May 4th, 2011 | By Chris Priestman
“We Don’t Talk About The European Ones”
Eastern Europe has always been perceived as a dark and gruesome place. It has a deep history of culture that defines both melancholy and grotesquery. Hungary-based Extropia Games uses this inherent gloom to stylize their point-and-click murder mystery, Bela Kovacs and The Trail Of Blood.
The eponymous protagonist is a man’s man. The overcoat, motorbike and black fedora define Bela as a hard-edged detective whose nostrils are stained with the scent of cigarettes and murder. Despite this, Bela seems to be in slightly over his head in The Trail Of Blood as he chases the monstrous figure that slaughtered his niece. It is an unpleasant tale and one that is told with a mastery that is rarely seen. The story is narrated by Bela, who often treats the player to quotes from classic pieces of literature. There is no voiced dialogue but you really do not feel its absence due to the visuals and sound adequately escorting you on this journey. Plus, the text is written in a way that matches the haunting descriptions of a good horror novel – your own imagination really enhances the preset tone of the game.
“The Smell Of Evil”
One thing that The Trail Of Blood does with such precision is to build up a dark atmosphere. A significant contribution to this tone certainly comes from the game’s unique visuals. The tedious process of creating such a unique looking game involved finding appropriate locations and actors, taking photos of the scenes, then digitally enhancing each one and drawing over the top for a grittier, graphic novel/film noire look. It is a lot of effort but one that propels the game’s presentation by leaps and bounds. The stylised scenes in between the gameplay (mimicking those in Max Payne) are superbly written and provide that sense of tension or excitement building up inside Bela’s mind and consequently your own as you near closer to the murderer. The music is equally bone chilling of course, and provides a flesh to the game’s overall tone.
The result of the game’s fantastic presentation is a tense and edgy atmosphere. This is by far the game’s main strength. As you uncover more clues the gradual sense of urgency, threat and excitement is built up in a way that rivals even the best point-and-click adventures. In fact, when entering the villain’s lair in The Trail Of Blood my level of tension and excitement matched what I had felt during a similar scene in Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars. Just like that gaming masterpiece, The Trail Of Blood stands out for its attention to detail, interesting characters and fantastic narrative – it only swaps Stobbart’s humor for a much darker substance.
Like many other games in its genre, The Trail Of Blood is a slow paced game and it is this aspect I appreciate the most. The sleuth takes you from the site of the murder, through to the killer’s old hideout and further into the darkest back alley’s of Budapest in which an evil festers. The developers have perfectly crafted each part of their game to steadily build a rising tension. The actual gameplay is greatly varied with its puzzles – jigsaws, inventory combinations, interrogation, and plenty of screen searching; all of which are humble to their origins. The fact that the puzzles all fit in perfectly with the narrative and tone of the game only increases the player’s drive to keep playing. Most of the puzzles use a first-person perspective that allows you to feel like you are the detective solving this case. The player takes photos of the crime scene, picks what to say in conversations and solves passwords by using hints hidden in the environment. However, Bela’s strong persona bleeds through at all times as it is his seasoned mind that links clues and travels from scene to scene.
There are a couple of minor issues, such as a metal pipe being too dark to see in your inventory (it caught me out twice), and on occasion a puzzle may have to be completed twice to activate the next automated event. Apart from that the game runs as smooth as the inspiring dialogue that rolls from the protagonist’s tongue. Another great thing that lends itself to a replay (apart from the replay-inducing narrative) is that the puzzle solutions randomize. This means that you will not always solve the puzzle with the same solution as before and are thus given a challenge while you revisit the game’s magnificent atmosphere.
My main problem with The Trail Of Blood is the unimpressive ending that seems rushed and feels very unsatisfactory. I will not spoil it for you as the game is a masterpiece up until then with its delicately constructed tension, mystery and tone that would only be spoiled by knowing the ending. Unfortunately, that ending wrapped up the highly enjoyable narrative far too suddenly with one major downfall being that it did not require any player input or decisions to be made.
Regardless of this, I still hope that the developers go on to make Episode 2 despite not having received the funding they have asked for. In total there are 10 episodes planned out for Bela Kovacs, although the small but positive response from the community may not support them enough to realise their ambition. At least Extropia can be assured that they created a superb experience for anyone who played it, but it would be great to get inside Bela’s mind for another mystery. As this first episode is free, I persist that you try it out and give the developers the support that you feel they deserve.