Review by camera_j
"Past the Fence, Creak the Gate, Find the Key and Hope I'm Late. There's Letters on the Mat Upon the Floor."
Completely under-the-radar and just in time for Halloween `08, Aksys Games has localized Theresia ~Dear Emilie~, the latest adventure game from Workjam.
A company best-known for the detective series Saburo Jinguuji (Jake Hunter in the west), Workjam have tried their hand at something different with Theresia ~Dear Emilie~, by creating a horror-themed adventure.
The gameplay of Theresia ~Dear Emilie~ marries a 3D first-person maze navigation to 2D point `n' tap investigation scenes. It's a bit like Hellnight/Dark Messiah, except there's no characters to talk to and the 3D maze is on a clunky grid with no monster in pursuit. The player will also notice that there is a life meter, but there is no combat engine, nor are there are any antagonists in the traditional sense.
The 2D scenes involve looking and touching various items inside individual rooms, searching for typical adventure-game items, keys, and diary scraps, and then using these items where appropriate. But be careful, you may touch something dangerous, or trigger a trap. This is where the life meter comes into play. Touch something dangerous, and life will be lost. When the protagonist loses all of her life, it's game over. Draining the life bar completely is quite difficult, however: Most traps only drain a small bit of life (with only one or two obvious one-hit kills found late in the game), and the player may restore life with elixirs that are found in several rooms. There are also wooden 2x4 planks that are scattered throughout the game, apparently to test a suspected trap with. Most of the time, however, the 2x4s don't work with the hot-spots (perhaps intentional, or the coders forgot to program these instances in) and they are only required in one or two instances.
Much like Hellnight, the majority of the game revolves around fetch quests. Unlike Hellnight, the fetch-quests are overly convoluted: Find Item A in Room A, use Item A in Room B to get Item B, use Item B in Room A to get Key A, use Key A in Room B to get Key B, use Key B to open Room C, and repeat. Paired with the clunky, slow 3D maze, these two elements artificially increase the length of the game by several hours. If you wish you see this game to completion, you're in for a very, VERY long and quiet ride.
You're not completely on your own, though. Once you find a map, the top screen always displays your location. Using the map in the 2D scenes yields markers, with the name of each room you've visited and what you've managed to accomplish inside of them. Also included is an in-game hint system, which gives you one clue unique to each room. If there's nothing left to do in a room, you're explicitly told so. Though sometimes vague and unhelpful, the hint system will prove to be a big help in many cases.
Being an adventure game, Theresia ~Dear Emilie~ also occasionally suffers from the trappings of typical illogical puzzles. For example, in one segment the protagonist requires the strings from a violin. They're too tight to remove by hand. Try using the scissors to cut the strings, and receive the standard "you can't use this item here" message. I wandered around looking for another sharp object to no avail, the in-game hint system proving to be no help. Eventually I returned to the violin, and resorted to trying every item in my inventory to cut the strings. The solution? Firing a crossbow at the violin at point blank range. Really, WorkJam, you're serious?
Both the 2D and 3D segments may be controlled via the stylus or the buttons and d-pad, but I found the stylus to be overly cumbersome (especially in the 3D maze, in which you may only strafe with the L and R buttons) and I used the buttons and d-pad throughout the entirety of the game.
Theresia ~Dear Emilie~ is an extremely gloomy game. Making heavy use of sepia tones, the graphics successfully paint a bleak picture of the game world. The 2D rooms are fairly well detailed. When you encounter one of the many corpses littering the various rooms, the view is obscured and details are somewhat scant. This may just be up to laziness on the graphic artist's part, but one could argue that this choice in design gives an extra layer of creepiness, leaving the gory details up to the player's imagination. Or it could be a combination of the two.
The 3D maze is standard fare, resembling mid-era Playstation titles such as Persona or Hellnight. Once again, sepia tones adding to the atmosphere of the dank basements you'll spend the majority of your time exploring.
The game is scarce on animation, which really only makes an appearance when the player triggers a trap. An unimpressive three frame animation of the trap plays, followed by a less-impressive three frame animation of blood appearing on the screen. Theresia ~Dear Emilie~ manages to have less animation than a Sega CD or Turbo CD title, but given the nature of the game it's not that big a deal.
Theresia ~Dear Emilie~'s music is touch-and-go. There are about three main songs, with a few variations on each. The dark ambient tracks played in the subterranean levels are top notch, with a haunting, yowling synth pad fading in and echoing out every so often. It brings to mind the sound of an air raid siren, which fits in well with the theme of the game. The tracks played in the higher floors are fairly mediocre, though. The organ is the centerpiece of these tracks, but the arrangement is quite drab and derivative.
The sound effects aren't anything to write home about either. Everything is standard fare: creaking doors, clanging of metal, female gasps, the works. One sound that particularly stood out is the sound that plays when you access the in-game hint system: a composition of several female whispers, in Japanese, played out of sync with each other for a duration of 15 seconds. It's extremely atmospheric, and very effective. It's absolutely fantastic, and it makes it less of a chore to have to access the hint system. Unfortunately, later in the game it is replaced with the medley that plays when you drink an elixir, which is quite an unwelcome change.
At first glance, the game has nothing in common with the Saburo Jinguuji series. But as gameplay continues, one quickly learns that Theresia shares a glaring similarity with the series:
In the first chapter of Theresia, titled Dear Emilie, you step into the shoes (or at least, bare feet) of an amnesiac teen-aged girl, who has just awoken atop a bloodstained bed in an unfamiliar room. Upon feeling your way around the room, the player quickly learns that things aren't what they seem: most of the room's furniture is booby-trapped with life-draining spikes, needles, or arrows.
And it's not just the first room. Every room is filled to the brim with similar traps. Somebody wishes to torture this poor girl, and that somebody is Theresia's scenario writer (Youhei Sakamoto). During our heroine's quest to recover her lost memories, you will read sentence after sentence after sentence of highly-fetishized descriptions of knives slashing our heroine's arms, acid burning her fingers, and arrows sticking into her bare legs. It's almost pornographic, and absolutely bursting with bitter resentment towards the female gender.
As the game drags on (and it does drag, thanks to the aforementioned 3D engine), what little sympathy you have for the protagonist drains away when she decides that the sight of bloody, mutilated bodies is sexually arousing to her. It's all very un-needed, cementing the game's story in the category of shock-value you'd find in a teenager's notebook.
Once you've completed the Dear Emilie chapter, a second chapter titled Dear Martel is unlocked. Surprisingly enough, to Theresia ~Dear Emilie~'s credit, this second chapter is not a complete rehash, and takes place across a few completely different maps. However, this second chapter is an obvious rush job, and suffers from Silent Hill syndrome, in that over 50% of the rooms on these maps are nonexistent, with doors that can simply never be opened. This may not be a bad thing, though, as Dear Martel takes one about half the amount of time to complete as Dear Emilie.
Vaguely reminiscent of the violent adventure games for PC found throughout the mid-1990s, Theresia ~Dear Emilie~ was a very strange ride, and there aren't many titles like it available in English for DS, or in English period. While there is not much visual gore to be found, Theresia ~Dear Emilie~ earns its M-rating with its graphic description of dead children, bloated corpses, and its absolutely reprehensible main characters. So hats off to Workjam for evoking a genuine feeling of disgust in me, though perhaps not in the way that they intended.
Reviewer's Score: 5/10 | Originally Posted: 12/23/08
Game Release: Theresia (US, 10/30/08)
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