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Ekphrasis

by FibreTigre

Mystery
2006

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Number of Reviews: 4
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Et Puis Quoi Après, Un Labyrinthe?, January 11, 2013
by Sam Kabo Ashwell (Seattle)
An academic-mystery adventure about European art history. It's large, attractively illustrated and amusingly written, but (as with many games that have a lot of action territory to cover) doesn't work awfully well on the interaction front.

Gilbert Fontenelle, a crabby professor of Pre-Renaissance Italian art, is brought in to investigate a Mysterious Clue on a painting in the Vatican archives. This will end up taking him on a grand journey across Europe, on which he will discover ancient plots, rampage through a great many art museums, meet attractive, intelligent younger women and be grouchy to the latter. (They will find this endearing and gently needle him.) There are strong shades of Indiana Jones here, if Indy was frailer, grouchier, Frencher and much, much more interested in the actual content of his academic field. ("Sorry, beautiful," Fontenelle subvocalises to a Polish hostess, "Gilbert Fontenelle already has a vice: the study of Pre-Renaissance frescoes.")

The characters are thoroughly hammed-up, the action slapstick. Most conversation happens in (large) press-any-key-to-continue cutscenes, a lot of which are very funny: the comedy generally derives from Gilbert being a horrible grouch who hates everything, but who (despite protestations) is willing to engage in a great deal of impish mischief. There are a lot of fourth-wall-bending jokes; on several occasions Fontenelle grumbles about all the adventure cliches, suggests some more that would be even more ridiculous to encounter, and promptly encounters them. The conspiracy-and-mystery plot is not taken enormously seriously; (Spoiler - click to show)there does turn out to be an ancient and cloaked cabal, but they're mostly in it for the annual dinners. But the sense of a grand adventure through cool places is strong regardless. Also, though saying this feels kind of like a disservice to the author, everything is funnier in French.

My French is good enough to read IF (if I read aloud, and go to Google Translate for idiom, and the French version of Zarf's Play IF card for standard commands) but not really sufficient to judge the quality of prose, and the parts of my brain that scan IF for puzzle content don't link up well with the parts that read French. So, while I felt that a lot of necessary actions were heavily underclued, I'm not sure that this impression is fair. Less ambiguously, this is a full-sized story about fast-paced intrigue and action, with fairly traditional IF puzzles worked in. That combination tends to lead to punishing timed sequences and wobbly implementation, which is certainly true here. In other places (the Bond-ish card game, the final puzzle) the gameplay aspects make the pacing sag. It's admittedly difficult to twin certain kinds of plot to IF that plays smoothly, and Ekphrasis' failings here are hardly extraordinary. The game managed to be compelling despite this, largely because I liked the characters so much; but expect to grind your teeth at a few points.

It's not wholly bug-free, either; there's at least one-point where dropping an object makes it impossible to pick up again, rendering the game unwinnable. (The walkthrough at the Archive is not entirely to be relied upon, either, which can cause big problems in certain timed sequences.) It's not entirely clear whether the extant version was intended as a final release. Regular saving advised.

This is a game that's deeply interested in art history, and there's an appropriately extensive use of graphics The choice of images is generally excellent, particularly when it comes to setting. Their combination is less so, and often feels a bit clip-arty. (At the time, this was about as much as you could squeeze out of Glulx; I live in anticipation of what will ensue once the Euro IF crowd get to grips with I7 Vorple and native-language I7. If this entire game could be rendered in the style of the chapter-break postcards... that would be pretty spectacular). There are also sound effects, which are more squarely in the just-a-clip department.