I sit here pondering what just came to pass, as my heart fills with sorrow. My thoughts, just moments ago malevolent beings roaming dark alleys of the subconscious, manifest on parchment in front of my very eyes, by my own hand no less. Is death only a sickness? Can insanity, in fact, be true clarity that leads to the cure?.
Belladonna, a Gothic point-and-click adventure by Neckbolt (I see what you did there), tells the story of a freshly re-animated woman trying to piece together the circumstances of her new un-life. If the first paragraph of this review felt like unnecessary padding, this game might not be for you. Almost all major story exposition is conveyed through journal entries scattered throughout the manor the protagonist explores. Herein lies the big issue: though technically a point-and-click, Belladonna plays more like a short story wrapped in a thin layer of adventuring. Journal entries, though well written and easily the most engaging part of narrative, appear so frequently that they break the flow of gameplay. Unfortunately, that gameplay is mostly uninteresting, as puzzles are few and their solution is often given away in dialogue or in the journal. Both elements struggle to form a coherent whole, interrupting each other and breaking any momentum one may have been building. This is all rooted in the game’s length. Veterans of the genre should breeze through in under two hours. In fact, it took more time to write this review than it did to beat the game. Given more space, each element may have hit its stride, delivering a much more satisfying experience.
The whole game feels rushed, like there was a lot more planned but for one reason or another never came to be. There are plenty of interactive background objects, for example, that I never found a use for other than a forgettable quip from the protagonist. They are either subtle elements of exposition that went completely over my head or pieces of puzzles that never made it into the final product. The rushed feeling is also evident in animations, which in most cases are simply “transitions.” It’s a shame because Belladonna’s art direction combines interesting, intentionally unsettling character design with beautifully drawn sprites and backdrops that are easily one of this production’s high points.
Belladonna’s music subtly sets the tone, but takes a back seat to other, more urgent sounds. Sadly, despite its competence, I found the score mostly forgettable, unable to recall a single note just minutes after the game ended. Although most of the story unravels through journal entries, Belladonna has a substantial amount of voice acting. The protagonist has a lot to say about the objects she encounters. Tess Baines, who lends her voice to all the speaking characters, does a fine job in most cases, but slips up somewhat when she attempts to emulate some sort of undetermined British (?) accent.
This brings me to some pet peeves. First is the inability to properly skip through spoken dialogue. While you can move subtitles forward by clicking, the audio continues at its own pace and simply ends completely when you finally click through all the subtitles. Secondly, there’s a lack of fast travel from door to door, and you instead have to wait as the character slowly waddles through room after room. Finally, there is no in-game options menu. Being a 2D point-and-click, it may not need hundreds of sliders to fiddle around with, but some things, like built-in sound and subtitle settings as well as an ability to play in windowed mode, would have been nice.
Belladonna wears it’s inspiration on its sleeves, nodding and winking at Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein with Monty Python levels of subtlety. Given more time, this could have been a worthwhile addition to the recently rejuvenated library of point-and-click adventures. Unfortunately Belladonna’s story suffers in the confined space it inhabits, which becomes even more evident during the few odd times the game offers conversation between characters. These Q&A segments attempt to tie any loose ends in manner similar to Bond villains explaining their sinister plans. A stark contrast to the poetic narrative offered by the journal.
It’s surely not for everyone, but anyone who enjoys Gothic settings and short stories might find that special something I evidently missed. A valiant effort by Neckbolt, Belladonna is less than the sum of its parts and leaves much room for improvement.