The Book You’re Reading is Upside Down: The Raven – Legacy of a Master Thief Review

Jessica Chobot eat your heart out.

Spread the pages and eat your heart out, Jessica Chobot.

King Art Game’s The Book of Unwritten Tales achieved what few modern adventure games have: mainstream critical praise. So much so that on Metacritic it appears with a green tinge, instead of the yellow that its most successful genre-mates usually muster. After a brief excursion with The Critter Chronicles, The Raven – Legacy of a Master Thief is King Art Games’ next big project; released across three chapters in a post-The Walking Dead world.

Only now, several months after the first episode’s release, has the saga finally come to an end. What better time to review it, then? Chapter 1 begins on The Orient Express: an audacious and relevant setting, drawing upon both the rotoscoped masterpiece, The Last Express, and a crime fiction cliché. The settings might change fluidly, moving from one form of locomotion to the next; one country to another, but they always draw upon well ingrained crime fiction clichés.

There are old steam liners, and museums filled with rich antiquities; archaeology and the art of detection not being so far apart, as The Raven’s protagonist, Anton Jacob Zellner, remarks. With the nature of adventure game gameplay, crime fiction clichés often find their way into adventure settings, aesthetics and narratives; which makes the use of the crime genre all the more effective—drawing upon two pools of clichés allows for a far greater sense of history and literacy.

Zellner is a Swiss policeman, which is apparently almost as mundane a profession as Swiss soldier. Why The Orient Express is part of this Swiss policeman’s beat remains unclear (the job is of the utmost importance), but nevertheless Zellner is conscientious enough to put down his Lady Clarissa Westmacott mystery novel (starring a misspelt Hercule Poirrot who, along with Miss Marple, greatly informs Zellner’s character) to help out the passengers with their foibles.

A missing purse must be found, and a mysteriously locked door unlocked; the sort of busywork that forms the basis for any adventure game, and the type of busywork that can easily escalate into much grander things. Zellner begins to fantasise about capturing The Raven (a previously thought dead, but now active again master thief) and protecting the remaining eye of the sphinx (the other already stolen) on its journey to The Museum of Cairo; finally a chance at fame.

Or at the very least excitement. But as the story progresses, Zellner goes from being in awe of, to increasingly jealous of Inspector Legrand; the famous detective who shot and killed The Raven. As Zellner’s desire to solve the impromptu case of his career grows, he goes from being a charming old man, to manipulative and almost ruthless in his quest to solve the many mysteries and clues that he is confronted with. The progression in his character is superb.

And thus, the puzzle was solved.

Sage advice from a man with a German accent standing next to a dead body, his hands over his crotch…

Though none of the other characters are quite so well developed, they nevertheless add a great deal to the narrative. As one continues through the story, the player-controlled character changes, following in the tradition of both The Book of Unwritten Tales titles, and as these characters speak with the recurring ensemble side cast, they are received by the characters in question with vastly differing attitudes than Zellner was—another example of the quality of the characterisation.

This allows the side characters to develop more than they might otherwise have, though some side stories are left relatively unresolved; or at the very least lack the epilogue they deserve. Some of these side stories can be directly affected by choices that the player can make, though much like in The Walking Dead these decisions have little impact on the gameplay, and are entirely for the sake of the narrative; but in some ways they work better than in The Walking Dead.

To the level that the side characters have been developed, the change in their response in reaction to the player’s manipulation is believable; if a little easy. Unlike in The Walking Dead where the changes to the narrative were through decisions that relied greatly on the player’s investment in Lee; not in the affected side characters. But the stakes are far lower in The Raven; similarities in mechanics aside—mechanical similarities which unfortunately extend further.

The Raven is, at times, insultingly easy. A section of gameplay might be “solved” simply through speaking to all the characters; without the player even having to put together some clue in the dialogue. Whilst some more genuine puzzles might require the player only to find the right item; not even combine it with several others in some hellish version of MacGyver; nor even to sort through red herrings: just use the obvious item with the obvious clickable action.

This does mean that the puzzles are genuinely logical, and so as the game continues and does become more challenging (though still generally easy), much enjoyment can be found in putting together a multifaceted device for some purpose or other that, though completely absurd, follows some disturbing train of logic that is easy to pick up on. And because many puzzles rely on the player talking to other characters, there is often a great fluidity to the pace.

Time to make like an NPC, then.

Time to make like an NPC, then.

Though generally static, the NPCs do move around the settings at certain times; at scripted trigger points, but often out of view, so that a previously explored area might now have a new character in it. It encourages exploration, and keeps the environments feeling fresh and new. This excellent use of environment to keep the tempo up extends to simpler things: the same environment at a different time of day can be a greatly different experience to explore than when first encountered.

As easy as the puzzles are, as the player tries to solve the mystery of the Raven just as Zellner does, a great deal of information can pile up. This information is recorded in a notebook that can be easily accessed from the top right corner of the screen; not only does it contain information relevant to the plot, but also the puzzles at hand, and can be used as something of an esoteric hint system—the more information one has on a puzzle, the easier it is to solve.

