Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Ben Jordan: The Sorceress of Smailholm Review

Ben Jordan's cases keep getting bigger and more challenging. The same holds true for the experience had by the player as well. The third case, The Sorceress of Smailholm, is certainly both those things, and a lot more.

The game follows Ben's first case outside of the United States.  He receives a call from a man from a small town in Scotland.  His two daughters have been murdered, and it's believed that witches were involved.  Ben once again meets an eclectic group of characters, including, for the first time, someone who is actively working against Ben because he doesn't believe in the paranormal.

As this game was created after the deluxe versions of the first two cases, and since this game doesn't have a deluxe version, there are some noticeable differences here.  The biggest difference is the lack of speech.  The game is presented entirely in the fashion of the first two games with the speech pack disabled.  The text depicting the speech of the characters is presented next to close up portraits of the characters in question.  The description text is presented in a black box in the middle of the screen.  The second most noticeable difference is in the character's portraits.  Instead of being designed somewhere in between cartoonish and realistic, the character portraits are heavily cartoonish.  Somewhat surprisingly, they still do fit in with the realistic style of the background art, but they are a bit jarring if you're used to the deluxe versions of the first two cases.  The other differences are more minor, from the different art of the icons, to the sound effect that is used when you gain points.  The latter is specific to the monsters of the case Ben's working on, rather than the growl sound effect used in the deluxe version of the first two cases.

The presentation has improved upon even the deluxe versions of the first two games in other ways.  The start of the game is presented with a cutscene, complete with credits, instead of just starting with Ben at the telephone receiving a case.  The latter is still there, but it acts as an after-credits sequence rather than the intro.  It's a more theatrical approach, and fits well, considering that the over-arching storyline of the series seems to be picking up steam here.  The music is also given a similar uplifting treatment.  It is also presented in a more theatrical style, with an almost orchestral feel.  The theatrical feel also extends to the closing credits, and ends with a note on how Ben feels about the case.  There are two different endings, depending on a condition near the middle of the game.  They could be considered "bad" and "good" endings, as one ending leaves questions unanswered and doesn't give the optimum amount of points available.  However, neither ending dramatically changes the final outcome of the game.

The game's puzzles have been improved upon as well. The puzzles are more challenging this time, and harken back to the Sierra games of the 1990's even more so than previous installments. Despite the challenge factor, they are still quite fun. There is one puzzle in particular that can be solved using the game's manual (found in the installation directory). This kind of puzzle solving has been fazed out over time, but it's still fun if done right. Thankfully, Sorceress of Smailholm does just that, as the use of the manual is completely optional.

Ben Jordan's cases keep getting better as they go on.  That once again rings true with The Sorceress of Smailholm.  As the game never received a deluxe version, there is no voice acting this time around, and there are noticeable differences in the art style.  This is offset by the improvements in the presentation of the rest of the game's aspects.  The storyline is bigger than before, and it is much more interesting as well.  The characters are much less one dimensional now, and the villains are more cunning than before.  The music and cutscenes are presented in a much more theatrical feel, adding to the bigger feeling of the scope of the game compared to earlier cases.  Despite the lack of voice acting, Ben Jordan Case 3 is truly the best yet, which is impressive in a series where each game has a place among the best free adventure games I've played.

Final Verdict:

4½ out of 5

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