Backgrounds that could have been taken from old Hanna-Barbera cartoons and a bad guy who looks like he just stepped off a Count Chocula cereal box make A Vampyre Story one of the most distinctive adventures released this year. This point-and-click romp through a gothic carnival is more successful for its striking appearance than its gameplay, however. A punny sense of humor generates more groans than laughs, while the traditional puzzle design and a new twist to inventory management can make for obtuse mysteries. Still, the game has enough charm to get it over these rough patches.
A Vampyre Story is pretty much an interactive Saturday-morning cartoon. You play as Mona De Lafitte, a ditzy opera wannabe who was turned into a toothy creature of the night by Baron Shrowdy Von Kiefer, who has such a huge pointy head and buckteeth that he could be mistaken for the aforementioned cereal mascot's long-lost twin brother. Mona doesn't much like being a vampire, so she wants to escape the baron's Castle Warg in Draxsylvania and resume her singing career in Paris. Hijinks ensue as the vamp-in-denial tries to get away from bloodsucker central, although this is just the first chapter in a series of episodes. You'll need to do the "same bat-time, same bat-channel" thing and come back for the sequel to see if Mona gets back to France or accepts her undead ways and starts chomping down on villagers.
Characters and plot blend modern Disney animated movie conventions with the nonstop puns that weighed down cartoons that the big three TV networks walloped kids with in the 1970s. So you've got the requisite smart-mouthed animal sidekick, in this case a bat named Froderick, alongside punny jokes about everything from the Internet to Ozzy Osbourne to Harry Potter to a pack of rats named Frankie, Dean, Sammy, and Joey. The story is one big groan punctuated by the odd chuckle. OK, that doesn't sound very appealing. And it occasionally isn't, although the biggest culprit here is actually the voice actor who decided to give Mona the squeak of a Gallic version of Jennifer Tilly. While Mona herself may grate on your nerves, A Vampyre Story's general shtick never gets annoying because all the liberal dollops of cheese seem to be in their natural environment here. In front of skewed backdrops reminiscent of cornball cartoon escapades like Scooby-Doo, puns and broad double entendres are pretty much expected.
The structure of the gameplay is less ambitious than the art design. Developer Autumn Moon Entertainment follows the pick-everything-up formula that dates back to the days when Sierra adventures like King's Quest and Leisure Suit Larry ruled the world. The third-person camera tracks a 3D Mona as she wanders from one set-piece 2D location to another, where you need to scour the terrain for any object that can be tossed into her coffin inventory. At least you don't have to scoop up everything in sight as if you're on a scavenger hunt, though. Many useful items can't be acquired when first noticed. If Mona spots, say, a heavy mace that might come in handy down the road, she'll say so when you attempt to take it, and it gets placed in your inventory as a ghost object. Later on, when the mace needs to be used, you drag it into place on the main screen just like any object that you're physically carrying. This triggers an animated sequence where Mona poofs back to where the medieval weapon was hanging on the wall, scarfs it up, and then teleports back to where she started. This new twist on inventory management isn't a total success, though. While this mechanism is a great way of getting your mind off the monotonous "pick it all up, yes even that dog doo" mind-set that afflicts traditional point-and-click adventures, it mainly just forces you to collect objects twice. The second go-round is automated, but it's still annoying to have to watch Mona go back and grab the real version of the ghost object that you placed in your inventory a while back.
Most of the puzzles deal with straightforward common sense, at least. Just about every situation in the game is dealt with by simply observing your surroundings and talking with dozens of non-player characters to gain clues. A lot of problems are solved with you-scratch-my-back errands, although these assignments are embroidered with lots of voice acting that gives the people that you meet a lot of character. In the end, you're still doing things like taking out a cat to gain the help of a bunch of rats, or delivering a lost key to a woman in exchange for a horse, but the sheer number of conversations available covers all this up and makes the game livelier than you might expect. It seems like you're actually helping people out, not just filling in the blanks in an old-school adventure game. Most of the voice acting is very good, as well, with the only noteworthy exception being nails-on-a-blackboard Mona. A lot of atmosphere is further added by the musical score. It moves subtly between bouncy and eerie depending on your current surroundings, and it often takes off on flights of fancy like a great remix of what sounds like sections of "Danse Macabre."
Even though A Vampyre Story may be too corny for its own good at times, it packs enough character into the moments between the puns that you can't be upset with it for very long. Just about anyone with fond memories of being a cartoon-watching kid will enjoy what this slice of gothic goofiness brings to the embalming table.