Last Half of Darkness: Tomb of Zojir
Publisher: WRF Studios
Developer: WRF Studios
Release Date: 07/15/2009
Get It Here: http://www.lasthalfofdarkness.com
It’s been a really disappointing year for adventure games. I’ve reviewed six adventure games this year: three god awful ones in The Path, Art of Murder 2 and Cevile, two mediocre ones in Wallace and Gromit: Episode One and Still Life 2 and one above average one in Memento Mori. Last year however was a banner year for the genre. With games like Lost, Harvey Birdman, Nikopol, Theresia, Strong Bad’s Cool Game For Attractive People, The Sinking Island, The Lost Crown and more, it was arguably the best year for the genre ever.
This year, while wading through a lot of crap and waiting to see if we would get review copies of Three Cards To Midnight and Secret Files II or waiting for Mata Hari and Heaven to arrive, I stumbled across the website for a series called Last Half of Darkness. The games seemed pretty interesting and after fooling around with the demo and the online freebie, I decided to contact William R Fisher the Third, as he made the game all by himself (with some other people doing the voice acting and music). Bill happily obliged my thirst for a quality adventure game by sending me Tomb Of Zojir, the newest and third title in the Last Half of Darkness series.
Being that I was completely new to this game, I had no idea what to expect. I was dropped into the middle of a story line with no awareness of the characters, plot or continuity ToZ had with previous two games. So how was it? Did 2009 continue to be a banner year for adventure game suckage, or do we finally have a frontrunner when it comes to award nominees for this genre in December?
Although Tomb of Zojir is a direct continuation of the previous Last Half of Darkness games with references to previous events and characters sprinkled throughout, I really didn’t find it hard to pick up the plot or what was going on.
The game starts off with a creepy undead lady(?) who has finally resurrected herself after being felled by “The Stranger,” who is the protagonist of these games. The Stranger has also discovered, in the pages of a talking book, the secret location of the Isle of the Dead. The Isle of the Dead supposedly holds an ancient temple, seven magic stones cursed with the power of vampiric spirits and chock full of ghosts. Although we aren’t given any reason or motivation regarding The Stranger’s decision to travel to the Isle of the Dead, I assume it’s because he’s either A) a treasure hunter or B)a noble hero determined to put a permanent evil to evil naughtiness everywhere. Like Simon Belmont.
Although there is not a lot of characterization given to your protagonist and the various characters you meet in the game are pretty one dimensional, there is no denying that the atmosphere of ToZ is amazing. From the second the opening cut scene starts until the very last scene closes out, this thing exudes creepiness with a capital C. The mood, visuals, apparitions and scenery all set the stage for the best haunted island since The Suffering. I’m a sucker for haunted places and so to get an entire haunted island? That’s pretty sweet.
The game reminded me a lot of the Echo Night series as both deal with some very unique haunted locations where the emphasis is on puzzle solving rather than gore and survival-horror. Unlike From Software’s long lamented adventure game series, Tomb of Zojir is both the only Adventure game and PC title to ever make me jump. Sure the scares are generally shock value rather than suspenseful terror, but I’ve f’n spent the night in the Amityville House and Castle Bran without so much as a shudder. Video games almost never scare me or get me to jump, but Tomb Of Zojir now joins the elite company of Fatal Frame, Eternal Darkness, Hell Night and the first two Clock Tower games as one of those very rare games that elicited some adrenaline from me.
Is Tomb of Zojir the best horror game I’ve ever played? No, but it’s a really fun one. What the game lacks in actual plot depth and character development it more than makes up for with the setting and ambience. It has been well over a year since I’ve played a game that remembers a horror game is better served with chills and creepiness rather than gore and splatter.
Story Rating: Enjoyable
I won’t lie; you can definitely tell this is an independent game put out by a tiny studios. This visuals are more akin to something you would have seen two generations ago on the Sega Saturn or the original Playstation. Think akin to D or Lunacy. Although some people might poo-poo games that don’t sport the latest and greatest graphics, my two favorite horror games are Hell Night and Clock Tower and neither of those games were visually impressive when they first came out either. Like those two titles, Tomb of Zojir may not require your computer to have the most up to date graphics card and a high speed processor in order to play it, but the visuals are enjoyable for what they are and all the more impressive when you remember that A SINGL E GUY MADE THIS GAME.
