The Watchmaker includes many time-honored features of the adventure game genre: a generic story, terrible voice acting, and a few ridiculous puzzles that make you wonder when the genre will get its much-needed kick in the pants. That it still manages to be entertaining despite all of its problems is either a testament to its few innovative features or simply a by-product of the fact that there haven't been any good adventure games so far this year.
You play as two characters: Darrel Boone and Victoria Conroy. The former is a paranormal investigator, the latter is a lawyer. The pairing is obviously inspired by both The X-Files and the Gabriel Knight games, but because the characters don't have much personality, it mostly just serves as a game mechanic. Some puzzles can only be solved by one character, while others will require both. In theory, it's an interesting device, but it's been done before, in both The Beast Within and Day of the Tentacle, and with much better results. In The Watchmaker, the protagonists can easily share inventory items and knowledge, and you can switch between them with ease, so they mostly just serve as an easy way to jump between locations without actually traveling.
Darrel and Victoria have been sent to an Austrian castle to search for a mysterious pendulum that focuses the earth's energy, imbuing people with immortality--or possibly killing people who are already immortal. The history of the device, or what little you'll get of it, is interesting, and you'll pick up bits and pieces of its relation to the castle's original occupants. But the whole affair is a bit unclear, which may be a result of a poor translation from the game's original Italian language. The dialogue is stilted and strange, and you'll spend minutes listening to minor characters tell you every detail of completely unrelated anecdotes, while important plot points will fly by without explanation. The game's title is even a victim of mistranslation, judging from the dozens of clocks in the game and the noticeable lack of watches.
And The Watchmaker's delivery is worse than its dialogue. The groundskeeper, an elderly, jocular-looking fellow, sounds as if his voice was provided by two different actors, neither of which took the part too seriously. Another character sounds as if the actress took a few Valium and then forgot her reading glasses. And even when they're bearable, the voices rarely match the characters. Old, young, female, or male: Almost every voice is ill suited to its character. About three-quarters of the way through the game, the voices dropped out on us completely, signifying one of the first times our enjoyment of a game was significantly increased by a bug.
The poor quality of the voice acting is unfortunate, because The Watchmaker has a great deal of dialogue. You'll need to interview the staff of the castle and its occupants to gain clues about the pendulum and those who are looking for it. The game takes place over 15 hours, and the clock advances based on your actions. As in Sierra's adventure games, the different time segments act as small chapter breaks, and you must perform certain tasks to proceed. And also as in Sierra's games, it can be a problem figuring out what to do to move on. The castle is a big place, and even from the start your course is a little unclear.
Luckily, the puzzles are mostly good. There is the occasional puzzle that defies all logic, such as one that requires you to find a backhanded means of draining a pool to get an object, when a long pole or a quick swim would be both easier and more courteous. But generally, the puzzles just require you to find various objects and use them with other objects. And if you occasionally don't understand the solution to a puzzle until you've already solved it, it's just another unfortunate side effect of the game's generally confused story.
The Watchmaker is played from a third-person perspective, but you can switch to a first-person view to look inside objects or examine them more closely. The incremental time structure makes for one of the game's most distinctive features: The castle itself looks very good, and it looks even better as the light changes over the course of the day. It's a simple but effective trick, and the castle grounds look increasingly dramatic as night approaches.
The game gets more dramatic as well. As night falls, the game finally starts generating suspense, using the dual protagonists to better effect and throwing some danger your way. The Watchmaker would have been a better game had there been more of this danger from the beginning. Still, fans of traditional adventure games will enjoy the puzzles and will likely be able to bear with the awful voice acting and the underdeveloped story. And given the current drought of such games, they don't really have much of a choice.