The Raven – Legacy of a Master Thief certainly isn’t the most high-profile release of the summer. Its name may not ring a bell to you, or perhaps it’s not even on your radar at all. And if you aren’t a connoisseur or at the very least a casual fan of point-and-click adventures, well, it’s entirely possible you have no clue what I’m talking about. The trouble is, after playing through the first chapter of The Raven and taking some time to digest its finer points, I’m still conflicted about whether the game has what it takes to appeal to, well, anyone who doesn’t already know about it.
The Raven takes place across various European locales in the 1960s, and is both directly and indirectly centered around the affairs of its namesake – a notorious criminal mastermind known as the Raven. After a supposed defeat at the hands of famous detective Nicolas Legrand in 1960, there’s word that the Raven has returned at the top of his game, and it’s up to unassuming Swiss good-cop Anton Jakob Zellner to help get to the bottom of it, whether his assistance is wanted or not. I’ve always wanted to play as a balding, middle aged Switzer, and now I can.
Like most point-and-clicks, the gameplay is centered around exploring various scenes, examining objects, combining objects with other objects, and harnessing your sleuth powers in order to track down clues. A tutorial early on walks you through this as you wrap an apple in old paper and chuck it in the garbage, at which point you pretty much have everything you need to know. I haven’t played loads of point-and-clicks, but I have played some visual novels with similar puzzling segments like the Zero Escape series, and I found myself having numerous flashbacks. Virtue’s Last Reward is easily my favorite game in the last two years, so I was understandably thrilled to find my brain drawing such a connection.
Unfortunately, many of similarities end there. The sleuthing segments in the first part of the game are often both frustrating and maddeningly linear. For example; there is a point early in the game where our lovably rotund protagonist needs to pick a lock. He muses that something sharp or perhaps a bit of wire would likely do the trick, if only he could just find some. With that in mind, I began searching for something of that nature. I spoke with every person in the scene, scoured every nook and cranny, and left no table, chair, drawer, or even coaster unturned. More than an hour later, I had nothing. In my frustration, I wandered outside the coach (the first scene is on a train) for some fresh air, and noticed a small box close to the ground. Upon examining it, a child character named Matthew who I’d met earlier appeared out of nowhere and played a prank on me, which allowed me to talk to him in the car once he’d left, which then led to him mentioning that his mother carried hairpins. It was only then that I was able to ask his mother for a hairpin to help pick the lock, as up to that point speaking with her resulted in Zellner expressing a desire not to bother her.
Now, I know that to an extent this is how things are supposed to work, but there are a number of problems with the execution here. It’s not like finding Matthew’s toy pistol is what triggered him to appear, or a conversation regarding his mother, or really anything having to do with him at all. It was examining a seemingly-random box that triggered his appearance. The connection felt so forced and arbitrary. It screams “videogame!” with such barefaced, obvious matter-of-factness that it may as well be printed in neon lettering on the game’s packaging. Or better yet, maybe a voice should have come over the train’s PA system with an announcement. “Alert! Just in case you have become immersed in this admittedly engrossing tale, here is a reminder that it is not real. Thank you.”
I’m not just harping on this one instance, either – such moments permeate the better part of the chapter’s first half and more, depending on the tolerance of the player. Zellner consistently pledges his allegiance to linearity, as he routinely fails to allow the player to think ahead. Want to axe down the door of a burning, runaway train? Too bad – you’ll have to find an obscurely located emergency brake first, and confirm that you cannot, in fact, just stop the train by pulling it. After that, you’ll need to track down a towel, wet it, and try opening the scalding door using the towel as protection, which promptly fails. Then you can use the axe. Then, in an unexpected twist, Zellner proceeds to use the axe for the next five or so tasks! Want to open the door? Axe it. Can’t reach the couplings between train cars? Axe them. How about loosening the couplings? Axe time, baby. The couplings are loose now and can probably be twisted off manually, but hey, why not swing this axe some more? I was so utterly perplexed by certain design choices by this point in the game that I actually had to step away.
And then… the clouds parted. The sun came out. And things started to pick up. I really don’t know what happened during development about halfway through chapter one of The Raven, but all of a sudden it starts to resemble something fun. Free from the oppressive innards of disorderly train cars, Zellner wanders an outdoor environment, speaking with mingling characters and looking for clues. It’s sunny outside, the visuals look genuinely impressive, the conversations are interesting, and you can investigate at your own pace without having panic attacks while you search for the needle in a haystack that will trigger Superman to appear. The shift is tangible, and the new and improved pace pretty much keeps up through to the chapter’s end. You’ll wander the halls of a sizeable cruise liner, look for clues, track baddies, and pretty much become an all around deductive badass, outdoing even Legrand himself in some cases.
Oh, had I mentioned Legrand yet? With such straightforward gameplay (charmingly-so towards the end), a game like this puts heavy stock in its story and characters, and once again, the game delivers…eventually. In fact, the shift in quality is almost identical timing wise to the shift in the interestingness of gameplay. Nicolas Legrand is, of course, the acclaimed detective who nailed the Raven the first time around, and true to the game’s late bloomer nature, he starts out as a complete dunce. Upon pestering him enough that he allows you to assist him, and checking out his on-train hideout, he remarks that you ought to “knock twice” when you return, so that he can know for sure that it’s you. These are the methods of the world’s greatest detective? Additionally, his stubbornness assuming the new criminal must in fact be the Raven is confusing and makes him look shortsighted, not brilliant. Now, this could be deliberate, but I found myself seeing Legrand as an annoying, suspicious poser more than anything else.
That is, until the chapter’s second half, where once again things pick up. Legrand transforms from an annoying Captain Obvious to a determined, hardworking investigator who goes days without sleep in his frenzied pursuit of outdoing the Raven in a battle of deductive gymnastics. All of a sudden we can relate to this guy. His voice strains as he addresses Zellner, he reveals information about his past, and all of a sudden, I care. I care about Legrand’s well-being, I care about Zellner’s desire to crack a big case, and most importantly, I care about catching the Raven.
If you’re wondering why exactly I spent so much time harping on the bizarre dichotomy of quality this game displays between its first and second halves, it’s mainly because as a reviewer, I have to give the thing a rating. And sometimes a lower rating leads to gamers ignoring a game completely. Though the first chapter of The Raven – Legacy of a Master Thief eventually hits its stride and comes into its own in time for an exciting conclusion, I can’t simply ignore the major design goofs and bland characterization that permeate the first two hours (and more if you get stuck looking for a barely-visible fire extinguisher which is apparently the only way in the universe to break off chair legs). If you like point-and-clicks, you’ll come to love The Raven. If you’re curious about the genre and want to try something new, your patience with the game will likely be rewarded. But what if you’re a busy gamer with an ever-growing backlog of surefire excellent titles to play? Well, in that gamer’s case, I can’t say I’d blame him for skipping out on this.
The second chapter will see a release this August, and if it keeps up the good work from here on out (and into chapter 3), then the package as a whole will no doubt be a keeper. Until then, though, I reluctantly can offer chapter one in its entirety no more than a resounding “meh.”
This review is based on the PC version of the game, which was provided for us.