The character models are probably the weakest aspect of the graphics as they do feel a bit 1999 rather than 2009, but there are so few of them that it hardly matters. The worst is probably the apparition you encounter when you pick up a certain picture, while the best is either the fortune teller you encounter in the city or the monster that speaks to you right after you pick up the picture ghost.
One area where the game excels is with animals, which generally isn’t something you find well done in any game. Flies, maggots, crows, scorpions, trap door spiders and the like are all nicely rendered and play an important part in getting through the game. Items too are detailed and crisp and I had fun looking at objects in my inventory just for the detail, especially my Chem Bios Cereal. Did you know it is chock full of the vitamin power of MEAT?
I also really enjoyed the backgrounds. I wasn’t sure if the Isle of the Dead was supposed to be in Bayou country or somewhere in the English Moors as we had both Cockney and Jamaican accents going on, but either way the visuals in the game were exactly what I would expect a cursed island full of ghosts to look like. Each static screen depicts area rife with dust, decay and damnation and it never failed to be both ominous and freaky.
Sure ToZ won’t win any awards for its graphics, but aside from the character models, it’s no worse than anything Telltale puts out with their monthly licensed episodic games. What’s here fits the mood of the game perfectly and although it’s no Dark Fall: The Journal, it’s still a title that offers some nice spooky eye candy as you wander the Isle’s haunted shores.
Graphics Rating: Enjoyable
I really loved the aural aspects of this game. The music, sound effects, and voice acting are all wonderfully done. The score is appropriately chilling, but it’s the sound effects that really strike me. Whether it’s the flapping of wings, the creaking of an old door or the crackling of a fire, Tomb of Zojir really did an outstanding job. There wasn’t a noise in the game that felt out of place or didn’t sound realistic. This is all very impressive, even compared to big budget AAA titles. The voice acting was a lot of fun too. The cast was only two of three people, but each actor or actress handled several roles and managed to make them sound distinct and believable.
I can’t overestimate how important sound is to Tomb of Zojir as it really is the best aspect of the game. The visuals may be a generation or two behind what is possible these days, but the music and sound effects really make the game come alive and help to enhance the visuals. These things set the mood, raise goose pimples on your flesh and help make the game the creepfest that it is. I was pleasantly surprised by all things audio in ToZ and you will be too.
Sound Rating: Great
4. Control and Gameplay
Like most adventure games, everything is controlled by your mouse. Your left mouse button does everything except take a closer look at objects in your inventory which is controlled by the right mouse button. If your cursor changes into a purple eye, it means you can left click on the object to get a description or a closer look. If the mouse cursor becomes a pinkish-red arrow, you can left click on this to either add it to your inventory, open it, or it means that another item is needed to interact with it. In the case of the latter I would have preferred a third icon as sometime I would get the arrow and click and nothing would happen, giving me a second or two pause until I remembered that meant it was the other meaning for the red arrow. A blue or green arrow, for example, would have made the different actions stand out. There was also one time where an arrow didn’t show up on a locked door. By the obvious nature of what needed to be done, I took a key from my inventory and used it there, but if this had been somewhere else in the game, it could have been a serious snafu as gamers wouldn’t know what to do. This also comes up with the Scorpion and its tasty maggot dinner. The only red arrow on that puzzle is the key it guards. If you use the maggot on the key, nothing happens except for a pissed off scorpion. You have to lay the maggot in the box, where there is no arrow (and there should be) in order to distract the scorpion. These are minor things, but it’s just a reminder that the cursor alerts aren’t consistent so people who aren’t long time adventure gamers might find this a bit frustrating.
When you take an item from your inventory, it will shake rapidly, letting you know you have the right item. This is a little bit different from what we usually see in this genre, but it works perfectly.
