There are two versions of the game, the original version, and the deluxe version which has improved art, an expanded storyline, and full voice acting. Unfortunately, there are only subtitles when the voice acting is turned off. It's a shame, because other than irritating voice of the protester, the voice work is pretty good, especially for a free fan game. Ben Jordan's voice did take a bit getting used to, especially since his is the voice you'll hear the most in the game, but as the story started heating up, I had definitely warmed up to it. There is also a man who is voiced well, but he speaks softly. I had to turn my speakers up to hear what he was saying. People who are hearing impaired or those of whom English isn't their first language will definitely need to opt for subtitles over voice work. You can do so in the setup program by unchecking the voice pack option.
Luckily, the story line is entertaining enough to sustain interest in the game even without the voice work. The search for the Skunk-Ape is interesting, and there are quite a few twists in the story line along the way. The characters that Ben Jordan gets to meet and interrogate along the way are each given quirky, but believable personalities. They are all a bit extravagent in their own way, but their appearance in and around a state park is completely reasonable. The storyline is mostly serious, but there is a lot of humor sprinkled in. Both the serious and the comical lines are written well, and the game straddles the fine line between the two very well.
The game is set up like Sierra adventure games from the 1990's. You can choose icons to walk, talk, and look either by hovering your mouse at the top of the screen or cycling through them with your right mouse button. The inventory, as well as the save and load screens, are also accessable at the top of the screen. The Sierra influence goes beyond the interface. When you use an icon with an item, there is a narrator who will make comments. This will yield useful information, but it is also the source for much of the game's humor. You'll find some references to classic adventure games tucked away in these comments.
The art work is very well done. It's all low resolution, in the style of the early 1990's adventure games, but it's done very well. Like those classics, they get a lot out of the small pixel space they have available. The background art is lovely, done in a realistic style, with a nice amount of detail in each scene. The characters are also done well. The sprites are understandably limited, but the close up art of the characters are done well. The aren't photo-realistic, and border between cartoon style and realistic, but they fit well with the style of the background art.
The puzzles are very much an homage to classic games, as there is no in-game hint system. However, each puzzle is designed very well, so for most adventure gamers help shouldn't be needed. Some of the puzzles require thought beyond what you are used to with the rest of the puzzles, which makes these puzzles some of the most creative in the game. Another thing I liked with the puzzles is the notepad system. Like all good investigators, Ben has a notepad and a pen. He will often automatically write down important information in regards to a puzzle, and his notes are available to the player by clicking on the paper icon in the menu at the top of the screen. This is handy, as there are times when you get stumped trying to determine how to obtain an item, only to forget the other items that are needed to complete a puzzle.
Case 1: In Search of the Skunk-Ape is a great start to the Ben Jordan: Paranormal Investigator series. The deluxe version is definitely the version to get, since it offers many improvements over the original. The art style, puzzles, and story are all fantastic. The game manages to combine humor and serious tones quite well. The voice work is mostly good, with a few exceptions. However, the characters who aren't voiced as well aren't on the screen for long, and don't hamper the experience. The one major drawback is the inability to have voice and subtitles on the screen at the same time. The more quiet characters fall into the category of annoyances as a result, which is a shame since they aren't necessarily voiced poorly. It's also a short game, but this can be forgiven since it's available for free. Even with the game's flaws I still highly recommend this game. It's one of the best free adventure games I've played.
4 out of 5