Can adventure games with a religious background be any fun to play? Mosaic Mask Studio‘s point-and-clicker Heaven’s Hope is out of development hell to prove nonbelievers wrong.
After accidentally losing his wings and halo, Angel Talorel falls down from Heaven to 19th Century Earth and ends up in the small town of Heaven’s Hope where the fanatic nun Greta wants to bring back the Inquisition, while Talorel has to find a way back up again.
Laughing and preaching
Getting humor right is difficult with so many different cultural aspects coming into play. Even something like Monty Python’s Life of Brian can be offensive to some people, while others find it tremendously funny. While Heaven’s Hope never reaches the same high level of British humor, it certainly tries to mix things up a bit. Having an angel on earth as an outsider looking at people’s strange behavior that somehow goes against the church’s or the nun’s rules is an interesting concept, but it only partly succeeds with its humanitarian message.
It’s ironic that Talorel does all kinds of bad things, e.g. stealing a list of customers from a merchant, in order to achieve his goals, something that would usually not even be a point of discussion in an adventure game, as the protagonist often picks up everything that fits into his or her pockets. However, late into the game, the angel sits in a confession booth and realizes how many small sins he did without realizing it. Now if the tone of the game was humorous throughout one could simply interpret this scene as another poking-fun-at-religion moment, but it turns out to be quite preachy, resulting in alternative narrative branches and puzzle chains. For Sunday church, this message should work, but as a seasoned adventure gamer one feels a bit insulted to have every action questioned in this way in addition to be presented with all sorts of bible references.
Fantastical setting and creatures
If one forgets about the not so subtle religious message, then one can find many great things to like about the world Talorel traverses. There’s a farmer whose background touches the Civil War, telling a tragic story about how he lost his wife and how he still remembers her by a stew she liked to cook. Then there’s a bar proprietress who complains about the alcohol prohibition, or a cemetery guard who has bad dreams and is afraid of ghosts. These are only a few examples of how memorable some of the characters are with or without much interaction, i.e. that most stay silent for the rest of the game if a certain puzzle is solved or has to be solved after a special event is triggered.
Special mention has to go to Talorel’s angelic companions Myriel and Azael who try to help him understand certain concepts and traditions on Earth. Some sarcastic remarks are quite witty, even if relying on strange pronunciations of words is a sad attempt at humor. Another example of not hitting the right funny notes is a painting of a red herring hanging in the bar with the sole purpose of having the player think about storytelling conventions.
In addition to these supernatural beings, one also gets to meet talking animals or even a tree who all have their unique human traits like slyness, superficiality and others. With quite a few places to visit, this makes Heaven’s Hope and its surroundings a believable world one wants to stay in for a while despite the dark religious undertone resulting in a story that takes itself too seriously.
In the hands of a puzzled angel
The puzzle design is varied, but not without its problems. Inventory-based object combinations are usually logical, even if using a mouse for cleaning a painting doesn’t belong to that category. One often has more than one objective to complete, and if one forgets about the current task(s), it’s always possible to check in a scribbled notebook that gives additional clues. Talorel can also ask his companions, but they’re rarely helpful, as they either refer to the notebook or state the obvious task at hand. A bit more situation-relevant information would have been nice in this case. The difficulty level is acceptable for beginners, but can be too low for advanced players. However, with different puzzle chains to solve, the reward to open up new dialogue options or visit places which were closed before is motivating enough to keep on playing.
While the solutions and problems don’t stay in the player’s mind for long as in classics like Monkey Island, there’s still enough to do. Unfortunately, some parts of the puzzle design feel as if the developer wanted to give more complexity but ultimately ended up with nothing more than a gimmick. So Talorel’s only special power is blowing life into creatures, talk to them and use a mouse for reaching inaccessible places. It’s obvious when to use these, and in a very short segment of the story one can even switch between three characters which again seems to be just there for the sake of doing what games like The Book of Unwritten Tales have been built around.
This holds especially true for piece-together-fragments-to-build-a-machine and what-urn-goes-in-which-grave-wíthout-going-against-special-rules puzzles which have been done to death in Puzzle Agent, Puzzle Agent 2 or the Professor Layton titles. A few mini games are also infuriatingly frustrating because of clunky controls, e.g. navigating a mouse to the top of stairs while jumping over barrels or keeping the little critter from falling off when losing balance, which happens far too often due to weird collision detection.
Aesthetically, the backgrounds and characters look great with a hand-drawn 2.5D style. Despite repetitive animations, some of these still fit the individuals and only suffer from slowdowns at times. It’s too bad that the game has long loading times before it’s possible to visit new and old places alike. The cutscenes which use an old film filter are great as well, even if they’re not as numerous as one would like them to be.
The soundtrack is fantastic and suits the fantasy location well, which can also be said about the voice acting the only downside of which is the main character. For whatever reason, Talorel comes across as very stilted, with very few situations in which he speaks as if he knows what he says. Maybe this was done for comic purposes, but as none of the other characters, including his celestial companions, speak in this way, the only explanation is that the voice actor wasn’t given the context or that he’s simply not suitable for the job.
A strange hybrid of fun and serious ideas
Heaven’s Hope looks very pretty, it sounds quite good, and there’s a lot to like in the standard but varied puzzle design. Unfortunately, it does all this by the numbers, only trying to stand out from the crowd of other point-and-click adventure games with its religious themes. It’s here where it falls down, as the main character isn’t that interesting and the story about demonic possession and salvation stands in contrast to the colorful fantasy world. As the first title of Mosaic Mask Studio, it’s a great effort, but to compete with all the other adventure titles flooding the market at the moment, the serious relies too much on allegories and the funny on often not so subtle humor, preventing both to create something coherent in the end.
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