Shadow of the Comet – Final Rating

From The Adventure Gamer


By limbeck

The first time I played Shadow of the Comet was probably some time in the late ’90s or early 2000s. I was relatively fresh in RPGs and the Cthulhu Mythos, and still at university. So, a Cthulhu Mythos inspired adventure game definitely looked like just what I needed to fill my appetite for relevant pop culture.

I don’t remember much from that playthrough, but I sure as hell remember being impressed by the fact that I could face some of the Great Old Ones (GOOs) and frantically looking for walkthroughs through my brave dial-up connection to get through the final stages.

“Frantic” is a word perfectly associated with some parts of the game

This time around, I had a mixed bag experience, though I think that my gameplay posts mostly focused on the negatives and contained quite a few rants. I am a man of small patience it seems. Nevertheless, the playthrough was by no means a negative experience. There were many things I enjoyed in the game, namely the setting, some of the character interactions and the story, cheesy as it was. However, as Ilmari and Vetinari commented in the introduction post, the clunky interface, along with some sanity breaking puzzles broke my immersion.

I am talking about you, dark chamber puzzle

But let’s see how fair I am to the game using the PISSED rating. This is my first time, so please bear with me.

Puzzles and Solvability

We start with what frustrated me most in the game. It is an adventure game and puzzles are essential for the player’s enjoyment. Unfortunately, many of the puzzles in the game were bad. They were bad in many ways. I may be overreacting, as I am a soft adventure gamer. I play the games mostly for the stories and, as mentioned above, I lose patience with an obscure puzzle easily. I hope you will agree with me though, when I say that these features do not make good puzzles:

  • Timed sequences when the time you have at your disposal is very little. I like it when the game gives you time to think and I prefer it if that time is not during a reload. There were way too many puzzles that I only had a few seconds to think of something before I died. At least I died with variety. Examples include the scene at the forest clearing at night, the temple of Dagon, all encounters with cultists and that damned JONAS chase.
  • Action sequences that do not involve clever thinking but just being able to press the right buttons at the right time. As above, I want to play the game at my leisure. I can understand that such fast paced encounters add to the atmosphere of the game. My fleeing from JONAS fits with the horror theme of the game, but it was not enjoyable at all.
  • Lack of clues and feedback. There were many puzzles when I felt I was stumbling blind. Sometimes, I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing and sometimes I knew what I had to do, but the options were so broad that it practically forced you to bruteforce it. What made it worse was that sometimes items that were completely unresponsive in one scene held vital clues after an event took place.
  • Pixel hunting. There were many puzzles when I had to be standing in a specific point, such as the one with the key to the Necronomicon under the carpet in JUGG’s house. 

JUGG sure hid it well
  • Mini games. Sliding tile puzzle.
  • Dead ends. I only encountered one, when I forgot to refill my naphtha bucket, and Charles mentioned another one with BISHOP and the cemetery key. I think that in 1993, there was enough experience in design to avoid dead ends. Still not a big problem if you save regularly, as you were not walking dead for too long.

On the good side, though there were some clever puzzles, like the last one at the stone circle or the one with the wings at the top of the lighthouse, even if the latter made no sense at all. The UI did not allow you to directly combine items in your inventory, so the designers had to find other ways to challenge the player. Some of them were clever and they make sense, but most of the time, they make sense only retrospectively. I understand their intention of pushing the player to think logically and consider what he could see in the room, but they mostly relied on visual cues. I also liked the fact that you could reuse some of your items and you didn’t have to throw them away after use.

I will keep that magnifying glass until I die

Overall, I must say I am not satisfied with the quality of the puzzles in the game, but there were good moments and many missed chances.

Score: 3

Interface and Inventory

This is another category where the game could have done a lot better. The tools were there, but they seem to have been only partially implemented. You may remember that in my first session I misunderstood the “laser sight” to work with any object I could interact with. I was wrong. It turns out that it was about what I could pick up. This made the whole game a lot harder. It meant that I had to be standing at the correct place to interact with something and the lack of feedback meant that I couldn’t know if I was meant to be standing at a different pixel or that there was indeed nothing there. This is indeed a missed opportunity to improve user friendliness.

That lack of feedback annoyed me many times. My laptop’s L (Look) key would be worn out if it was made of a slightly less durable plastic. I think I can see the letter fading away. And yet, in most cases I would never get a description (see my rant about the naphtha pool). It wouldn’t hurt to have a description of the room and something more helpful or even just some flavour text.

