First things first: I haven’t played the DSA (short for The Dark Eye(Auge)) board game, maybe had a quick glance at the PC RPG of old, so I can’t say how true to the original this adventure game is. But maybe that’s better, because it can answer the question if it’s suitable for people who don’t know it and who don’t get all the references. It certainly is, and here’s why…
The Dark Eye: Chains of Satinav (PC)
(Germany 2012, developer/publisher: Daedalic Entertainment, platform: PC)
A young man, cursed with the power to break objects and maybe more, is tasked by the king to go on a journey and find out what’s behind the rumors of the mysterious Seer coming back to life, an evil magician who gave the curse to the hero. But he’s not alone, as a fairy seems to be the only way to save the world and himself.
Emotions in games
Touching stories in adventure games have only recently been achieved by The Walking Dead, Heavy Rain or The Cat Lady. But those games took place in real life and a world so familiar to the player that they didn’t require a lot of imagination to set the scene (except for Rem Michalski’s game which is still unmatched in its powerful imagery). Fantasy games have become rare these days in the genre. The last big one would have to be Dreamfall and of course over ten years ago The Longest Journey. What made those games so great was how people would get lost in their mythologies as they traversed their worlds, met their memorable characters and simply lived the fantasy.
The lost world of high fantasy
Even if Chains of Satinav is based on a licence, it takes quite some imagination to create a world in which the player feels a part of, and even more talent as a writer to have characters he cares about. But what Franziska Reinhard, lead game design and story (with Tilman Schanen and Mark Wachholz), achieve is simply astonishing.
Geron and Nuri might not tell the most amazing life stories ever heard, but they don’t need to. It’s how their relationship is formed, how Geron has to struggle with his curse and his role as an outcast, how Nuri has to discover how hostile the world outside her safe haven in the woods is. There is always the constant question how Geron cannot only save her from physical harm, but also from lies and betrayal, even if he has to tell some himself. The way the story develops and how it ends is simply wonderful to follow and shows Daedalic’s ability to not only entertain but also move its audience.
In the course of their adventure, both protagonists travel through strange lands and meet their inimitable people and creatures. Some tell their own stories, some remain silent or speak in their own languages the player can’t understand (like the orcs do). The game plays a bit like a picture book, moving from one scene to the next, but despite the linearity and well-known fantasy tropes, it’s a refreshing alternative to so many other adventures of the past years which relied too heavily on real-life locations.
Picture perfect portrait
What makes the game world so picturesque is simply the amazing art design. Every background looks like a painting, it’s so detailed one would like to dive right in. Words cannot adequately describe how each location creates an atmosphere of wonder and/or melancholy. Not since The Whispered World and of course The Longest Journey has there been a more visually striking adventure game. What Deponia does for the comic, Chains of Satinav achieves for the fantasy genre.
Only the awkward character animations when walking or running could be criticized. Dialogues are shown in windows where character portraits only use their lips which are not synchronized. In a way, it fits the whole painting aesthetics, but it would still have been nice to have some more lively animations. What is also different from the game graphics are the cutscenes which have wood cutting visuals with a limited color palette. It needs some getting used to, but like the background graphics there is an artistic quality which would have been lost if CGI or more realistic graphics were used. At some points in the story the game graphics are zoomed in and used for this purpose, but the wood cuttings are definitely the better choice as they have their own unique quality.
Sounds soothing senses
Not only the graphics add to the immersion, but the beautiful, atmospheric soundtrack and especially the voice acting create a fairy-tale like atmosphere. At least in the German version (again I haven’t played the English one), every single character sounds convincing and this might just be the best localization in an adventure game for quite some time. It’s interesting that the language is of an elevated style and fits the fantasy tropes, but it never feels exaggerated, as it naturally fits the world on the screen. Like the compelling storyline do the character’s conversations bring life to a gaming world few adventure games have lived up to despite their many monologues and dialogues.
Priceless puzzling people
With so much praise for storytelling and presentation, what about the game itself, the puzzle design, something aficionados of the genre would be eager to know? Of course the game can’t compete with puzzle chains as in Deponia, but it doesn’t have to. The tasks are rather simple affairs and as some places only consist of one screen, the solution is never far away. Only in certain parts of the story does the puzzle design become a bit more complex, original and probably more interesting for advanced players. The puzzles may not be the most innovative and memorable, but they never feel as contrived as in other adventure games, just to make them longer.
Special mention has to go to the cooperation between Geron and Nuri. The fairy can’t be controlled directly, but her ability to fix objects which have been broken, has to be put to good use, like Geron’s way of breaking stuff. Again this is wonderfully interwoven into their relationship as the fairy sometimes comments on the young man’s way of (mis)treating the environment. Geron himself is very much aware of the difficulties he faces with his powers, which adds another layer to the tried and tested formula so often used in adventure games: try everything no matter what the consequences are.
A classic adventure par excellence
Linearity in adventure games usually brings forth some negative connotations. A game like Gray Matter was probably the pinnacle of triggered events in which the player had to play in a specific order and do rather mundane and illogical things to progress in the story. Chains of Satinav is a classic point-and-click adventure and relies on the tropes of doing one thing after another, only seldom going in the open-world-with-puzzle-chains direction a game like Deponia does. But again it doesn’t need an overcomplicated design, as games with too many puzzles often lose themselves in obscurity and make the player forget that there’s a story somewhere (except for the excellent What Makes You Tick which achieves both storytelling and puzzles in an organic way).
Daedalic’s interpretation of The Dark Eye is a wonderful exercise in bringing a well-written script to life with a presentation in background graphics unmatched in 2D adventure games. The characters are believable, the story told with love to detail, the world is wonderful to look at and the sound design is excellent as well. A marvelous achievement and contender for best classic point-and-click adventure of the year.