Games developer Namco has released a new adventure-puzzle game for the iPad this week. Dubbed The Stroke of Midnight, this romance game has players delving into the history and story behind a long past Victorian love triangle. Interesting though it may be, this particular story can be somewhat deceiving on more than just a narrative level.
A highly polished and aesthetically pleasing adventure game reminiscent of those of yesteryear, The Stroke of Midnight is an app both wonderfully atmospheric and rather compelling from a plot perspective. That said, the game does often come off as far too simplistic, and at times a bit, well, cheesy. More than that, the game is somewhat deceptive in its actual cost.
Players take the role of a young novelist whose lost her creative spark. A writer of romance, she fittingly visits Europe in an attempt to remove her mental block. Well, the castle that she’s staying in is in shambles and evidently haunted by the specters of the past. Conveniently enough, they are all involved in a love triangle, and in a blind curiosity, players attempt to unravel the story behind it.
In order to investigate the loves of times past, players move about beautiful looking scenes for clues. Unlike other titles, such as Big Fish Games’ Drawn: The Painted Tower, players can physically look around the scene by dragging their finger about. It is a bit limited movement-wise, but it is still moderately more involving than starring at a static screen. Regardless, each scene will come in with a myriad of puzzles that have to be solved.
Early on, they start out simple enough, consisting of collecting items and using them where need be (e.g. the first puzzle is finding a scarf to clean a dirty surface so the writing is legible). It’s a fairly common standard for such puzzle oriented adventure games, but eventually some real “puzzles” come into play in which users basically solve jigsaw puzzles in their various forms of sliding, rotating, and so on.
Granted, these are early puzzles, but they don’t really feel like they get all that much harder (though a few are a bit trickier). The problem is that Stroke of Midnight does far too much hand-holding. Rather than allude to needed items or dropping subtle hints, the game flat out covers anything of use with sparkles. Yes, it is important to make useful items stand out in some way, but doing this constantly merely creates a programmed user response. They don’t even need to think about what they need.
But other games do this, you say? This is true, but in most others, like Drawn, a majority of items that will be of use at some point sparkle (meaning users know it is useful, but will no know when; challenging memory). Here, they tend to only sparkle as needed.
It gets better. There is even a mirror in the early parts of the game that, verbatim, tells the user what to do, and touching it, puts an exact picture of what the user is looking for in the reflection. There’s being user-friendly, and then there’s taking the entire game aspect out of the equation. Yes, this is early on in the game, but since the first part of this app is an intended hook for the actually monetization (more on that in a bit), it creates the impression that the rest of the game will be the same.
With Drawn, clues are subtle and even early-on hints were more vague (e.g. “try searching in X room”), and when something sparkled, there was almost always an extra step in figuring out how to interact with it. A perfect example from Drawn is a fireplace that had a sparkle within it. Players didn’t actually need something from inside the pit, but had to interact with it by figuring out how to turn it on then put something into that spot.
As a final negative note, Stroke of Midnight can be a bit temperamental when it comes to picking up items, often requiring multiple taps to hit the proverbial “sweet spot” and actually interact with what is intended.
It’s not all bad news though. Users that play this game will, more likely than not, find the storyline quite interesting. Fully voice acted, the game is very polished, but as players piece together puzzles, find lost letters, and progress through the game, the unraveling of the story is actually quite fun. Just enough information is given with each sequence of puzzles to coax the user onward to learn just a little bit more.
In addition to narrative, the game is beautifully done. This refers more to just the visual, but the atmosphere in general. With the music, ambience, environmental effects, and the generally desolate feel of this castle left in disarray, Stroke of Midnight gives off a distinct melancholic aura. Suffice to say, atmosphere is rarely something of notice with any mobile app, yet Namco pulls it off quite well here. That said, the game does get a little cheesy when the long lost ghostly lovers make their occasional appearances. Frankly, the scenes where we didn’t see them, and were merely piecing together the clues they left behind, were far more compelling.
So how does Namco monetize this app? Well, the game is “technically” free, but with no virtual goods or currency of any sort, it doesn’t seem all that lucrative. Well, believe it or not, the game is most definitely not free. It actually costs $4.99. They just don’t tell you that until you’ve gone about 15 minutes into the game, in which case the app goes to a “Purchase Now” screen, where users can buy the app… in app. Making the actually game a Lite version within itself (hence the above commentary on early impressions).
In theory, this is not a terrible idea, as it will give the user a chance to play, and potentially hook them with the storyline. That said, it does feel a little bit underhanded in that it just sort of goes “surprise, we’re not really free.” In fact, there are no statements of the app costing anything in the game’s description. The only clues are if the user notices the game’s top in app purchases (which most average players probably don’t look at), and the first screen shot shows the “Purchase Now” screen. Of course, the latter probably isn’t going to go noticed either as the eye is drawn away from the actual purchase button (heck, we didn’t see it).
All in all, The Stroke of Midnight is a high quality game in terms of story and presentation, and since both are key aspects to the adventure game genre, that’s a good thing. However, the puzzle half of the app seems far too easy in most cases, and the game suffers a great deal from blatant hand-holding, rather than letting the user problem solve on their own. Furthermore, Namco is a little bit deceptive in the game’s actual cost. In the end, however, how users will see this business choice will be subject to personal opinion.