Monday, April 21, 2008

[Review] Wuthering Heights

If I were to say that I was surprised upon receiving the latest offering from Bronte Games, it would be a criminally lax understatement. After such flops as Villette II and Jane Eyre X-Treme Go-Kart Challenge, my doubt in the once great publisher of mid-90’s licensed games was understandably shaken. I’d read the preliminary reports from Japan, and they were guarded, but positive. Daily Dengenki Famitsu went even further, calling it, "a revolutionary new take on the visual novel, not simply a character game." While I may not agree with my kabuki quantum counterparts on all of the finer points, there is some truth to their words.

When a noble, yet politically unstable aristocrat flees the unfriendly streets of London for the rustic moors, he finds himself embroiled in a web of dark passions, mysteries dredged from the past, and wild, fruit-chomping action. A top-down, shooter-RPG that would not be out of place at a wedding joining the Xenosaga series with Zombies Ate My Neighbors in blessed matrimony, Wuthering Heights represents a bold step in blending survival horror elements with traditional CRPG gameplay. Eliminating the inventory management that is often the focus of such games, the player is instead confronted with a parade of delicate social situations that quickly ramp up in misery and violence until there is no recourse but to stare at the wallpaper in resignation at the leaden pressure suffusing the atmosphere.

The wallpaper won’t help; it is peeling and rotten, much like the second half of the game.

To say that the graphics are dreary would be insulting to the richness of the English language. You won’t see much color while traversing the game’s ever-present moors, but the textures on the crumbling garden walls and moldering leather more than make up for the limited palette. Unfortunately, the player is rarely privy to these visual flourishes on account of their hefty memory requirements. Unless the camera’s focus is directly on an object, the majority of the screen is obscured by low-resolution fog reminiscent of a second-generation PSX title. While the story team has taken great pains to work this murkiness into the game’s plot, it can become smothering at times.

Speaking of the story, it’s nothing that we haven’t seen before. Although presented in a novel fashion, the player rarely gets to take part. Instead, the core protagonist is strung along from cutscene to convoluted cutscene. This would have been bearable, if stretching the definition of a game within our post-postmodern society, if the characters were able to support the weight of the topics addressed. Instead we are faced with refugees from every modern RPG that has failed to be published in the last ten years.

Ever since Squaresoft made the switch from identifiable, heroic protagonists of its 16-bit days to the more mature, angst-ridden emopunks of its later hits, the market has been flooded in copycats with embarrassing social flaws and bad haircuts. The primary villain of Wuthering Heights offers nothing new to the discriminating gamer, although no doubt much will be made of his uncanny resemblance to superstar, Ralph Fiennes. I will be frank; he’s no Sephiroth, ladies. On the other hand, if you still haven’t had enough of the near-silent protagonist, the meek love interest, or the racially stereotyped groundskeeper, Wuthering Heights will make you feel right at home. The late Working Designs could have executed this translation to great effect, or current-era Atlus. As it is, however, characterization is warped and wholly obscured by despair.

Despite its flaws, I can’t help but respect Bronte Games for their decision to port Wuthering Heights to this side of the pond. While it won’t win any awards for furthering the video-games-as-literature argument, it’s a fine way to spend the occasional night where the moon is obscured by reaching, claw-like branches and the loneliness of your interior terrain is matched by the outside world. Moreover, it is clear that the localization team spared no expense in making sure that audiences stateside would be able to understand the complex Relationship Grid system. In addition to a faux leather relationship flowchart, the game comes with a dense manual that weighs in at over 300 pages. It’s attention to detail like this that makes Wuthering Heights worth your time if you’re able to push today’s flashy games out of your mind for long enough to appreciate the lengthy reward scheme that was the nourishing milk of yesteryear’s gaming elite.


Amelia said...

What's the replay value like?

Zach said...

I don't think that anyone has ever done it.

The New Game+ mode is supposed to be pretty smoking, though. You're able to play as Lockwood, Hindley, both of the Catherines, or a sentient block of tofu.

You don't get to keep your items or levels though, just psychological scars.

Boris said...

I hear Jane's Ire: The Remonstration is going to be awesome. Genki Genki Danmatsu Monthly had some screenshots, and the graphics are way better than Bronte's usual stuff. I think they might've gotten Amano to do the art.