it’s a rather unique medium of juxtaposing logic with our creative impulses; first you discover the directed picture, then you’re allowed to color it however you want. Aside from the artistic parallels of these truths within the game itself, playing CINEMAX’s In The Raven Shadow is like trying to color in the shape you’ve produced before the dots are all connected, and there are several aspects which make it seem like CINEMAX was trying to simplify the gameplay and puzzle process, and ended up taking it a bit too far.
Our adventure starts with the main character, named simply Severin, who also embodies the alter-ego of John Severin Rambo (yes, THAT Rambo) after donning a leopard print yellow head scarf. ACTION! As a monk, he’s teaching a class in his monastery/castle-on-the-hill when he finds his students looking at a book of graphically depicted sexual acts. Hardly classroom material, especially since this is the dark Middle Ages. After confiscating the book from the students, a high priest of the disgruntled order bursts into the room and assumes that the book belongs to Severin. A short chase ensues within the classroom, the high priest wielding an axe and infused with the pious duty of releasing the devil from Severin by lopping off his head. All that’s missing is the Benny Hill theme music. Severin makes his escape by stopping the priest in mid-chase, tying the Rambo scarf around his head, making a statement about “juicing it up” and suddenly transforming into a Hollywood action hero. Thankfully, we hear no more from him until the game actually starts, waking from unconsciousness in the middle of a forest after plummeting from the monastery window.
If I could, I would add one more score to the five listed above: Cheese. Every goofy comedic nuance in this opening scene follows through to the rest of the game’s story, and includes everything from physical humor to the most unabashed fart joke I’ve ever encountered in any game, ever. The steady undercurrent of theological and existential inquiry carry the main plot from the beginning, as Severin tries to reconcile his place in a world that shunned him and his mistaken misdeed. But it’s the corny antics of Severin and the incidental characters that shine through the most. Sometimes the humor hits and is genuinely funny, other times it misses entirely. I gave Raven Shadow a little room in situational circumstances, since the entire game is voiced in Czech, with broken English subtitles. Something’s bound to get lost in translation.
All the usual adventure play structure is here. I did find the cycle feature for the action cursor to be very useful and low-maintenance. Most of the time the cursor is an arrow, denoting a movement icon. All I need to do to change it to an “inspect”, “talk”, or “grab” icon is right-click and cycle through the four simple action options. Small pop-up menus show in each of the four corners of the screen and are easily identifiable as an item bag, a map, the game options, and the main menu (where saving is done). Any time I moused-over an item or person in the game, a healthy fonted description would tell me if it was someone/thing of importance, or at least give me something extraneous to inspect. If CINEMAX could see me, I’d stand up and applaud the smooth interface. For all that the rest of this title seems a bit rough and amateurish, the interface is polished, quick, and easily the least cryptic of any adventure game I’ve played.
Puzzles in Raven Shadow are, of course, the most crucial element of gameplay, and they’re also one of the key failings. The line drawn between a logical progression and utter obscurity runs quite thin in adventure games, and it seems that Raven Shadow flip-flops between the two play styles frequently, spending more time in obscurity. An example of an easy puzzle would be obtaining a horse mask and makeup in order to entice a lazy stallion to plow a field. A more difficult collection of steps might be to combine several ingredients from a recipe given to you by and old woman in order to adhere the hands of a town guard to his back and then render him unconscious from a distance with a stone-and-sling. That’s a mind-full of disconnected directives, if you ask me. The latter example is more indicative of the pervasive puzzle structure throughout the game. The lacking clues, along with the choppy translation issue, are cause for frustration and aimless wandering that eventually could lead to a universal disinterest in the game.
What I found to be a refreshing break from the visual norm may be a combination of an artistic prerogative and resource limitation for the designers of In The Raven Shadow. The overall look is a simple, colorful wash which looks like it’s been done with watercolor and pastels in hand-drawn simplicity. There are no 3-D environments here – it very closely mimics the look of one of those felt boards that your kindergarten teacher used to tell stories on. Every scene is a vibrant, loosely detailed environment, combined with small dynamic elements, like a blowing leaf, a flitting bird, or a fidgety by-stander. Despite its simplistic nature, this style seems to suit the self-mockery that Raven Shadow routinely exhibits in-game, as well as succeeding in something as coveted as distinction. Heck, even if a game is bad, it can still stand out if it doesn’t look like everything else. No quirky half-assed 3-D character models here. Inconsistent pre-rendered backdrops? Not in this game. The visual style is something you’d expect to see on a system you owned eight years ago, but it’s still very unique, and easy on the eyes, in every sense of the phrase.
While I’m sure the script writing is brilliant and marked with a colloquial hilarity, I won’t be able to confirm or dissect it for you. From listening to the voicework, it sounds like the actors are having a good time. Actually, there may be just one actor now that I think about it, doing the male and female parts. The lilting Czech language that’s spoken acts as a kind of musical substitute to my American ears, since the majority of the melodic ambience is quietly-recorded classical guitar. This is not a truly aural game, except in the fact that the spoken word is a novelty for anyone outside of Czechoslovakia.
I never would have expected an adventure game with such stark elements (such as laymen graphics, minimal sound, and silly script) to be as engaging as In The Raven Shadow turns out to be. I would say that the quirky English translation cancels out the very competent interface design, and the puzzle structures leave a great deal to be desired, ending up complicating player progress beyond the point of entertainment. In the end, this light-hearted quest for the meaning of life, or at least Severin’s life, could very well be worth the lower-than-average price... But only for diehard adventure fans, people with a lot of expendable time, or Czech natives.