Freelance photo journalists often get a raw deal, dispatched to war zones and the most inhospitable locales on Earth and ordered to return with pics of hostile natives or flesh-hungry carnivorous beasts. In Baron Wittard: Nemesis of Ragnorak, the nameless protagonist is sent off to a place called Utopia, a self-contained community designed to offer everything a person could possibly desire, to investigate the disappearance of some local folk.
As if traipsing there through a dingy forest in the pissing rain wasn’t bad enough, it’s blatantly obvious to every idiot and his aunt that a place called Utopia is actually bound to be a hellish pit of despair. Ahh, sweet irony.
Fans of creepy adventures such as Barrow Hill and the Dark Fall series will be right at home with Baron Wittard: Nemesis of Ragnorak, which we had the chance to preview recently. Our preview version looked to be mostly complete, although there’s still time for some tweaks ahead of the Q1 2011 release date.
The sinister ‘city’ of Utopia is explored from a familiar first-person perspective, with full 360-degree freedom to look around your environment (although you can only move along pre-determined paths). Your first task upon arrival is to find a way inside the enormous building - a task which turns out to be marginally harder than arranging a threesome with Salma Hayek and Hilary Clinton.
Our first impressions of Baron Wittard: Nemesis of Ragnorak were admittedly mixed. The gloomy exterior is well rendered, with plenty of detail packed in, although this also poses a problem as very little of the environment is interactive. You see a pile of sand with a shovel propped up against it, and your first instinct is to grab that tool and start digging around, but you can’t click on the shovel or the pile. All you can do is stare wistfully and imagine what a fun time you would’ve had demolishing that neat little mound.
This proved a niggling issue throughout, as several rooms were decked out with desks, shelves and cabinets, all of which are mere scenery. An adventure game where you can’t root through someone’s pants drawer for no apparent reason? How strange. It’s as if your character is either ridiculously lazy or annoyingly polite.
Another problem with this preview version of Baron Wittard: Nemesis of Ragnorak is the lack of animation. You hear a vicious breeze blowing through the courtyard, yet the plants are completely still as if they’re made of concrete (perhaps Utopia is somewhere on the outskirts of Milton Keynes). It’s a minor complaint, but does detract from the atmosphere a little.
Gaining access to Utopia involved some button pushing and a pesky sliding bar puzzle, after which we dived into the rather picturesque sewer tunnels leading to the building itself. At this point you get your first taste of spooky goings on, which are few and far between for the first portion of Baron Wittard: Nemesis of Ragnorak. The slow pacing might frustrate some, but most adventure gamers are renowned for their patience, and we enjoyed the slow build-up to some of the chilling set pieces.
Nemesis of Ragnorak’s developers told us (see the interview at the end of this preview) that they took inspiration from recent horror adventures such as Jonathan Boakes’ Dark Fall trilogy. This is shown through some of the creepier moments, with a lot of psychological warfare. Darkened corridors, flickering lights and malfunctioning technology are all present and correct, and the foreboding atmosphere is a winner.
Horror adventure fans will be pleased to hear that developers Wax Lyrical haven’t skimped in the sound department. From the moment you arrive you’re bombarded by sinister creaks and groans, mysterious whispering and nerve-bashing chords that assault you when you least expect it.
Not all of the sound effects are perfect - in one room, our speakers belted out what sounded like someone rubbing bubble wrap all over their naked torso. However, the majority of the music and sound effects do their job well, i.e. they scare the living pants off you. A good pair of headphones are definitely recommended, as is a darkened room and a bucket and mop (just in case).
You’re free to explore large parts of Baron Wittard’s Utopia upon gaining access, which makes for less linear gameplay than usually encountered. As you’d expect, the mansion is filled with numerous puzzles which need to be completed to further the plot, many of which will be familiar to adventure veterans. We’re talking block puzzles, dreaded math conundrums, and of course lots of mysterious symbology.
Some of Nemesis of Ragnorak’s puzzles demand a certain amount of trial and error to be solved, but thankfully most have a logical solution. Hardcore puzzle fans should be pleased at the variety and difficulty, although more novice adventurers will definitely become stuck at a number of points. Thank heavens for internet walkthroughs.
As for Nemesis of Ragnorak’s story, we don’t want to give anything away but we enjoyed the ties into Viking culture and the suspenseful encounters with the main antagonist. It’s obvious that a lot of research and thought has gone into crafting the plot and there’s promise of two different endings depending on your allegiances.
Finally, as with all adventure games, the system requirements are very lenient - a 1GHz or better processor and a measly 512MB of memory are all that’s required, alongside 1.5GB of hard drive space for installation. Basically, even a poxy netbook could run this game with little in the way of slowdown.
We enjoyed our time with Baron Wittard: Nemesis of Ragnorak, which is shaping up to be a highly enjoyable and unsettling adventure. The lack of animation and interaction was a little disheartening, but this was after all just a preview version and the final release may fix some of these issues. Regardless, puzzle and adventure fans will not be disappointed.
We’re off to buy a bumper pack of Y-Fronts in preparation for the final review, due early next year.
