The first thing you notice about Ecstatica, apart from the beautifully rolling back grounds, the amazingly animated characters and the overwhelming spooky atmosphere, is the sense of complete control you have over your character. Forget vr for a moment and don't even think about digitised actors. This is about as close as you are going to get to "living" in a computer-generated environment and what's more, it doesn't rely on cutting-edge technology to do the business. It's all down to good old-fashioned programming skills, a lot of midnight oil and the desire to get things just right.
Alone with Ecstatica
The games engine behind Ecstatica was developed by Andrew Spencer and has taken almost five years to perfect. Unlike the Alone series, it uses ellipsoid technology to generate detailed and realistic characters that actually move and act like living creatures and not squared-off polygons. As a result the characters appear less square and more rounded, allowing for greater ease of movement. The characters, which are made up from anything between 60 and 80 individual polygons, were drawn directly onto the pc under the expert eye of animator Alain Mandron who has previously worked on the animated feature film Fieval Goes West. To make the characters appear more realistic. Alain has applied the experience gained through working with traditional animation and ensured that they are never static but always moving to give the impression of a real-life, real-time player environment. All the characters (and there will be around 80 in all) will carry on living in their own world unless the player interacts with them directly or indirectly. Similarly, if something is dropped by the player at a certain location it will remain there, doors will remain unlocked if opened by the player, whilst anything the player does to affect his or her environment will appear in the same location and state when the player returns, unless, that is, another character has picked it up or hidden it.
Creepln', crawlin' characters
Character movement is controlled by the cursor keys and is surprisingly smooth and very fluid. We had the unfinished game running on a 486SX25 and it coped quite admirably, which is no mean feat when you consider the amount of pixels it's throwing around. On a faster machine it would, of course, be a lot smoother, but the game will definitely be playable on lower-end machines, which is testament in itself to the programming team.
The gaming environment is quite vast and there will be over 250 different animated scenes in the game to explore and loads of different camera angles from which to view the action. As well as moving your character around, you can run, jump, crawl and even tip-toe to avoid being seen or heard by other characters. When it comes to fisticuffs, you can opt for a simple right or left hook, or a swooping lunge. You can also pick up weapons to defend yourself, mix up spells that allow you to cast fireballs, and even pick up other dead characters to hit opponents with! Although the game doesn't have an energy bar to indicate the strength of your character, he/she (you choose which sex) will become sluggish and move much slower as he/she becomes weaker. Strength will only be replenished if the player rests, finds nourishment, a healing potion or a spell.
A world of difference
Rather than brain-taxing puzzles, the game has a fairly linear chain of events that must be completed in order to progress through the game. The idea being that the player always has a pretty good idea of what he should be trying to do, rather than getting stuck on a single puzzle with no clues and no where else to go. Consequently, the game is immediately very accessible as the player can simply wander around the village interacting with the other characters until they get to know the structure of the game. Because the game is set within a fully-explorable 3D landscape with realtime interaction, the player is free to do as he or she pleases, which gives the game a very open feel. In fact, the more you play it, the more drawn into it you become as you discover hidden rooms, dust-covered spell books and learn to hide from the dreaded werewolf rather than foolishly stand and fight it only to be splattered against the wall or hung upside-down and tortured.
If anything is going to challenge the already established Alone series, then this is it. It's got plot, it looks fantastic and it just oozes personality and depth. Let's hope it's worth the wait.
The player arrives by chance at a deserted village in the middle of nowhere in search of water. As he or she (you can choose whether you want to play the part of a male or female character) enters the village you are chased by werewolves, pestered by strange pixie-like creatures wielding swords, and then tortured. After being left for dead, the player must escape and explore the village, collecting various clues as to what you must do, on your way. In other words, it's all pretty familiar to anyone who's ever been on a Club 18-30 holiday in Tenerife.
It soon unfolds that the village has been taken over by a demon who was freed by a young girl dabbling in black magic. The girl has since been imprisoned by the demon and now lies in a troubled sleep in the dungeons beneath the castle. The demon has taken over her mind and through it gained the power to control the village. Her nightmares have become reality and now haunt the village in the shape of grotesque monsters. You, the player, must overpower the monsters, complete various tasks, defeat the demon and rescue the girl.
Alone no longer alone
When Alone In The Dark was released by French software giants Infogrames, it set a new precedent for 3D graphical adventure games on the PC. People marvelled at the massive player environment, the polygon-generated characters and the reach out and touch feel of the game.
