The Dark Eye: Chains of Satinav is a game that caught me totally off-guard. Having had the opportunity to spend an extended period of time with it at E3 2012, I knew this was a game I had to get my hands on. Based on a very popular German tabletop RPG, Chains of Satinav takes place in a relatively unexplored portion of that world, which gave developer Daedalic Entertainment license to create something fresh and new for the storied franchise. And now, having played it to completion, I can say without hesitation that they have built one of the best point-and-click adventure games to come about in many years.
The hero, a down-on-his-luck birdcatcher by the name of Geron, is a snarky, likeable guy I grew more and more attached to as the game progressed. The plot starts out humbly enough, with Geron scrambling to win a local challenge that will grant him the favor of the king and, hopefully, help him escape the shadow of a dark prophecy that has haunted him since childhood. He quickly meets up with Nuri, a fairy with an adorably short attention span, and together the two traverse a variety of incredibly beautiful (and in some cases, dangerous) locales in their quest.
The dynamic between Geron and Nuri is among the strongest of the game’s many strong points. Their conversations are believable, interesting, and at times heartbreaking, and each new scene affords a variety of opportunities for commentary and cooperation. Many puzzles require clever use of both characters and their special abilities – a particularly great example requires Geron to distract someone with inane questions while Nuri, quite literally, goes fishing for the man’s valuables. Their dynamic never gets tiresome, and thanks to that, some late-game plot developments hit the player as hard as they hit Geron himself. In my eyes, Geron and Nuri are truly the Ico and Yorda of the point-and-click genre.
Helping flesh out the relationship between Nuri and Geron (as well as the myriad of other memorable characters you run across) is the excellent writing and localization. There is the occasional awkward sentence or unclear pronoun reference, but by and large, this is an outstanding translation from the German, and every character speaks with a distinctive and charming voice. Some of the dialogue is laugh-out-loud hilarious, and the more dramatic portions are handled with equal deftness.
The core gameplay here is a well-executed brand of the tried-and-true point-and-click adventure style. Geron must grab everything that isn’t bolted down and wring every last scrap of information out of everyone he meets. Thoroughly exploring each area is essential, as is matching round pegs with square holes as you combine various objects in Geron’s inventory to solve the multitude of conundrums he and Nuri are faced with. The puzzles are mostly logical, though on occasion you may find an obscure goal or perplexing inventory combination impeding your progress. Those who need a helping hand will find a full suite of tools at their disposal, including the ability to highlight hotspots in each area or point out objects with which there is a valid interaction, as well as color-coding to help you mix and match just the right inventory items for the situation. These are all totally optional tools, and I found that completing the game without them was perfectly doable, but their inclusion makes the game that much more accessible.
Another wrinkle in the gameplay comes in the form of Geron and Nuri’s respective magic spells. Geron has the power to break fragile objects from afar, while Nuri can mend and repair things that are broken, provided all of the component pieces are still present. The magic is representative of each character’s personality, and thematically plays into the game extraordinarily well. Together, these spells really give the game its own flavor and help ensure that the puzzles are complex and interesting without becoming overly obtuse. Oftentimes the answer will be sitting right in front of you, and it will take a comment from Nuri or a bit of lateral thinking to remind you that, “Oh yeah! I can break that thing from far away!”
In our E3 2012 preview, we gushed over the graphics, and with good reason. The game looks utterly fantastic. Each background is hand-painted, high resolution, and full of color. Everything is hand-animated, and the effect is spellbinding. One of the great joys of the game is reaching a new area and seeing all that it has to see, and this feeling only intensifies as you visit increasingly mysterious locations as the game wears on. Every scene typically features some animation, and a few include fully hand-animated water, which always looks beautiful. Unlike many hand-animated games, the characters are not polygonal and are also hand-drawn – this allows them to fit into the world perfectly and move with fluidity. Dialogue scenes (which feature branching responses, giving the game a bit more replay value) utilize a close-up view that showcases many subtle facial expressions while people are talking. The game’s graphics are undoubtedly a huge selling point, and they look stellar.
Unfortunately, both the high-end PC and the mid-range laptop I played the game on suffered from serious performance issues. Anything animating onscreen consistently caused the game to briefly freeze, mouse movement to stutter, and dialogue to drop out of sync with the onscreen events. This also caused many animations to appear much choppier than they would have had the game been running smoothly. Scene transitions and menus also suffered from similar problems, with load times sometimes reaching upwards of twenty seconds. Fortunately, a quicksave button allows you to mostly avoid the main menu. Other RPGFan editors didn’t seem to have this problem, but it was a constant annoyance for me during the otherwise fantastic experience.
The audio meets the standard set by the graphics and gameplay handily. Geron and Nuri’s voice actors perform exceptionally, inflecting in all the right places and really giving their characters life. The vast majority of side characters perform equally well and will captivate you with their delivery – though there are a few who are just a tad bit grating (just wait until you meet the angry woman in the bathhouse). The background music is fully orchestrated and lavishly produced and written, helping to extend the game’s fairytale atmosphere even further. The main menu theme in particular is haunting and sets the tone exceptionally well.
A feature that many point-and-click games lack these days is the opportunity to explore and learn non-essential information about the game world, but Chains of Satinav handles this beautifully. While the left mouse button typically handles actions and interactions, both buttons offer different contextual information and occasionally entire conversations about the object in question and this goes a long way towards world-building. Additionally, rather than a generic “this doesn’t work” message, incorrectly using inventory items can sometimes lead to Geron musing to himself about why that is a bad idea. All of these factors come together to ensure that the world has some depth beyond the surface, and this creates an attachment between the player and the world that few games since the seminal 90’s age of point-and-click titles have managed.
Chains of Satinav is a game that showed up on my radar unexpectedly, but has handily become one of my all-time favorite adventure games. The experience is remarkably evocative of the fairytale-like adventures of the King’s Quest series, and nearly every facet of the game is remarkably well-executed. The performance issues I encountered and the abrupt ending are definitely conspicuous in juxtaposition with how great the rest of the experience is, though. The ending is particularly jarring considering how attached you become to the characters and their struggles, but in recent years this is something I’m sadly becoming more and more accustomed to (check out Gray Matter for another example of a great journey with a less-than-meaty finish), so it’s hard for me to care too much – especially in light of how good everything else is. This is a game that every adventure fan should own, and the reasonable price makes it an even easier pill to swallow. Daedalic Entertainment has made a fan out of me – and Gwinnling would approve.