Not that one should need help, of course, but it’s a genre-specific detail that adds a subtle degree of authenticity to the subject; though why all player characters have access to the same notebook is something of a mystery. Close to the notebook is the ability to highlight hot spots: a feature that is more awkward than it needs to be—the hotspots scrolling from the left of the screen to the right, with a magnifying glass signalling their approximate location.

A more exact way of highlighting them might have been useful given that it is presumably designed for the inexperienced; and the inexperienced are punished enough, for each time that one uses the magnifying glass feature they are docked adventure points. At the end of each chapter, the adventure points are tallied, and the player is rewarded with certain achievements depending on how high their score is. An interesting addition to the game.

Though, without further reward than achievements, the score was far to the back of my mind. Even if whenever I solved a puzzle the slew of new adventure points I received would be flashed on the screen, it still felt like a largely artificial construct. The extras are usually unlocked through other actions within the game, so the end of chapter ratings function as little more than an arbitrary number, but one must get a high score to unlock all achievements.

The boy in front of which he licked his favourite book. hiding under a table with him.

The boy in front of which Zellner licked his favourite book. Under a table. In a dark tunnel. Together.

It probably doesn’t help that although one is shown that their score increases for every important puzzle solved, there simply aren’t that many puzzles. As was previously stated, the plot is often positively advanced simply through speaking with the other characters, but this sometimes results in the otherwise excellent pacing beginning to drag when one might find oneself spending almost an hour only talking to other characters—and simply to advance the plot!

But the dialogue is an extraordinarily composed script, with enough syllabic elasticity that the voice actors can put in highly technical, accurate performances: composing their sentences so that they are pleasant to the ear, rather than emotionally arousing. A quality that is rarely seen in Western voice acting, but was one of the most remarkable things about the original The Book of Unwritten Tales. It is a joy to listen to the long strands of stringent dialogue.

The ensemble cast draw upon crime fiction clichés, which means there is a great variety in accents that come from all over the globe. Unfortunately this emphasis on accents for the sake of clichés can sometimes get in the way of the emotional performances, with slurred words often blurring the intended emotion through overwrought, melodramatic pronunciation. Nevertheless, even the characters with the worst accents still impress rhythmically and tonally.

This advanced approach to the vocal aspect of the soundscape extends beyond it, with reverb applied to echoey settings so that the voice acting melds easily with the environments that the characters are depicted in. Contrastingly, the sound effects often feel low budget by comparison (paper really ruffles), and the soundtrack is at times intrusive; and now and then it is even emotionally irrelevant, with cheerful tings accompanying an otherwise dramatic score.

The approach to the visual design of The Raven is equally impressive, with computer generated environments featuring the same visual fidelity as the characters for a strong sense of consistency—except for the painted backgrounds which imitate film studio matte paintings (an excellent period correct pastiche, for the cinematography follows the style of the 1960s; drawing upon Hitchcock et al with slightly slanted wide shots and confrontational close-ups).

Purrty ain't it?

Purrty, ain’t it? Shame there ain’t not a great deal to click on…

But just like the aural design, the visuals are not without some significant flaws. Most obvious is the animation; characters move mechanically, as if they were poorly designed animatronic puppets and not human beings, and have giant buck teeth that droop oddly form their lips as they speak; a symptom seemingly of poor draughtsmanship rather than deliberate stylistic choice. Worse still, both visual and aural design are let down by some painfully intrusive glitches.

Characters levitate and repeat actions or spin on the spot and sometimes speak to walls instead of the character with whom they are engaged in conversation. Audio cuts out; some characters’ audio is muffled to the point of almost being inaudible, while other characters in the same environment continue the conversation unaffected. And most distressingly, the glitches extend to the gameplay, with puzzles resetting or characters not acting out their puzzle roles!

Some of these gameplay related glitches are game ending, but as one can save wherever one pleases, so long as one has an old enough save, one can go back and talk to characters or solve the puzzle in question in a different order, and in this way be able to continue the story. A painful side effect of the otherwise welcome nonlinear way in which the game can be approached, with the player often not being hemmed into one small area or having just one puzzle to solve at a time.

If it weren’t for the significant technical failings of The Raven, then it would not only stand shoulder to shoulder with King Art Games’ finest achievement, The Book of Unwritten Tales, but perhaps even surpass it. Despite its over-easy puzzles, King Art Games has still managed to follow in the tradition of classic puzzle design, expanding upon the aspects of nonlinearity and complexity that they explored in both The Book of Unwritten Tales titles, while also exploring new score based territory as well.

The astounding technical achievements of the English dub and script; the authentic use of genre cliché and attention to visual pastiche surpass The Book of Unwritten Tales in their more consistent quality and, most impressively, all this has been achieved in a genre that is terribly removed from both The Book of Unwritten Tales titles. Though The Raven is still of a humorous tone in nature, one could hardly find two more disparate  genres than high fantasy and crime fiction.