That rifle on the wall holds a vital clue, but it took me
some time to really look at it. Maybe that’s my fault after all.

Another problem was the clunkiness of movement. I played the floppy version and there was only keyboard support. That’s not a bad thing per se. The game was well designed around it, but it always felt that it was responding too slowly. That was a real problem when I had to act quickly, such as when being chased by JONAS. I did not have the courage to try the same in the CD-ROM version, but I remember moving with the mouse was much clunkier.

Other than that, inventory management and controls were very simple and intuitive. There was no way to combine objects at will, but that may have hurt the variety of the puzzles, not the interface.

Score: 4

Story and Setting

The story of the game is based on what is considered a typical Lovecraftian story (I think some of the best of his stories do not follow that pattern, but that’s not for this post). A small, quiet town which hides a disturbing secret, usually a cult to some horrific extradimensional beings with unpronouncable names. The protagonist is slowly introduced to the underground of the town and the story reaches a frantic conclusion, usually in a short time span, which is sufficient to kill or drive the protagonist mad.

In this game, kill more often than turn mad

Seen in that setting, the story is a bit cliché, but it works. The writers may have been a bit too excited and included too many GOOs too close together, but for someone not so much into the Cthulhu Mythos, it should not be a problem. What could be a problem, though was the way that I was railroaded into some situations, without really having any idea why I should be doing it. The whole storylet with the lighthouse and the gypsies is my pet peeve here.

The motives of the characters are explained in a satisfactory way. Each character has a small background story and their relationships are shown through your conversations with them. I empathised with some of them, particularly poor, tragic CURTIS and even BISHOP, while at the same time, could not help getting annoyed by Miss PICOTT and ZEKE. Regarding the villains, for most of the time they remained distant and I only had second-hand information.

A nice example of unnecessary, but entertaining, background fluff

In summary, it is a passable, but cliché, story, with memorable, but cliché, characters in a nicely fleshed out little town.

Score: 7

Sound and Graphics

I am torn with this one, particularly about the graphics. So, let’s start with the sound first.

In the floppy version, which I played, there were only two or three different background music scores, which they repeated a few times after loading or after some scenes, but there were long periods with no music at all. The themes were very nice and fitting to the atmosphere. If they had more storage, they could do better. I want to believe that the CD-ROM version had more variety.

Sound effects consisted entirely of digitised recordings and they were annoying for the most part. They would usually play once when you entered a new screen. For example, the same bird chirp would play every time a forest screen loaded and the same very annoying cat meowing would repeatedly play in all cemetery screens.

There was no speech in the floppy version, but the little I saw of the CD-ROM version did not leave me much impressed. MorpheusKitami’s comment in the first gameplay post seems to imply that there is much to be desired from the speech in the CD-ROM.

Now to the graphics. As I mentioned above, I am torn. The technique used to digitise photos for the exterior of the buildings gave some nice realism and added to the atmosphere of the town. Another thing that struck me as ugly were the cutscenes. It was a mix of faux-3D and 2D animations, with too sharp angles and very flat colours. That dived quite deeply into the uncanny valley.

The interiors were almost entirely hand-drawn though and this was a mixed bag. Drawing was clear. You could understand that a desk was a desk and that there was a lamp on the mantelpiece. However, sometimes the proportions were overblown, as someone commented early on.

My room is a good example. It would be impossible
to warm it up in winter and the door is twice my height

I need to praise some of the locations that were very nicely drawn and coloured appropriately to enhance the atmosphere of the particular location. That goes for the cemetery at night, the crypt of the HAMBLETON family and even JONAS’s maze. I think the colours and drawings were just right there.

Anyway, all things considered, I am sorry, but I cannot go very high on this one.

Score: 5

Environment and Atmosphere

Reading previous reviews, it seems that this criterion is the one that presents the most difficulty to reviewers. I count myself to be on the lucky side. Looking at a Lovecraftian horror-themed game like Shadow of the Comet, I believe I knew what sort of atmosphere I should experience. I was expecting a slow burn at first and a flood of horrific revelations at the end. What started as a quiet stroll in the park would end as a frantic dash through a dark forest with clawed hands reaching for you.

