What is it?
Rhiannon: Curse of the
Four Branches is at once a traditional
point-n-click adventure game and, at the same time, a refreshing change
from Atlantis, Egypt or the Templar Knights. The writers, Arberth Studios,
are a trio of dedicated former amateurs based in West Wales (part of the
UK, not England), who've converted from former professions to make their
hobbies into their work. In the past, I'm sure this kind of game would
have been an independent production, but fortunately Rhiannon now
has the weight of Got Game Entertainment (Nikopol, the RHEM
games, The Lost Crown) and Lighthouse Interactive (Belief &
Betrayal, Overclocked, Nostradamus) behind it in the US
and Europe respectively. I played a Got Game Entertainment press copy; I
assume the European version will be pretty much the same.
there a plot?
Unusually, this game is
based upon a plot from the Mabinogion – a collection of Welsh and Celtic
mythological stories first collected as a single work in the 18th
century, but originating in the 14th with oral source material
dating back considerably further. The stories hold significant cultural
influence upon modern Wales.
The game itself is set in
rural Wales, the country where Arberth Studios is based, and the place I
lived for sixteen years (just an hour up the coast road from Arberth
Studios as it happens). So I can tell you, without fear of contradiction,
that the aboveground setting of this game is very typical of a deeply
rural Welsh farmstead. Though I must admit, I've never seen so many
ghostly goings-on on any of the farms I've visited over the years.
Specifically, the plot is
based upon The Four Branches, a tale of conflict between Wales and
Ireland, kidnap, murder, and magic. It tells of the trials and
tribulations of Pryderi (pronounced Pruh-derry), his mother
Rhiannon, and their conflict with the wizard Llwyd (pronounced Hlew-id).
The ancient story ends with Llwyd promising not to take revenge upon
Pryderi and Rhiannon whilst they live. But these wizardy guys, they can be
a tricksy bunch!
do you play?
As I've already said,
Rhiannon is entirely point-n-click. It's played in the first person
perspective with a very minimalist user interface. When you start the game
you're presented with an options dialog that allows you to control which
graphics and sound devices the game should use, and also allows you to
switch on the 'hotspot detector', i.e. a keyboard shortcut
(Ctrl-Shift-Tab) that rings all active spots on the current screen. I
found this very useful in avoiding pixel-hunting. As it happens, there are
very few small hotspots in this game. There are a few places that are hard
to find, but this is not because they are too small – more that they are
in unexpected locations.
After the settings dialog,
the game itself is launched. The main menu, backed by a stylized tree
trunk image, is very simple: Load, New Game, Credits and Quit. There is no
options menu within the game, so you need to set the sound volume with
your system's control panel or system tray applet.
Starting a new game begins
with an email from someone called Jen and her husband, Malcolm. It seems
you'll be playing the part of Chris – a nicely non-gender-specific name –
and you'll be house-sitting for them whilst they take their daughter,
Rhiannon, away for a while. The scene fades to a narrow Welsh country
lane, along which you arrive at Ty Pryderi (pronounced Tee Pruh-derry).
As 'Ty' is Welsh for 'house', the house is “Pryderi's house”. If you
already know your Mabinogion, this will start ringing alarm bells, of
course. But for the rest of us mortals, all you have are a few unusual
names in a language apparently renowned for its peculiar spelling rules
and extra letters: 'dd', 'll', 'rh' and others, and the fact that 'w' and
'y' can be vowels.
unfortunately, depending upon your disposition) this game does not
actually require you to learn Welsh to play it, though as a former
resident of that country, and knowing where Arberth Studios are based, I
was somewhat surprised (disappointed, even) to see no Welsh language
option. Perhaps when they do the European localisations they'll include
Welsh – after all, they'll not be short of local native speakers to do the
Sorry, back to the game. You
arrive at the farm and find your way inside, assuming you follow Jen's
instructions, and the ghostly happenings aren't long in making their
presence known. From here on in, you need to discover what's been going
on, why Jen, Malcolm and Rhiannon have left, and what you're going to do
A word to the wise, however.
You may think you're just there to house-sit, but there'll be no lounging
around watching telly for two weeks, eating someone else’s food, and going
through their library -- you've got work to do!
Most puzzles in Rhiannon
are inventory based. You make progress by finding which item goes where,
and what item can be combined with another to trigger storytelling. There
are many, many inventory items in this game. Interviews with the
developers have mentioned that there are around 200. Obviously, any
inventory system that allowed you to accumulate every item you find around
the place (that could conceivably be useful somewhere later in the game)
would be completely unmanageable. The solution is an inventory system that
allows you to pick up (left-click) and examine (right-click) many objects
(some of which you'll never use), but that only allows you to take with
you items for which you actually have a current use. This is actually
quite clever, but also a little frustrating at times, and I'll come back
to this later.
The user interface is very
sparse in Rhiannon. Almost all the time is spent in a first-person
perspective and there is no direct interaction with anyone else. There are
no dialog trees to traverse, just clues, objects, texts and puzzles to
solve. What's more, I cannot recall any examples of using an object for a
totally outlandish purpose. If you have an axe, you use it to cut things.
If you have a packet of butter, you use it to make food. I like
this kind of real world logic. There's no need to repair the suspension of
a dune buggy with an old rubber wellington in this game!
There's so much stuff
in this game! Keys, food items, poisons, books, maps, documents, emails,
items of modern technology, and items of ancient history, mechanisms,
science, pseudo-science, and complete mumbo-jumbo. This game has
absolutely remarkable depth for something developed by three people in
just two years. On top of all the inventory items and puzzles, there are
excellent animations, varied music, and unusual visual effects.
The only downside to all
this stuff is that the game, or at least my playing of it,
occasionally suffers from the 'what on earth do I do next' problem of wide
open adventure games. There are some locked areas, and these are of
critical importance to the game; you begin the game with a good 40-50
locations/scenes open to you. Possibly more. And what's more, there are at
least as many scenes that are added to your world over the course of the
game. You'll become very, very familiar with the layout of the farm over
the span of the game, as you'll be walking around all parts of it
constantly. I certainly enjoyed this, as the environment is realistic,
detailed and comfortable to me (though I suspect the 'comfortable' aspect
is rather more personal than the developers intended). My only complaint
would be that an area surrounded by so much woodland should show some
signs of movement from time to time. But perhaps that's a bit too much to
ask of Arberth Studios when they've put so much into the more important
parts of the game: the story and the puzzles.
There are a few occasions in
the game where it is very clear what object you need, but you can't keep
it in your inventory because some allied (but not obvious) trigger has not
been fired. These moments can be frustrating because it is completely
unclear what is missing. In fact, with one situation I was on the verge of
claiming I'd found a dead end in the game, when the reality was that I
hadn't found an obscure desk drawer and its contents. So sharp eyes are
Rhiannon: Curse of the
Four Branches is an absolutely excellent example
of the quality that can be achieved by a small team of developers and
artists. In this case, we really are talking small, as there are only
three developers, and only twenty people credited for the entire
production. That even includes all the beta testers!
The game is original in its
choice of story, enjoyable in its detail, challenging in its puzzles,
technically rock solid (and Alt-Tab friendly), and, hopefully, a sign that
there is much more to come from Arberth Studios.
do you need to play it?
Processor Speed: 1.0
RAM: 512 MB
Video RAM: 32 MB
(I used a custom built
Windows Vista Home Premium SP1 PC, based on a AMD Athlon 64 X2 Dual CPU,
2048 MB RAM, and XFX nVidia GeForce 8600GT 256MB video card, with onboard
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