Aaargh! I've just been dropped in the catacombs again (a vast underground warren with oodles of ways in and, as far as I can tell, hardly any ways out)! I seem to be ending up down here with monotonous regularity. Fall down the well and you end up in the catacombs. Nose around the dark space at the back of the pulpit - straight to the catacombs! Drain the water at the bottom of the pool, investigate the entrance there and would you know it - cata-bloody-combs, here I come! Aaargh! (Do you get the feeling I'm getting a little frustrated here, readers?)
I'm playing Castle Master, you see. Sort of against my better judgement actually. (I was going to get someone with a bit of patience like Jonathan Davies or Davey Wilson to have a go at it but would you believe it comes in on disk? And how many YS reviewers have +3s? Not many, which is why muggins here is having a crack at it!) I suppose you want to know why I was so reluctant to have a go. Well, basically (and whisper it so no-one can hear) I was the teensiest little bit intimidated by it. Yep, I know every Incentive Freescape outing has been true Megagame material and everything, but when it comes down to it I've never actually played any of them. Not properly, anyway. (Oh, sure, I've marvelled at the graphics and spent a bit of time wandering around looking at things, but actually get involved in the gameplay? Nah, not me, mate. I don't understand it.)
Which is why I got myself a couple of little helpers for this review. Over my right shoulder we have Rich Pelley, who's visiting ("...but not long enough to write the review, oh no!"") and who's had a go at all the Freescape games at one time or another. Then over my left shoulder it's my good friend Trenton from Anstrad Action (one of our new sister mags) who's reviewing the CPC version at a desk just around the corner even as I speak. He keeps shouting "Have you got to the third floor yet?" or whatever all the time (No, I blooming well haven't! Just because you're better than me...)
Anyway, I'll bring my two little chums in towards the end when we get to summing up time (though the way Rich keeps whispering the word 'Megagame' in my ear I fear it's a bit of a foregone conclusion). Ah well, on with the plot.
Like the other Freescape games it s a search-around-collecting-things, working-out-the-use-for-other-things, finding-secret-routes sort of game. Touchingly non-sexist, it features you as a prince (or princess - the first choice you have to make in the game) nosing around a spooky, seemingly deserted castle in search of your kidnapped twin. He (or she) is trapped in one of the towers by Magister, the Castle Master (hence the name), and guarded by a series of Guardian Spirits. Its your job to get him (or her) out!
It's a game strong on puzzles and high in atmosphere - if you should find yourself alone in house, try turning the lights down low and then playing it. You'd scare yourself silly. I felt a few shivers pass up my spine, I can tell you, and I was in a packed office with my two little Spec-chums peering over my shoulder!
But anyway, less of this messing about, lets start the game. A neat portcullis device pulls up from the front of the screen and - tarra! - a casetle is revealed! A Freescape castle, to be exact, so let's walk around it and see what we can see. Dum de dum de dum. Right, appears to be surrounded by a black moat (I thought it was the shadow cast by the walls until I fell into it and 'Glug glug glug!'' appeared in the message panel. Very droll.) At the back of it at one corner there's a shed (can't get in it though - no key) and what looks like a rock at another corner, but otherwise the plain is featureless. Time to go in the castle then, and do that - across the drawbridge. Hmm. The drawbridge is up.
A quick bit of faffing around (and reading the instruction notes) gave me a clue. Switch the centre screen cursor from Movement mode (where pushing forward moves you in the direction you've placed the cursor) to Throw mode, place it over the suspicious-looking nobble high up on the castle wall and press fire. Bingo! Your character lobs a stone at the building, and the drawbridge drops down. Time to go exploring!
Right, now we're in a courtyard. There are four towers at the four corners, some of which have doors. As well as this though, there are a couple of extra entrances to various lean-to buildings actually built inside the courtyard. Let's have a scout around. Hmmm. There's a well. Let's take a look (but not too close a look - we don't want to end up in the catacombs, do we?). Lean over it use the Action key (which allows you to eat, drink, read, push, move, collect, examine, open, unlock or use as appropriate) and hurrah! I've collected a key, which must have been hidden somewhere in the well, though I never saw it. (Later keys, and other collectible objects like potions, are usually perfectly visible, however).