When Alone 2 was released, jaws could once again be heard dropping about the land. The sequel was far superior in terms of graphics and atmosphere, with its swirling camera angles and greater characterisation, and even though some people claimed that it was too difficult, Alone 2 again set the standard by which all other games of this genre were judged. Not that there were many, mind. The Alone In The Dark series was in many respects so ahead of its time that other software developers have only now started to release similar styled products. Alone 3 is due for release before Christmas and promises to be the best Alone to date, with even better graphics, animations and innovative camera views. But this time it won't be alone. Other games developers have been keen to grab a piece ot the 3D adventure action before the end of the year. Most notably are EA's Bioforge and Little Big Adventure, both of which have been "in development" for over three years, are due for a pre-Christmas release, and look pretty impressive in the graphics and gameplay departments. Will Alone 3 retain its crown or will a new pretender take the honours? Wait and see.
Quelle horreur! Your gourd, she is empty! Nothing to slake your thirst, and not a cold drinks dispenser in sight. You throw your gourd over your shoulder in a Gallic gesture, blinding a tortoise on the second bounce, and check the road sign. "Tirich" it says, pointing across a ramshackle bridge at a far-from welcoming village that looks like it's been the victim of a combined dirty protest and poll tax riot. You check the sign again. "Croydon, 50 yards," it says, pointing in the other direction. You sigh, and head for the ramshackle bridge to Tirich.
Walking up to the entrance to the village, you stop dead. The village looks even less inviting from here. Doors hang from their frames, windows are broken or boarded up and vile incantations seem to be smeared on the walls in chicken giblets. And isn't that a poster for Gary Wilmot in "Barry Manilow's Copacabana"? This is too much. You turn to leave - then remember the alternative. Croydon. Sighing from your boots, you enter the village...
From the grass behind you, an evil, midgety elf thing emerges to smack you across the legs with his two-headed axe. You turn to stamp on him, but are immediately pounced on from above by a powerful werewolf with fetid breath and the hindquarters of a goat, who pounds you unconscious before you can decide whether he should exist or not. You regain consciousness to find yourself hanging by your ankles from a chain in what appears to be a stable. Before you can work out what bizarre sexual act is about to take place, the werewolf starts laying into you again with his fists/paws. He seems to have taken a distinct dislike to you. This ms a little unfair. Don't you always ave your change and send donations to the Redwings Werewolf Sanct-uary in Dorset? You turn to point this out to him, but he hits you so hard your tongue goes numb, and by the time you regain enough of your senses to speak, he's gone. You decide to discontinue your donat to the Sanctuary. Managing to slip your ankles through the shackles, you plummet head-first into a semi-conscious heap on the floor. Welcome to Tirich.
The first thing to strike you about Ecstatica is the sheer quality of the animation. Even when you're suspended by your ankles from the ceiling, you're hanging in a beautifully animated manner. When you slump to the ground, you slump like a ballet dancer would slump if asked to slump in a smooth and graceful manner. The other thing you notice is the characters - they look like real living creatures. Now, we've seen smoothly animated games before, particularly from the French, with game such as flashback, Another World, the two Alone In The Darks, and so on. But the characters in those games, for all their slinky hip movements, have always been constructed from relatively simple, rather flat-looking polygons. Ecstatica uses ellipsoid technology instead. Up to 80 separate ellipses have been used on each character, with the result that they operate more fully in three dimensions, have pretty accurate muscle definition, and even get bigger convincingly as they walk towards the camera.
You have the choice of playing the game as a male or female, and you'll be pleased to know that regardless of which you choose, you'll be equally hardy. There's none of this sexist "chick trips over when being chased" business, or "the bloke can pick this thing up but the chick can't". And you can take and give out just as much punishment with the female as you can with the male. Which is just as well, because whichever sex you choose to be, you're going to need it.
Alone in the... er, light (ish)
Basically, from the moment you escape from the chains and crash to the floor, you're more or less on your own. You're stuck in the village from hell, high in the mountains and surrounded on all sides by chasms. The only way out is the bridge, and if you try to use that, it collapses beneath you. The only thing for you to do is to find out exactly what on earth is going on in this dump, and whether anything can be done about it.
