I’m going to assume you speak English. And if you’re reading this, let me inform you that you do. Hi, literate English-speaker! Say, remember when you first discovered adventure games? (NOTE: If you haven’t, go do so. Then come back. -Ed.) Wasn’t it great? It’s all sunshine and daisies for a while. The genre was the bread and butter of LucasArts and Sierra for a solid decade, so there are plenty of titles in which to sink your teeth.
But, eventually, you exhaust the back catalog. And on your third replay of King’s Quest 3, you begin to long for something new. So you hop onto the ol’ interwebs and discover that some of those mysterious “foreign” countries made adventure games too! And many are available in English! Oh, Kaloo Kalay! However, because adventures are driven by story and often feature humor, they are particularly susceptible to irreparable damage in the hands of a less-than-skilled translator. Add in a cast of voice actors whose primary exposure to English is subtitled reruns of Friends and the potential for disaster multiplies. It’s unfortunate, because unless you’re bilingual, the manhandled version of the game is your only point of reference. You’ll never know if the original was any good.
Anyway, just pontificating a bit there. I’m sure that will have nothing to do with my review of humorous Spanish adventure game Dráscula: The Vampire Strikes Back.
Dráscula, released toward the end of the adventure boom, is a conundrum from the start. Much like Bandai’s Frankenstein game, Dráscula has a subtitle that’s trying to convince me it’s a sequel. In actuality, its relationship to established Dracula lore is unclear. Sometimes it’s implied that Dráscula is actually the brother of the more famous Dracula, sometimes characters refer to Dráscula as Dracula. The Count also has an assistant named Igor and is in need of a brain for his homemade monster, so now we’ve officially crossed over into Frankenstein territory. Sure it’s a parody and doesn’t have to be reverent of the source material, but I’d like to have some inkling of the ground rules we’re working with.
You play as John Hacker who has traveled to Transylvania to meet Dráscula and discuss some kind of land deal in Gibraltar. While checking into a local inn, you meet and fall instantly in love with a blonde bombshell named (here comes the humor, folks!) B.J. Before you can finish chatting her up, Dráscula swoops in and kidnaps her, intending to pilfer her brain for his monster. Vowing to save her, you begin your quest to track down and defeat the nefarious Nosferatu.
In actuality though, your true arch-nemesis will be the game’s Godawful voice acting. Not all adventure games are voiced, so when I’ve got the option, I always play the talkie version. This was the first time I even considered turning the speech off. I’m sure the actors are lovely people. Some of them could, perhaps, carry on an intelligible conversation in English. But they mispronounce basic nouns, slur three words into one, and when it comes to delivering jokes in my native tongue, they are far from qualified. To give you an idea, they pronounce the N in “Damn it!” C’mon, expletives are the FIRST thing you learn.
Keep in mind that this isn’t some fan-made voice pack. These are the developer-sanctioned, paid-good-money, official English voices. Typically, I’ll turn off the subtitles on a voiced adventure, for a more cinematic experience. Here, they’re sometimes your only hope of figuring out what’s going on. Click here to have a listen to the setup for one of the most important puzzles in the game and see if you can make heads or tails of it without the aid of onscreen text. How’d you do? Your mentor Von Braun is essentially instructing you to roll your own magic joint, though he calls it a “brew.” Your character later blatantly tokes up, so I don’t think that was a censorship issue. You also have to figure out that by “a paper,” he means Kleenex.
The game’s Spanish, but I swear the actors sound Eastern European. And some of them are doing other accents. Hacker is supposed to be British but ends up reminding me of the Kazakhstani economics student I roomed with in college. Dráscula, presumably, is Transylvanian, but it sounds to me like he’s part Pottsylvanian and part Harrison-Ford’s-horrible-impression-of-a-Scottsman-from-Last-Crusade. These are some of the worst monster-related fake accents you’ll hear outside of a Julia Roberts movie.
Of course, it’s not all the actors’ fault. They’re reading from a poorly translated script. I don’t mean that the sentence structure is a little unorthodox. I’m talking glaring errors like using the word “towers” when they clearly meant “drawers.” And this is in a game where there are instances of the word tower in its proper context. Did they think the tall, cylindrical building and the tiny desk compartment shared a noun? After trying to push open an old gate, Hacker informs me “It’s not well parked.” Really? No one on the translation team caught that? One character swaps “did” and “didn’t,” completely fumbling a joke. A cupboard, wardrobe, and bookshelf are all labeled “closet.” Finally, the game seems to just give up and simply calls a series of items on a shelf “things.”
