Necronomicon - The Dawning of Darkness


Developer:   Wanadoo

Publisher:   Dreamcatcher Interactive

Released:   2001

PC Requirements:  Windows 95/98/ME, Pentium 166 MHz, 16 Mb RAM, 4 x CD-ROM, 3D Accelerator Video Card.





by Singer

To all appearances, Necronomicon was a can't-miss prospect. With a theme based on the Book of the Dead, sporting sufficiently haunting box art, and created by the talented folks at Wanadoo/France Telecom Group, it begged to be bought and played with the lights off and the sound up. Still, I was wary expectations are a dangerous thing.

Necronomicon claims to be inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft. I've never been a fan of this type of name-dropping unless the quality of the imitation comes pretty darn close to the original. So does this game do its source material proud? Let's take a deeper look we won't have to look far.

When installing the game on Win XP, I thought I was in trouble immediately when an error message told me that it used a .DLL file designed for Windows NT, but it proved not to be an issue. The game comes on two CD's, and runs almost completely from the discs. There are no install size options, and no way to avoid the dreaded "load from disc 1" scenario. Argh!

During installation, rather than continue to gawk at the splash screen proclaiming the name Necronomicon: The Dawning of Darkness, I decided to flip through the manual entitled Necronomicon: The Gateway to Beyond... Huh?? Oh, OK yet another victim of the UK/US DreamCatcher multi-name syndrome. Still, it's one thing to wear different nametags on either side of the pond, but it strikes me as an ill omen when a game can't make up its mind what it's called. It's a minor point, but it does speak to quality it's the TITLE, fer cryin' out loud!

The story begins in Pawtuxet, Rhode Island, circa 1927. Young William Stanton receives a visit from his good friend, who is clearly disturbed and gives William a mysterious artifact. He instructs William not to give it to anybody - particularly himself, should he ever ask for it back. With that, he's gone, leaving William (and us) to unravel the mystery.

The game plays out in first person perspective, with 360 degrees panning, plus the ability to look up and down (someone has to invent a term for this Spherical Panning? Bubble-View?) Unlike most games of its ilk, Necronomicon has a cursor that's fixed in the center of the screen, and you pan the view screen around it. You'll quickly adjust, but it's still an unusual interface choice that serves no apparent purpose. The inventory screen is easily accessed, and a map allows for simple navigation.

The game's graphics are one of the highlights, if a rather limited one. You won't be visiting many locations, but those you do will be nicely rendered, capturing the game's eerie atmosphere nicely. My only complaint is the (intentional) use of darkness during one lengthy session. I had to crank the brightness on my monitor and still had some trouble making my way.

One (unintentional) amusing aspect of the graphics is the stylistic direction of the many cutscenes. Rather than simply show the scenes from a static perspective, Necronomicon cuts from bizarre angle to bizarre angle. I applaud the effort, but unless you enjoy literally looking over people's shoulders, or staring at closeups of hair follicles, you'll find the attempt too contrived.

The sound effects are appropriately creepy, and the voice acting is generally acceptable. The lone exception, unfortunately, is the main character, who displays none of the range of emotion you'd associate with his experiences. No subtitles are offered, which would really come in handy in several instances.

The game ran smoothly throughout, except for one segment of connected cutscenes, which looped when I tried to save. Fortunately, my save was registered properly, and when I loaded it up, the game proceeded fine from there.

So far, so good. If technical merit was the only thing a game was judged on, Necronomicon would rate quite highly. Alas, there are other trivial matters such as puzzles and story that warrant some attention.

On two separate occasions, Stanton himself beautifully captured my impressions of these aspects of the game. Take it away, William...

"It's probably just as well that I wasn't depending on reason."

Yikes!! The other?

"I don't want to go back to the bungalow, for fear of losing my mind."

Easy for HIM to say we have no such option. Yes, after a relatively promising start (forgiving some aimless wandering), the story seems to give up any pretense of making sense. As the plot progresses, you'll uncover occult secrets into an ancient evil that seeks to control death... or something like that. Frankly, the game seems content to plunge into convoluted twists of alchemy, necromancy, and arcane symbolism.

The puzzles also devolve into a frenzied string of non-sensical, trial-and-error inventory combinations, with a couple of timed sequences in the mix. You can also "die" in several places, so saving is important. (Side note one death animation has you carelessly stepping feet first into a man-sized hole. Since you'll see it frequently, you may as well enjoy the comical view of William plummeting HEAD first to his doom. Gotta love those zany game physics!)

As bad as these puzzles may seem after a while, little would you expect to be THANKFUL for them when at last you near the endgame and run smack dab into a maze... after maze... after maze...

If ever a game smacked of running out of time and money during production, Necronomicon is it. The cautious pacing of the first half was completely abandoned; clues that suggested future relevance were never re-visited; and the storyline had monumental gaps that resulted in more than a little head scratching and hair pulling. Even the grand finale seems like a rushed attempt to wrap up, rather that address the multitude of unanswered questions.

Hey, I'd never blame a developer for cutting corners to salvage a product. My real objection is that they didn't recognize the inevitability sooner. As it is, what begins as an interesting, atmospheric mystery finishes as a mutant X-Files episode on steroids.

Is the game a disappointment? I'd have to say yes. Is it a total loss? Not at all! There are plenty of entertaining moments in the game; they're just not nearly consistent enough. If you're interested at all in occult mysteries, give it a whirl. If you're a fan of Lovecraft, you might want to lower your expectations heading in. If you're just a casual adventurer looking for the best the genre has to offer, you won't find it here.

Final score: 56%

System Requirements:

Windows 95/98/ME
Pentium 200 MHz
16 bit sound card

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Please write to: Singer

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