The Watchmaker

2001 Trecision
Designed by Christian Cantamessa, Edoardo Gervino
Reviewed 2003 February 7

Rating +1 Linearity narrow
Reasonability sporadic Connectivity moderate
Difficulty difficult Relevance strong
Interface 3rd 3D simple Real-time minor

Darrel and Victoria are sent to a castle-now-hotel in Austria to search for a device that will destroy the world. It taps into the power of leylines, amplified by an eclipse -- okay, it's just magic blather. Our heroes have to find the device before midnight or bad things happen. The hotel is not public, but a corporate facility. Working as a team (alternately playing Darrel and Victoria), you have to question the employees and search the grounds.

There might be a good story in here somewhere, but it didn't seem too clear from the presentation. Your relationship with the people who run the place is unclear. The early part of the game largely involves learning about these people, but then the story turns and they become irrelevant -- they were only props for challenges. Largely good props, play-wise, but dramatically a disappointment. The real conspirators show up, and you enter a different game, dramatically disconnected from the first part.

There's a potential for a good conspiracy story here, but the pacing pushes it all into the endgame. The challenges also have little to do with the ultimate story, too. They are largely about gaining access to the locked and hidden corners of the estate.

Watchmaker has many clever, difficult challenges. In particular, a few require coordination between your characters. Unfortunately, these good challenges are countered by a lot of silly challenges, poor motivation, pixel hunting and poor object focus. The gameplay hits bottom in the endgame, where there are several timed sequences. Failure is fatal, and there's no autorestore.

The good challenges require a plan, and then several steps to implement that plan. Some also require knowledge about the characters, beyond the superficial. All challenges are solidly contextual, although a few strain mimesis.

As you take various actions, the time advances. There's no real-time aspect, though, it just responds to what you do -- you have to do the right thing to trigger the advance. However, the sequence is not completely linear. You have a lot of geographical freedom from a very early stage, and the gameplay consistently offers multiple challenges and triggers at any point. It's not wide open, but the scope is always wide enough so that you have to think about what you're doing.

This is a completely 3D game, with 3D puppets moving through a 3D world. The main view is third person, but you must also switch to a first person view for certain actions. The basic engine seems workable, but it is badly used here.

In addition to simple movement and view, there are special keys to allow certain more complicated movements. However, they're not used enough to become part of the player's lexicon, so when you need them, you've probably forgotten about them. So, in first person view, you can lean forward and back, and there's no good indication of when you would want to do so. You either waste your time trying it everywhere, or you miss the places where you must use it.

The same fault applies to the whole first person view. You can't move around in first person view, only get a different, usually closer, view of the current position. Better design of the world, the objects, and the camera position would make it superfluous. Or, conversely, the whole game could be redesigned for a first person view only, with no need for the third person view.

There are two distracting problems with the presentation. The camera is insane, constantly showing you the scene from useless angles, and sometimes jumping wildly through short cuts from one angle to another. The other problem is that there are sometimes gaps between the polygons, breaking the world up. Otherwise, the world is reasonably nice -- not up to pre-rendered standards, but attractive enough not to be distracting.

The puppetry is generally poor, with unnatural motions and gesticulations. This matches the low quality of the voice acting. Together, these make the characters distracting.

There are a lot of nits to pick in Watchmaker, but under them all is a good game fighting to get out. There's a lot to do, a lot to think about, and a lot that happens. It's one of the best mental workouts of recent years. The story may jump tracks awkwardly, but at least it's there "in the moment". It's worth it if you're into the problem solving aspect of adventure gaming, but not if you're primarily interested in exploration, ambience and story.

Beware! Here are some spoiler-ridden notes on the game. They're only recommended for people who have played the game and want to see some of my rationale for my evaluations.
David Tanguay's Game Reviews
Here's a description of all the gobbledygook in these reviews. It's also a bit of an essay on the nature of adventure games.