To navigate from one screen to the next there will icons showing you where you can go next. However, sometimes the detection range for these icons is very small and so you may have to scour the screen in order to figure out where to go next. For example, in The City, after I had gathered every object in the area, done all the puzzles and had the witch help me set a box that allowed me access into the Spider Temple, I found I had no way to get to the temple! I spent half an hour looking for where to go next, going between the witch’s house, Tara’s house, the dock and a garbage bin looking for anything to click on to take me out of this area. This was the only time in the entire game I was stumped, and for it to be based on not being able to find the right thing to click on rather than a puzzle, well, I have to admit a bit of disappointment there. Thankfully, this was the only time I encountered a problem of this particular nature.
Overall, Tomb of Zojir handles nicely. There is no slowdown or any bugs that I could find, which is rare for a PC release. It plays smoothly and the controls are pretty accessible to any gamer, regardless of experience with this or any other genre. There’s only a few small minor problems that won’t deter the seasoned adventure gamer.
Control and Gameplay Rating: Good
This is the one fatal flaw with Tomb of Zojir and it’s the same for all Adventure games. As they are a fairly linear genre with usually only one ending and puzzles that play out exactly the same time each time you boot up the game, this is really only good for a one shot unless you’re a big fan of the story and atmosphere.
There’s one other thing that is awesome about the game, but that does have the possibility of killing the replay value. Several of the puzzles require the game’s pack-ins in order to solve them. While this makes the game come alive in ways very few titles do and it was a blast to use the spider diagram with the three plastic spiders the game came with, or to solve a puzzle using the creepy poem included in the box, this also means if you lose one of these or they get destroyed or shredded in some way, the game can’t be solved except by sheer luck and a lot of trial and error. For me personally, I love this idea with the puzzles and it is also a great alternative to copy protection hell like SecuROM that does more harm to your computer than good, but it also means if I say, lend this to one of my staff because I like the game and then it is returned with one of the pack-ins missing, it’ll be hard to complete the game.
Still, even if the game is a one-off, like most adventure games, that one playthrough is at least a blast, something most 2009 releases in this genre have been sorely missing.
Replayability Rating: Bad
Besides the atmosphere, the one thing that made me love this game was the puzzles. Now like most adventure games you have the standard, “Use an item on another item to make a new item” or the standby, “use an item on something in the background to advance to a new screen or get a new item.” These two types of puzzles are universal in this genre and you can’t really expect an adventure game without them. However, the game really shines with the puzzles outside of the norm. There are a few slider puzzles, with my personal favourite being a combination of a slider and a “match three” game. I also really loved having to use the enclosed journal and poem to solve a few puzzles.
I think my favorite puzzle involved getting a key to a desk drawer. In order to get the key, I had to get into a dead man’s email account. In order to get into his email account I needed to get both the password and the url for his account. I got the password by solving a cereal box puzzle twice and then I found the URL thanks to a haunted television set. Tomb of Zojir offered some of the most creative and interesting puzzles I’ve seen in an adventure game in quite some time.
None of the puzzles are dreadfully hard, but at the same time, there are many you can’t solve just by guessing and clicking on every pixel you see. This is a great change from a lot of adventure games where you can fumble through by trial and error. Every puzzle outside of the item combining or using one item on an interactive background has a solution hidden somewhere in the game or the journal. You just need to read and take notes. I realize some gamers may be turned off by this, but I used to use graph paper to map out the levels in games like Wizardy or Eye of the Beholder, so I loved this.
Even better, some of the puzzles are kind enough to have an auto-solve feature, at least according to a sheet enclosed with the game. I never actually needed to use this but if you leave your computer alone for forty-five minutes to an hour, the game will go through the slider puzzles on its own. Don’t even touch your mouse or the keyboard in the slightest though, or the timer will reset.
Tomb of Zojir features some excellent puzzles that really force a gamer to think while not offering strange illogical solutions like a lot of other games in this genre. The puzzles are also (mostly) relevant to the story at hand which makes them all the better. Nice job.
Balance Rating: Good
As I haven’t played either of the first two Last Hand of Darkness games, I can’t personally comment on if there is any overlap with the previous games or if anything has been re-used same for an eyeball which is introduced at the beginning of the game. However, what I can say is that this is one of the most original adventure games that I’ve played in years, in terms of location and puzzles.