That little success under my belt, I think it's time to actually venture inside the castle. Which doorway shall we choose? I know, this one! It seems to lead into a sort of spooky chapel. Hmm. Wonder what we can find in here? What about behind this pulpit? (Don't do it! Reader's Voice) Too late! I've tumbled into the catacombs! AGAIN!
Now this may not necessarily be a bad thing. The catacombs are basically long stretches of empty, featureless corridors, with plenty of turn-offs into other long featureless corridors and occasional doorways into... ah, but you guessed it. I've not found anything of interest down here, but that's not to say there aren't things lurking away in the corners, and I've only come across one way out so far, which I'm damned if I can find again. Basically I'm stuck down here, and very tempted to quit the game and start again. In fact, I think I will, (Quit.)
Right, here we are standing outside the castle again. Let's throw a rock at the button, open the doorbridge, walk into the courtyard, blah, blah, blah. Hmm? Wonder which entrance to take this time...
And so it goes.
The genius of these Incentive things seems to be to wind you up as much as possible, really get you hacked off with the whole business, then drop a little titbit your way - finding a key, unearthing a secret doorway, or running into another spooky spirit. These'll kill you if you let them, as well as make the room go a strange flashing red colour, but a well-aimed rock will normally settle their hash. If ever there was a fine balance between total addiction and total frustration this seems to be it.
The only problem with this review so far (What do you mean the only problem? Reader's voice) is that it could apply to any Freescape game at all, more or less. In what ways is this one different? Well, let's consult my two little Freescape experts and see what they have to say. (Excuse me for a second - talk amongst yourselves.)
Right, I'm back. Basically, we reckon the much-vaunted new Freescape+ system (seen here for the first time), which is meant to offer a 10% increase in game movement speed over normal Freescape (as well as draw things in smaller blocks, so they're more recognisable), is a significant improvement over the previous system. The game certainly runs taster than previous Freescape games. But it's also a lot slower. (Eh? Reader's voice)
Let me explain. Its not physically slower (like I said, it's quicker), but the game design seems tailored to a different pace of gameplay, something a bit more precise and thought-out. For instance, whereas in, say, Total Eclipse, any key would open any door, here you need a specific key for each one, or so it seems. There seems to be a lot more searching around involved here, looking for the correct pieces then figuring out how to use them, though of course these first impressions could be deceiving, and the games always did seem to lean in that direction anyway. It's certainly not your rushing-around-shooting-everything sort of game.
So we come to the conclusion. Those who are already familiar with the Freescape system are probably out queuing up to buy the thing even as we speak, so let's talk to those who are left (the unconverted) for a moment. Right, you lot. I really think you should consider buying this - unless you're a real die-hard action game freak. This is a game that stretches the capabilities of your Speccy to breaking point, is guaranteed to provide weeks of gameplay and has an incredibly professional, thought-out (and spooky) feel to it. Even the instructions and in-game puzzles devised by 'Europe's Funniest Man' (Mel Croucher) aren't too bad.
All in all then, Incentive seems to have another winner (and another Megagame) on its hands. Yep, just like Pelley kept telling me all along. (Smug git.)
An excellent (and spooky) addition to the Freescape canon - faster graphics, lovely presentation. A must!
Right, here we are on the outside of the castle at the start of the game. Which way now? (Into the castle, I reckon - but how? There's a poxy moat in the way.)
This way, methinks! Over the drawbridge (i just opened it with a stone).
Here we are in the courtyard, with some stables, a well and various doors. Hmm.
Okay, we've managed to get inside, and what have we found? Yes, it's a hospital (I know because it says in the message window.) Actually, it does look a bit like one (they seem to have got drawing in Freescape pretty sussed by now.)
Be careful now - any false moves could lead to the catacombs. (They did for me!)