It doesn't go out of its way to make things pleasant for you. Your first violent encounter with the werewolf gives you a fairly good idea of what to expect if he catches you again - and believe me, he will. And so will a giant spider, the enormously powerful minotaur, some dragons, some elves, a bloke with a mallet the size of a house and even, at one point, one of the tables. There's malice in the air, and you're the main recipient. And, as 1 said, you're more or less on your own. Very few people are around to give helpful advice, mainly because they've all been beaten to death, tortured, impaled on sticks, and generally made to feel unwanted.
Your trips around the village to pick up information are, therefore, hazardous in the extreme. For a start, although you might feel pretty hard when you beat off the little midget things with your fists, trying a spot of fisticuffs with the werewolf or the minotaur is a little like trying to arm-wrestle the business end of a threshing machine. So what should you do? You run. And run and run. Because these chaps come after you. They don't just walk around in a circle in their allocated area of operation, like monsters do in most games. Oh no, these basts have their careers to think about; they're successful monsters about town. So you can escape from the werewolf, dash into a house, dive out the other door and think you've lost him, then a couple of minutes later he jumps out of an alley and starts pounding away once more. Which means fighting to escape all over again, or facing another severe beating and probable death.
Because you don't have an endless supply of energy - there's no power bars or endurance metres, or any of that rubbish - as you take more punishment, your character slows down, drags its feet and generally starts getting about with all the speed and panache of Don Brennan. Fortunately for you, there's a nook where you can rest and replenish your much-needed energy, but you'll have to find it and use it frequently if you want to survive.
So, the over-riding element in the game is one of fear of being caught. This is helped by the superbly atmospheric music, which is full of those scary, rising "duuuu-uuuh... duuuuu-uuuuhs" made popular at the moving picture palace. It gets particularly worrying when you hear that sound but can't see what the problem is. You start to dread turning the next corner. Eventually you do, but nothing happens. So you relax - and suddenly you get hit over the head with a hammer, or something, and it's off you go to be crucified upside down.
At first this can all be a little disheartening. But then you start to pick up scraps of information here and there. Then you might find a knife, and perform your first successful stabbing.
As you look down at the body, things don't seem quite so bad. You find somebody's diary and sit down for a lengthy read. You see a formula for magic potion and remember where you've seen some of the ingredients, and dash off to collect them. You come across one or two people who are lucky enough to still have their tongues in their heads, and seem keen to chat for a while, giving you a few more tasty snippets of information.
You might find a sword, and discover that even the minotaur is non too keen on being slashed at I with one. And so on. Gradually your despair evolves into a kind of dogged determination; you become resigned to the beatings, and just want to get back into the fray as quickly as possible.
The things that's so good about the game is the inherent freedom in its design. There's nothing that puts me off a game more than when you play a game happily for an hour or so, then get hopelessly stuck over some mind-bending puzzle, spend three hours working out what it means, another ten solving it, then get another 20 minutes of fun before the next one comes up. With Ecstatica, the only way you'll be held up is if you get beaten to death. And that's nothing you can't handle - as long as you save games regularly, that is.
Lemon-squeezy, then is it?
No, the game's not easy-peasy, it's just that you always know roughly what you have to be getting on with. Within the game's framework, things rarely happen the same way twice, and as a rule, you'll be working on several clues at once. The freedom of actions extends to your relationship with the few surviving humans. Just because you're trying to save yourself doesn't mean you can't beat the crap out of the odd leper, priest or monk if you get a little moody and need to let off a little steam now and then. Whether you'll regret it later is another matter, of course.
Monsters and other characters, as I've said, move around and get on with their own lives. For example, to test different things with different characters I've restarted the game loads of times, and found it's possible to completely avoid the opening beating by the werewolf. I've tried going straight to where I know a certain object to be (even before I "officially" know what to do with it) and been able to use it.
It's difficult to be more specific without giving elements of the game away. Gradually, however, it emerges that the village is in thrall to a demon, who is making the nightmares of a young girl into reality - which explains the constant, nightmarish quality of running away you have to cope with and the seemingly tireless pursuit of the monsters. There's magic to cope with, fireball spells to learn and use, and the Lady of the Lake even makes a guest appearance.
Basically, Ecstatica is a bit of a humdinger. It's big - both physically and in terms of the number of things you get to do - and action-packed. It's absorbing and never becomes really frustrating. The designers have created a complete, coherent world: it's brilliantly animated, has a great soundtrack and sampled speech and is packed with atmosphere. That'll be ten quid, ta.
PC compatible, P-100
Systems: Windows 9x, Windows 2000 Windows XP, Vista, Win 7, Win 8, Win 10.
Game features:Single game mode