Do you think that the adventure genre has gotten into a rut? Has finding objects, combining them into unlikely contraptions, and using them in implausible ways become a bit too routine? If so, Tribal Dreams' strikingly original Of Light and Darkness may be the game for you. Which is not to say that it delivers a fully satisfying experience: It does not. But there is so much creativity in the game - from the "real-time adventure" mechanics to the evocative design - that it is a must-see experience for most experienced gameplayers, even if you decide not to work through to the end.
You begin the game in a netherworld between the realms of light and dark, facing a demonic jack-in-the-box and listening to a court proceeding of some kind. It gets no less strange from here. Apparently, you are "The Chosen One" upon whom the world depends to rescue it from an end-of-millennium-style cataclysm. You are dropped into a strange village of buildings and rooms, many of which represent the seven deadly sins. Apocalypse and end-of-time tales from the full range of world cultures are quoted in some of the rooms. You collect variously colored orbs, pyramid-shaped portals, and odd artifacts like a necklace or saber. Apparitions appear in the form of floating death masks, each demanding its own artifact back from you. The specters represent 31 of history's most notorious evil-doers, from Wa-No-Te, a pernicious womanizer from Mongolia (c. 4117 BC) to contemporary serial killer John Wayne Gacy. Occasionally, a colored flash will fill your screen, and at other times a hologram will appear near you in which a lovely lady named Angel (played by Lolita Davidovich) is exchanging world-class obscure dialogue with Gar Hob, "The Dark Lord of the Seventh Millennium" (played by James Woods).
The first puzzle in Of Light and Darkness is simply figuring out what the hell is going on! Several readings of the lengthy but evasive manual reveal a great deal of back story, but no concise, clear outline of what exactly all of these things mean, what you are to do with them, or how to do it. Most adventures do require that you figure out first what a puzzle wants you to do before you actually tackle it (a la Myst). But of Light and Darkness is just merciless in its obscurity. The manual reads as if it is missing key explanatory pages - or was written by a post-structuralist literary critic. Only after commiserating with other befuddled players was it apparent to me that the gameplay is quite straightforward.
Your job is to redeem the apparitions in each of three levels. To do so, you must find the apparition's signature object, deduce which is its deadly sin, and go to the appropriate room, luring the apparition in as well. Then you must combine the object with the right blend of orb colors (according to which was the last color to flash in your face). When you activate the correct combination in the right spot, you will redeem the apparition. Once you have determined the appropriate item, sin, and color for an apparition, you must figure out how to lure it to the right "sin room" for redemption. Using orbs and portals judiciously becomes a unique strategic element.
Within an hour or two of play, however, OLAD begins to seem like a massive, elaborate game of Clue: matching the right weapon, room, and culprit. The new levels (which really just open up new rooms in the same village setting) do add some doors that need unlocking with specific items and toss in some different-colored Orbs, but the gameplay remains the same throughout.
Along the way, more pop-up videos remind you that Angel needs saving, if for no other reason than to spare her, and us, from further pretentious conversations with James Woods. More spirits pour in throughout play, and you must clear each of three levels in order to experience the endgame, a special set of puzzles, in which you activate colors in a specific order, to defeat Gar Hob.
The "real time" label is misleading and shouldn't deter gamers who hate to be rushed. You do have to redeem the apparitions before Armageddon overcomes you, but there are ways of extending that time limit, like flashing a group of apparitions with white light. The gameplay is actually quite cerebral, but with a pleasant jolt of adrenaline. And before playing each level in earnest, you can take a tour of the locations without running down the clock, which helps quite a bit. The masks of history's great hit men follow you about the village, blocking your way from some paths and demanding their stolen items back. At the third level of play, just running into one of these death masks is enough to blow your game.
Graphically and mechanically, the game works beautifully. Artist Gil Bruvel lends the village and its renditions of sinfulness an appropriate foreboding atmosphere as well as some humor. Pride is represented by a spotlit microphone on an empty stage, while an animated face in Anger barks, "Go away!" Movement is point to point (similar to Zork Nemesis) with animated transitions and 360-degree spinning at each location. Luckily, movement is fluid and responsive, since you will need to do some sprints between locations. Once you get a handle on the rules, gameplay has a unique flow. You are darting between locations to fight the clock but also have to keep track of what is currently in inventory as well as what needs to be done to redeem the next apparition.
Of Light and Darkness is the sort of game that is so offbeat and uneven, so obviously a matter of individual taste, that even a merciless reviewer like me is timid about casting a summary judgment. I found the game ultimately unsatisfying because its many fine parts fight one another rather than cohere into a single, compelling gameplay experience. The Clue-like puzzle solving is novel and refreshing in an adventure game, but it becomes a tedious one-trick pony after the first level. Redeeming each apparition brings only its disappearance and a short speech. The televised storyline pops in on occasion, and the scripting and acting here are very good. But the gameplay and plot feel as alienated from one another as the televised cutscenes make them appear. Neither seems to fit with the other.
Especially out of place are some of the game's edutainment elements. You need to consult the manual's historical profiles regularly in order to identify the apparitions and get clues about the nature of their sins. This is one instance where having the manual online would have contributed to the flow of the game. And in each sin room an officious female voice pretty much kills the moody atmosphere with quotes from religious prophecy. Too often, the game feels like Where in the Apocalypse Is Carmen Sandiego? And after seeing the cutscenes and solving the puzzles, I was not at all convinced that this melange of religious references and floating masks had anything of interest to say about the end of time, evil, or much else. Once Gar Hob is banished in the final cutscene, a cute clip ends the game, again breaking the game's dominant tone and undercutting any seriousness of purpose here.
At its best, Of Light and Darkness will remind you of the classic TV series The Prisoner. It can be artfully disorienting and promise hidden depths of meaning. But at its worst, it seems more like the second season of Twin Peaks, when the obscurity gets self-serving, and the payoff is meager compared with its initial pretensions. The unorthodox gameplay, while not varied, is very refreshing. As an experiment, Of Light and Darkness is fascinating. But as an engrossing game experience, the sum just isn't equal to its parts.