Gothic atmosphere and a creepy haunted house aren't quite enough to keep Dead Reefs in the land of the living. While the look and sound of the Streko Graphics-developed adventure are guaranteed to send shivers down your spine, these chills are offset by the aggravation caused by terrible controls, dingy scenery that obscures items vital to your quest, and the near-total absence of feedback and hints. A delightfully spooky tale has been run aground due to second-rate execution.
This pulpy yarn about an 18th-century investigator looking into a mysterious death on the English island of Dead Reefs is moody and effective, with glimmers of the cult movie The Wicker Man (not the Nic Cage version), the classic survival horror game Alone in the Dark, and the stereotypical gothic romance shining through its shadows. Virtually all of the story has been culled from earlier tales and games, so it resembles more of a patchwork quilt than anything original. This means a lot of clichés like a haunted mansion with secret passages, a ghost that seems to be trying to tell you something, a mysterious curse involving pirates, a visionary witch who brews potions in a bubbling cauldron, and even dark family secrets best left buried. Still, this is a reasonably inspired rip-off that doesn't creak (too much) under the weight of its borrowing. About the only lame aspect of the story is the almost certainly intentional resemblance between protagonist Sir Amadey Finvinerro and the ridiculous fop played by Johnny Depp in the 1999 crime against cinema known as Sleepy Hollow.
All of the sinister stuff is further accentuated by visuals and sound that really up the tension. Although the 3D visuals aren't cutting edge, and most settings are a little barren when it comes to added background details like furniture, lighting and shadow effects set a great gloomy tone. First-rate animation and art provide some lifelike characters as well. Everyone you meet has a slightly quirky look that builds on the strange atmosphere that envelops the island of Dead Reefs. Only the camera system is a drawback, as it provides cinematic drama at the expense of playability. Angles switch so often and in such an abrupt fashion that you frequently get disoriented. Music and sound effects add menace. The plucky score is a fine accompaniment to your explorations, as are understated atmospheric noises like crashing waves, seagulls, and various haunted-house creaks and groans. Dialogue is merely average. The voice acting is about what you'd expect, and maybe even a little better than the norm when you consider that the first language spoken at developer Streko is Russian. But all of the lines are awfully brief, which causes problems when trying to work out puzzle solutions.
So, Dead Reefs sure does a great job of setting up story and mood. Shame about the gameplay. For starters, the interface is atrocious. Even though the game is rendered in full 3D, you're stuck moving around in the third-person with an archaic keyboard-only system reminiscent of the first Resident Evil games. Sleuth Finvinerro rotates and jerks forward more like a tank than a human being. There isn't any precision in his movements, either; he seems to instantly lurch from a standing position to a run. As the doorways and various hot spots in the game are generally fairly small, this forces you to tap-tap-tap your way into position a lot of the time and carefully retrace your steps in rooms and corridors to see what you might have missed the first time through. The interface is a constant annoyance here. At least the arrow keys that control talking, interacting with the environment, and accessing your inventory work reasonably well (though even they seem clumsy when it comes to combining objects).
Puzzle structure makes things even worse. There is virtually no feedback given when exploring, which leaves you in the dark when checking out desks, chests, clocks, and the other repositories of secrets usually found in adventure games. You'll walk up to a desk, for example, and all Finvinerro will say is something like, "A bureau," or will give a meaningless description that amounts to, "Hmm, a bunch of stuff." You have to actually use the hand icon to pick up objects to discover what may or may not be present, as you generally can't see items like keys. Important objects are frequently hidden in the scenery as well. Very little in the game is highlighted, and every scene is shrouded in shadows. Going into the limited first-person view available helps locate points of interest when stuck, but you still need to conduct careful pixel hunts and watch for icons to show up indicating that you can look at or interact with something.
The sad part of all of this is that the puzzles in the game are actually pretty good--you just aren't given enough quality information to solve them. There is a good blend of object-combo challenges and set-piece puzzles like hitting the right notes on a piano (gee, never seen that one before), arranging runes, solving a fishy problem posed by a little kid, and so forth. The game never falls into a routine where you're eternally collecting objects in a de facto scavenger hunt, or solving one drab logic puzzle after another. Still, good luck finishing this one without a walk-through.
You can't exactly say that Dead Reefs arrives DOA, but the game is a waste of a lot of potential. This is a solid spook story coupled with beautiful visuals and a perfectly peculiar musical score. If the developer had just laid these elements atop the foundation of a proper interface and added some visual clues and feedback to help with puzzle-solving, it would have had one excellent adventure on its hands. Instead, it's got something of a mess--a sometimes captivating mess that makes you wonder what could have been, but a mess nonetheless.