Interview with Baron Wittard: Nemesis of Ragnorak developer Alan Thorn
Here at Game Debate we're huge fans of adventure games, and have a special soft spot for horror adventure in particular. What was it that drew you to the genre for your first full retail game?
In short, we both loved the style and approach of three famous classic adventure games, those being: the 7th Guest, Myst and the Shivers games. And we wanted to create a new adventure that was similar to them; that was a hybrid of them. It was our intention from the design phase of development to identify all the parts and styles that we loved most from those three games, and to find a way to incorporate similar elements in a single game.
What inspiration, if any, did you draw from recent titles such as Dark Fall 3 and Barrow Hill?
Both of these games were also inspirational to us, as were the creators of those games, namely Jonathan Boakes and Matt Clark respectively. It is important for me to acknowledge those sources too. Some of the graphical effects of Dark Fall 3 were inspirational to me in building some of the locations for this game, in particular in creating the lighting for some of the creepy corridors and in the use of flickering light effects and black outs. Barrow Hill was inspirational to us also in creating a cinematic and moody FMV introduction sequence that I think sets a chilling mood for the game. Overall the creators of those games have been inspirational to us in teaching us a lesson: that small development teams can produce impressive results with hard work. And I think Baron Wittard is another example of the truth of that lesson.
We see you've listed abandonedonline.net as one of your sources of inspirations for the game's creepy environments. Baron Wittard's Utopia also reminded us somewhat of Bioshock's Rapture, another broken-down self-contained city where things have gone badly pear-shaped. Were you influenced by this or similar games when crafting Nemesis of Ragnarok's world?
I cannot say that Bioshock influenced us in any way of which we are consciously aware, but that of course does not mean that it never influenced us at all. There are indeed similarities between Baron Wittard and Bioshock. Both games centre on a ruined city that at one time had aspired to greater things and to happier times. But in Baron Wittard, the gamer will never be combating enemies with firearms and muscle power. There is an enemy to encounter, for certain; but the player must resort exclusively to their puzzle solving abilities in order to overcome that enemy.
Many adventure games go out of the way to integrate their puzzles into the environments, usually with mixed results, whereas Nemesis of Ragnarok seems to take a more relaxed approach, along the same lines as 7th Guest and 11th Hour. What approach did you take to designing the puzzles, and was it a completely separate procedure to creating the story and the game world?
Baron Wittard as a game makes no attempt to conceal that it is a game primarily (though not entirely) about the exploration of a massive world, about puzzle solving, and about the uncovering of a mystery. It is not a game that is shy about presenting puzzles in their brute and raw form. It presents them very directly, as did two of the classics (the 7th Guest and Shivers). Henry Stauf, the evil toy maker and main antagonist of the 7th guest had no hesitation in throwing the player into a room featuring an overt and mind-bending puzzle. Why not? Because that was the dastardly sort of thing that Henry Stauf did. It was as simple as that. In that style, the eccentric and zany Baron Wittard has created puzzles for the adventurer curious enough to travel to his city. Solving those puzzles will be critical, and the gamer must find out why. But it should be mentioned that not all puzzles in Baron Wittard are of the bare and raw kind. Myst too has also inspired us, and these puzzles require the gamer to decipher the controls of strange machines, to understand how things work, and to examine and scrutinize. Puzzles of this kind too are to be found in abundance throughout the Utopia. In fact, for further details on the puzzles for Baron Wittard, readers might want to take a look at our upcoming second part of the development diary. That entry focuses exclusively on the subject of puzzle creation for Baron Wittard.
Some of the puzzles were pretty tough, such as the biscuit puzzle in the apartment (complete with the disconcerting slurping noises!). Then again, perhaps our ageing brains just can't hack it any more... Will there be any kind of hint system in the final product?
I have received many emails from beta testers, some of them calling the puzzles too difficult and some of them calling the puzzles too easy. It has been tough throughout development to ‘get the balance right’. It was our intention since the beginning of development to make the game challenging; to make it difficult for the puzzle lover. We thought of introducing a hint system to help those feeling stuck, but finally we decided to increase the number of hints and clues available throughout the environment. So those feeling stuck can take special care in exploring the city. And who knows? They might stumble across the vital piece of information they need to progress. I have received many requests from gamers who claimed to be disappointed by many recent games they thought were too easy. Looking back with satisfaction and a sense of achievement over our completed game, I feel a certain confidence that the game will be challenging for most adventure gamers.
You've also boasted of the non-linearity of Nemesis of Ragnarok. Is it possible for the gamer to follow a 'right' or 'wrong' path, leading to different endings?
Baron Wittard is non-linear in that the story does not prevent the player from reaching new locations in the game environment. If the player cannot enter a specified room, it is because either the door leading there is locked or barred, or because there is some other secret route there. The player could enter that room if they found the correct key, or if they found a means of unlocking or unblocking the door, or if they found a secret passage way. But the story will not dictate to them where they can and cannot travel. There are a total of two endings in Baron Wittard, and these endings reflect a key decision the player must make, between good and evil.
Many thanks to Alan for his time.