We don’t get a lot of haunted islands. The Suffering is the only one I can think of. Sure the island has some haunted houses or cemeteries as is pat for horror games, but you usually don’t see multiple ones or a tomb with a rail car system underneath the ground. It’s not as outside the box as Echo Night Beyond‘s haunted space station, but it’s still pretty fun to see a range of ghosts or supernatural beings that aren’t cannon fodder for a shotgun in a survival horror game.
Tomb of Zojir is a great example of how a game can be both innovative while still stick to the trappings of a genre and how, due to a lack of corporate red tape, an independent game can try some new ideas (in this case puzzles) the larger corporate owned studios can’t as they’re geared towards churning out generic sequel after generic sequel.
Originality Rating: Good
I was really sucked into Tomb of Zojir from the moment the game booted up. The game had a fairly quick pace and best of all, there was no mindless backtracking from one screen to the next as you collected items. The game had a built in map function, which allowed me to return to any area I chose (as long as it was in my current region) by clicking that location on my map. Such a time save! It’s too bad more games don’t give you this option.
Although ToZ is fairly long for an adventure game, the hours flew by for me. Everything about the game synched up to be exactly what I was looking for in a point n’ click title after so many awful ones this year. From beginning to end, I had a lot of fun with this game and am now kicking myself that I caught the series in the tail end of its trilogy rather than at the beginning.
Addictiveness Rating: Great
9. Appeal Factor
This will be a hard game to find as it is currently only sold directly from the series’ website. I’m pretty well known for finding obscure adventure games that even Justadventure.com or GameBoomers don’t catch like Theresia but I had never heard of this franchise until a fortnight ago.
However, anyone who enjoys games by studios like Darkling Room or Shadow Tor will love this as much as I did. With most gaming sites only focusing on survival-horror for your scary gaming needs, we tend to forget that the best spooky games have almost always been Adventure titles. Dracula: Resurrection, Shadowgate, The 7th Guest, Shadow of the Comet and Phantasmagoria are just a handful of classing point and click titles that are scarier than say, Dino Crisis 3 or Silent Hill: Homecoming.
The system requirements for Tomb of Zojir are shockingly low, meaning that anyone reading this can play the game on their laptop or computer just fine. It’s one of the reasons I plan on making the rest of my staff play this before the end of the year so ToZ can secure some award nominations, if not the prize itself.
If you like classic ghost stories akin to what you might have found in the Victorian era but jazzed up with some modern day appliances, this is the game for you. Sadly, because the graphics aren’t up to today’s standards and because there is no gore or violence, faux hardcore gamers may make the mistake of passing this up because there aren’t any guns, profanity or hooters. It’s their loss though. Other issues may include not being a fan of the Adventure genre, which really has slipped into a niche group these days, not being a PC gamer, and not wanting to start a series three games in. Again, your loss if this is the case.
Appeal Factor Rating: Mediocre
For a one man development team, I’m still blown away by how solid this game is. It’s amazing that one man and a few people for sound can make a better game than some full studio productions I’ve played this year. Factor in some original puzzles, some creepy locations and a lot of ambience and you have a nicely done adventure game that deserves some attention and praise. It’ll be interesting to see where WRF does next. In the meantime, once my review workload settles down I KNOW I’ll be picking up the first two games in the series to see what I’ve missed over the past few years.
Finally, I can’t emphasize enough how much I loved using the enclosed pack-ins to solve a puzzle or three. This is a wonderful idea that makes the game come alive and helps get you involved in an active way rather than a passive format which games are wont to do.
Awesome job WRF Studios and I’m sorry I just discovered you now.
Miscellaneous Rating: Unparalleled
Control and Gameplay: Good
Appeal Factor: Mediocre
FINAL SCORE: GOOD GAME!
Short Attention Span Summary
Last Half of Darkness: Tomb of Zojir is exactly what I’ve been waiting for in a 2009 adventure game release. The atmosphere is spectacular, the music is chilling, the game is creepy as hell and it features some really innovative puzzles for you to contend with. Some gamers might find the graphics a bit outdated or may be lost at first jumping into the third game in a series, but I didn’t mind either and found both more than acceptable. Tomb of Zojir is the best point and click title I’ve encountered this year and it’ll be interesting to see if anything comes close to surpassing it.