The game managed to achieve this feeling quite well, provided that you would not get stuck in puzzles for too long, but maybe that was part of the horror experience. Illsmouth I think is the perfect little town, with its inhabitants following their daily patterns and only speaking to you if they feel like doing so. I come from a large city, but have spent far too many summers in my parents’ village on the island. I can see the similarities and hope that my village is not built over a forgotten temple of Dagon.

I believe I would have noticed

The horror part is also well presented, but less so. There are scenes and locations that take you in, but many times it feels forced. The appeal of Lovecraft’s stories is that you do not really know what you are dealing with until the very end. Here, you are fed with a lot of exposition and are immersed in lore. I understand that this is an adventure game and not a horror story, which is also why it is not easy to get the atmosphere just right.

Still, there were scenes which worked very well, and I will mention again the discovery of CURTIS’s corpse and the section in the cemetery and in the crypt. One could say that the chase by JONAS also works towards the horror atmosphere, but I died too many times to appreciate it.

Score: 7

Dialogue and Acting

The game has a lot of dialogue, but less than half of it offered multiple options. In most cases, dialogue played as a cutscene and my only contribution was to hit enter and read the next line. The designers introduced dialogue options when they considered them critical for a puzzle or to lead me to a different branch of the story, usually my death.

Exhibit A

I believe this approach worked quite well in the building up of the setting of the game. Illsmouth locals got their life through these chats, either with PARKER or among themselves. I also enjoyed the dialogue puzzle at the town hall which opened the path to the Mayor’s office. In most other cases, however, my options seemed inconsequential, even though some answers seemed clearly more appropriate than others. A potential dead end via dialogue was reported in the comments, with BISHOP potentially leaving without ever giving me the cemetery key, but I did not have a saved game before that to verify. I am willing to give the game the benefit of doubt, but other design choices make this benefit very small.

The quality of the dialogue is adequate and mostly appropriate for the type of game. Some horrible one-liners aside (“Say hello to SATAN”), the dialogues were written keeping the characters and overall story in mind and were not too cheesy (SATAN line aside).

I cannot say much about the voice acting of the CD-ROM version. The little that I saw seemed awkward and there were problems with the synchronisation with the speaker’s sprite. May be too much to ask from a game of that era, but I think the Case of the Serrated Scalpel did it better (if it did not, I apologise. I played most of the game with sound off because of a bug).

Score: 5

So, that gives us a PISSED of 31 / 0.6 = 51.666, rounded up to 52. There was a wide range of guesses, as high as 62, but ShaddamIVth guessed correctly. That makes it two games in a row, after the Journeyman Project.

 

I hope you enjoyed the game and the review and that I’ll be able to write something more before Prisoner of Ice in 2025 or so.

CAP Distribution

100 points to limbeck

  • Blogger award – 100 CAPs – For blogging through this game for our enjoyment

32 points to TBD

  • True Companion Award – 25 CAPs – For playing along with most of the game and providing useful commentary
  • Obscure music reference Award – 5 CAPs – For putting monster mash in my radar
  • Adam West Award – 2 points – For knowing how hard it is to get rid of a bomb
28 points to Charles

  • True Companion Award – 25 CAPs – For playing along with most of the game and providing useful commentary
  • Superhero mashup Award – 3 CAPs – For the mental image of Bruce Wayne changing into his Batman uniform in a Gotham City phone booth

25 points to MorpheusKitami

  • True Companion Award – 25 CAPs – For playing along with most of the game and providing useful commentary

15 points to Laukku

  • Free betting cash Award – 15 CAPs – For guessing that I would not be able to solve the photo development puzzle and almost getting it right.

13 points to ShaddamIVth

  • Psychic Prediction Award – 10 CAPs – For guessing the final rating for Shadow of the Comet
  • Pipe Master Award – 3 CAPs – For enlightening all of us on the functionality of a sprague (totally unrelated to Prague)

5 points to Vetinari

  • TLDR Award – 5 CAPs – For summarising my review in less than 50 words

5 points to Andy Panthro

  • Nicholas Cage Fan Club Award – 5 CAPs – For reminding me that there Colour out of Space is now a movie

5 points to Patryk

  • Miskatonic Theology Professor Award – 5 CAPs – For debating the position of world religions in the otherworldly mythology of the Ancient Ones, as described by H.P. Lovecraft and the curators of his works


Original URL: https://advgamer.blogspot.com/2020/04/shadow-of-comet-final-rating.html