Just your average hidden cellar room...
Rhiannon: Curse of the Four Branches may have quite an unusual title, and a curse involving bits of tree probably doesn't sound like the most fascinating or horrific basis for an adventure game. However, Rhiannon is an enjoyable and brain-pummeling adventure that will particularly appeal to scavenger hunt fans, with the odd jumpy bit thrown in to keep you on your toes.
A very Welsh plot
You play as Chris, your typical faceless and voiceless protagonist who agrees to house-sit for his buddies Malcolm and Jennifer while they’re out of town. Turns out their daughter, Rhiannon, is freaking out over ghostly sightings around their new home. Her parents, all sympathy and understanding, think that she’s completely nuts - so they drag her away until she ‘calms down a bit’. Of course, once your start exploring the mysterious country manor and its expansive grounds, you soon realise that Rhiannon might not be that barmy after all.
Rhiannon is another one of those lonely, solitary games, where you don’t see another living being for the duration. Even the Sullivans’ cat keeps well out of your way, sneaking into the house only to leave you deceased rodent presents and escaping via the door flap whenever you enter. The furry git. Still, you’ve got plenty of rooms to explore, and of course, as with all adventure games with no other characters to interact with, you get to do a lot of reading.
Rhiannon is quite text-heavy throughout: you’ll read all about local legends, homeopathy techniques, types of vegetation...you’ll even learn how to make bread, which comes in surprisingly useful at one point. Most of the books and documents are interesting or at the very least intriguing, especially the Welsh folklore which forms the basis of the plot. You’ll read all kinds of nefarious tales, each more mind-boggling than your average Dear Deidre column.
With such a dense amount of text thrown at you from the start, it can occasionally be difficult to work out what is relevant, but as the game progresses you soon learn the order of things. Thankfully you can carry the most important tomes around with you, for quick and easy reference.
A large part of Rhiannon’s gameplay involves hunting down objects, hidden or otherwise. There are loads of inventory items scattered around the house and its grounds, but unlike most other adventure games, these can often only be picked up when you need to use them. This is of course entirely logical - no sane person would lug hundreds of random objects around all day, on the off-chance they might urgently need a stepladder or a squeaky dog toy. Just be sure to make a mental note of things when you find them - chances are, you’ll need to grab it all later.
We won’t go into detail about Rhiannon’s scavenger hunts, as to do so would divulge large parts of the story. However, the game is split into a number of days, with each day devoted to a certain ritual requiring specific objects. Some items you simply find, others you have to make yourself. Once you’ve gathered all of the objects, you then combine them in some way to complete the ritual and finish the chapter.
This side of the game actually surprised us quite a lot. After the initial set-up, we expected a fairly realistic game, much like Scratches, where the puzzles were mostly based in reality (with occasional fantastical elements). However, Rhiannon is much more like Zork Nemesis, with quite surreal brainteasers focusing heavily on magic and mythology. Even the emphasis on the four different elements (earth, wind, fire, air) reminded us of that infamous Zork title. This isn’t a bad thing at all, just a point worth making for anyone expecting a realistic adventure.
On a couple of occasions we were truly flummoxed by Rhiannon’s puzzles, and frustrated when we finally discovered the solution (turns out you don’t always have to find a specified item during a scavenger hunt, just a picture of one on a leaflet will work fine). Thankfully these moments were reasonably rare, and most puzzles can be figured out by mulling over the reading material, thinking things over, and only the occasional bit of trial and error.
Our advice is this - if you do get stuck, be sure to revisit every area and click on everything you couldn’t previously use. Patience is definitely a virtue in the world of Rhiannon, and we admittedly had to resort to a walkthrough a handful of times in order to progress.
What’s that sound?
Rhiannon uses minimalist sound effects to great effect, really hammering home the fact that you’re alone in this sinister world. You’ll hear the occasional whirring fan blade or buzzing fridge, but nothing more. When spooky things do happen, the dramatic avalanche of instruments and screeching makes it that much more startling, especially when wearing headphones. If you’re an adventure horror veteran, you’ll probably see a fair few of them coming. However, some of the scares come out of nowhere, usually when a tense moment has passed and you’ve let your guard down, so even us hardcore survivalists had to endure the John Wayne walk of shame to the bathroom, to ‘tidy up’.
Music only crops up in a scant few areas of the game, which makes it seem almost jarring when it does kick in. It often cuts out just as quick, triggered by some proceeding game event. We’d have preferred a total absence to be honest, as the near-silence is much more effective.
A lot of adventure horror games are designed by indie developers, which is often quite obvious when it comes to the graphics. However, Rhiannon is beautifully drawn, featuring some crisp and colourful locations that are a pleasure to explore. It’s also refreshing to see animations when you open doors and perform other actions, instead of the usual slideshow approach. Of course, you’ll still be moving and turning by clicking at the edges of the screen, so there’s no full 360 degree freedom, but rarely did we find ourselves frustrated, trying to manoeuvre our protagonist into position to try something out.
We can’t describe Rhiannon as a true horror adventure game, as most of the locations are brightly lit and sinister events are spread quite thin. However, as an adventure game it is certainly solid, with great presentation, an intriguing story, and enough puzzling action to keep you going for around 10-20 hours (depending on your brain power and reliance on walkthroughs).
Rhiannon: Curse of the Four Branches system requirements
Rhiannon’s simple presentation means you can run it even on an old Pentium desktop or laptop. Make sure you’ve got at least 512MB of RAM and a dedicated graphics card to get a smooth experience.
Chances are, some or all of these people died in pretty horrible ways