I wouldn’t say this is all style no substance, but the substance definitely struggles to keep up, at least for most of the game.
There’s really not much sexiness either, by the way, in case you were wondering. No, it’s more like a general air of rakish hedonism. You can tell they’re very much in love with the setting they’ve created here, and for good reason. I mean, I’ve never been a decadent aristocrat, but this is how I always pictured it.
An immense manor, steeped in opulence and garish excess, each room more outlandish than the next, populated by caricatures of various eccentrics and other high-society curiosities: the Chanteuse, the Artist, the Spiritualist, the Inventor, the Gentleman Thief, etc. They’re portrayed in a theatrical, almost burlesque sort of fashion that befits their surroundings. And of course it all takes place amidst the signature aristocratic occasion: the masked ball.
In the process of bringing this lush aesthetic vision to life, however, they seem to have let the little things fall a bit by the wayside. Things like the game, for instance.
Don’t get me wrong. The concept here is genuinely novel–at least, it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen. The twist is that you’re all trapped in a time loop, endlessly repeating the same twelve hours during which everyone is gruesomely murdered. You play as one of the guests, chosen–for reasons that are only explained much later–to rescue the others. One by one, you observe the ghastly fate of each guest, rewinding time as necessary to see the events from different perspectives, and then figure out a way to thwart the traps set for them. Really clever idea.
The problems are more in the execution, both in the gameplay and the storytelling departments.
Each chapter has the same basic routine. First you wake up and stumble blindly through a new section of the manor until you run into your latest target. Then you follow them around and watch them die. Maybe you observe the killer for a little while, too; but by that point it’s usually pretty clear what you need to do. After that it’s mainly just a matter of turning back the clock and getting yourself to the right place at the right time.
Along the way there’s also plenty of atmosphere to soak in, secrets to find, interesting objects to study, etc. That can lead to an uneasy tension at times between the exploration side, where you want to linger around and investigate every last detail of this fascinating environment, and the mission side where you’re racing against the clock. It really becomes a problem when you pick up an important item along the way which disappears as soon as you reset, and then you forget when and where you found it.
They don’t call this a metroidvania, but it’s structured like one in the sense that each chapter rewards you with an item that unlocks new areas of one big contiguous map. Naturally, there’s going to be backtracking involved, and the time element adds a fourth dimension to it. While the ability to rewind at will does ease the frustration that usually comes with time limits, it also creates even more repetition than you bargain for. You find yourself retracing your steps again and again, not just to locate things in space but to get there with enough time to spare.
Another thing you start to notice is that despite the explicit use of time as a plot device, there’s surprisingly little sense of progress for most of the game. All of the various deaths are underway simultaneously. The boom of a gunshot echoes from one wing, and then a death knell tolls from another a few minutes later, which at first is pretty cool; yet even as you rescue one person after another nothing ever changes. There’s no real sense that all your work is setting things right, which leaves you wondering for far too long what the hell you’re accomplishing and why.
When you consider the amount of attention devoted to the concept and style, the interactive side feels loose and distracted by comparison. It’s like they just pat you on the head, “Yes, yes, that’s a good lad. You’ll figure it out somehow,” as they shove you out the door so they can get back to dreaming up exotic new rooms of their glorious manor.
And that really gets to the major shortcoming of the story, too. It does hold your attention, but holds it at a distance. I suppose they were trying to create a tantalizing atmosphere of mystery, but without anything meaningful to invest in, it all rings hollow.
Underneath all the style and flair, there’s no reason to care about any of these characters who are the focus of your actions. We’re given a rough sketch of who they are, but we don’t get to witness anything that would bring them to life as people. Sure, there’s an idle curiosity in seeing how each situation plays out, but I was never truly motivated to save them, either personally or even in the context of a larger goal.
It’s not until the very, very end that they scramble to pull it all together and build an emotional connection with the player. And that’s where the substance makes one last mad dash to catch up, and almost even succeeds. Turns out, there are the makings of a decent enough story here, but it took so long to get going that by the time it finally did I was already checked out. Too little, too late.
Oh well, that’s the way it goes sometimes; although I guess it’s fitting. Like the decadent aristocrat it portrays, this game’s sheer charisma takes it a long way but its tragic flaws prove to be just a little too much.