Three Cards to Midnight Review

Even though I haven't played many of the Tex Murphy games I did manage to play one called "Under a Killing Moon". The game was truly ground-breaking for its time. Actors were captured on video and then digitally rendered into the game and you were able to move around in a 3D world much like you did in FPSs of the time (but this was rare or unheard of in adventure games). Also the conversational system was innovative since you chose how you wanted to reply not what you wanted to reply, which means you never knew quite what was going to be said next. The only game I've seen recently that does something similar is Mass Effect.

You can understand I was quite excited then when I heard that adventure gaming veterans Aaron Conners and Chris Jones were back at the helm of a new mystery adventure game called "Three Cards to Midnight". The game is now finished and available for download from their site, so let's see what it's like!

(Oh as a sidenote, I was unable to take videos of this game for some reason, so I took screenies instead, sorry!)

Sound (3/5)
Kudos to Big Finish Games for getting professional voice actors for their game which helps to bring life to the dialogue and cutscenes in the game. Unfortunately the sound quality is very poor for an adventure game and it even occasionally stutters during cutscenes, making it hard to work out what is being said. Of course, the sound quality was probably reduced to make the game smaller overall so it wouldn't take so long to download, however it must be mentioned that it does impact on the experience somewhat.

Music (3/5)
There is some good atmospheric music in the game, the composer Matt Heider (who collaborated with Aaron Conners and Chris Jones before on Tex Murphy: Overseer) did a good job in making the music spooky, eerie or dreamy when it needed to be. However, once again the quality is poor and grainy, and it's probably for the same reasons the sound quality was reduced: to ensure the game size was reasonable for downloading purposes.

Graphics (2/5)
I know graphics don't maketh the game but you know, you kind of expect some crisp visuals in adventure games and I'm sad to say they aren't in this game (except for maybe the UI itself and the level puzzles). The actual graphics for the rooms where you play most of the game is very pixellated, so much so that it can be detrimental to your success! Since the core gameplay for Three Cards to Midnight is hunting for objects in a room that are associated with a word (more on the gameplay later) it's crucial that you can see what object you're clicking on and it doesn't help if it's just a mangling of a few pixels not resembling anything at all. Also the cutscenes while generally functional could be better. Sometimes the animations for the actors aren't very fluid and some scenes are just plain bad (one scene has a guy firing a gun but the only way you can tell is by listening to the audio since there is no muzzle flash).

Plot (5/5)
Unfortunately this might be the only section where the game excels but you wouldn't expect any less when Aaron Conners and Chris Jones are in charge. The game is an excellent paranormal mystery story and since you can choose the order to reveal cards in the game (which in turn reveals which cutscenes you'll get) the story is told slightly differently each time you play it.

At its core, Three Cards to Midnight is a word association game. The bulk of the game has you picking a tarot card which will reveal a location or room. Your job is then to click on objects in the room that relate to the key words that are linked to the room. For example if the keyword is "honey", if you see a teddy bear in the room, clicking on it should give you points for the associating "honey" with "bear" to give "honey bear". Accumulating enough points in a room will trigger a cutscene or memory. Also you can do traditional puzzles in each room which is also dependent on you accumulating a requisite amount of points. How well you do the word association and the puzzles will determine the "power" of the tarot card you initially picked. This comes important later in the game since the more powerful the card the likelier you're able to beat your nemesis. The game is also divided into chapters and there are three tarot cards in each chapter.

It is good that because of the ability to be assessed on your performance, you can have different potential endings to the game, which isn't a common feature in adventure games. However, it is these very puzzles that make the game annoying. To me, puzzles are fine (even though I'm not very good at them) but word association is kind of dull and not exactly the most riveting gaming experience. Another problem with using word association as the gameplay mechanic is that the game turns out to be very "American-centric". For example, they use "cell phone" instead of "mobile phone" (so you might end up hunting for the wrong thing) - also there are American cultural things like "Flag Day" and "Martin Luther King Day" which don't exist outside the U.S. This ends up severely limiting who can play the game successfully since even native English speaking Australians and British may struggle on some rooms.

Replayability (3/5)
Unlike most adventure games, there are multiple endings to Three Cards to Midnight depending on how well you perform puzzles and which cards you pick at the end of the game. This creates some replayability value for the game. However, I'm finding it hard to persuade myself to do so. There's something missing due to the puzzle solving being only loosely related to the cutscenes - traditional games are usually better in this regard. For example, in the Secret of Monkey Island, firing off a crudely made catapult will result in comedic effect by the accidental sinking of your ship. In Three Cards to Midnight, scrambling to find random objects in a room that are associated with the word "sugar" or "honey" or "love" will trigger off a memory where the key word is mentioned - it may feel good the first time around but some of these cutscenes are only short snippets and not very memorable on their own.

The game does appear to have DRM (or at least a serial key check) but it's pretty non-intrusive so it's no big deal. The game's interface is also pretty good too with a very helpful tutorial system. However, there are a couple of bugs out there. One of them involves clicking on a seemingly empty game button but when you do, it freezes the game. Also it seems that you're unable to skip the credits screen, which is rather annoying too. Fortunately these are either hard to find bugs or ones that don't get triggered that often.

Overall - 58%
Not a bad first outing for Aaron Conners and Chris Jones, but the poor artistic elements (which tend to be important in graphical adventure games) and word association gameplay lets it down. Let us hope the next game Aaron Conners and Chris Jones works on, which sounds like it might be a new Tex Murphy game, fares better.