However, there’s an interesting twist to the translation problem. If you’re playing this game today, you’re probably using ScummVM, a great program designed to run old LucasArts games. Dráscula’s publisher Alcachofa Soft recently made Dráscula freeware and gave ScummVM their blessing to distribute it. In the process of adding Dráscula to their supported games list, ScummVM did some cleanup work on the English dialog text. On the one hand, this means the text is much better. On the other hand, the text no longer matches the voice. So while B.J. may say she heard a “strong noise” in the hallway, the written version of her line uses the more correct “loud noise.” This makes the already distracting vocals doubly so, since you’re now trying to pay more attention to the better-written text version. For me, that’s the last straw. If you give this one a shot, I recommend you turn the speech option off and play text-only. It’ll be a better experience and probably closer to the meaning of the original Spanish.
Once you overcome the translation issues, the game itself isn’t bad. Puzzles are standard adventure fair. You pick things up, use them in odd ways, sometimes combine them with other items, etc. The problem is that it’s not very difficult. I spent the first hour of the game amassing a collection of fairly random doodads, only to learn that nearly all of them were ingredients in the above mentioned “brew.” The dozen or so puzzles I thought I was preparing for ended up just being one.
Conversely, the logic can be a bit wonky. For a good while, I was coming across items that were clearly part of a disguise. Finding the final piece arbitrarily triggered Igor’s departure from his room in the castle. No real connection between those two events, but that’s a minor transgression. With Igor gone, I decided to check out his room, only to have the door slam and lock behind me. Now I was trapped, and started looking for a way out. But since the room was small and I’d already tried interacting with everything in it, the only thing I could really do was put on the disguise I’d just completed.
For no reason whatsoever, this triggered Igor’s return to the room. He mistook me for someone else and allowed me to leave the room, unquestioned. As I left, he gave me a key, the only item I actually needed to move the game forward. So I spent a good part of the game putting together a costume that I got to wear once for the sole purpose of leaving a room I didn’t really need to enter in the first place in order to obtain a key to a completely unrelated room. Doesn’t make a lick of sense, even by adventure game standards. You’ll run into other situations where a puzzle hint is mentioned fleetingly and never repeated, but again, there’s not that much to do, so whatever you’re doing is probably the right thing, even if you forget why you’re doing it.
Dráscula is very clearly trying to live up to its LucasArts predecessors. Ron Gilbert even gets a special thanks in the credits. And it’s well-deserved. In the first half of Dráscula, you run around a town, collecting items you’ll need to confront the bad guy. In the second half, you’re trapped in a big house, trying to save your girlfriend. Monkey Island plus Maniac Mansion. Unfortunately, with little of the charm and none of the originality of those games, Dráscula is rarely much better than mediocre.
You collect ingredients for a potion, you find keys to locked rooms, you talk to people to get helpful information, you listen to figure out what a character needs and you run off to find it for them so they’ll either give you a reward or leave you the hell alone. These are the tropes of the genre. But a good game uses them as building blocks to tell its own story and present its unique take on an old formula. Monkey Island isn’t fun because you get to run around picking shit up. It’s fun because Guybrush Threepwood wants to be a pirate, Goddammit, and we’re going to help him. You don’t play Sam and Max because you love thinking up elaborate new ways to obtain rope. You play it because you can’t wait to see what these two lunatics are going to do next. Drascula’s “find the girl, kill the bad guy” setup is weak sauce. And John Hacker never says or does anything endearing enough to make me care much about him.
The devil’s in the details and there aren’t any here. Looking at any unimportant item, and even some important ones, elicits only a standard “I don’t see anything in particular” type response from our hero. Abandon your hopes of a custom “you’re an idiot” response for each failed attempt to combine two items. A stock “I do not see the reason” is Hacker’s most typical comment. There are definitely jokes, but because of the translation, I’m not willing to comment on whether or not they were actually funny. A lot of the humor seems to come from cheap shots like naming your girlfriend “B.J.”, and making an anti-vampire reefer a key quest item. Didn’t really do it for me. Now, you could argue that the Larry games follow the same formula, but I always thought they were being more tongue-in-cheek about it. If Dráscula’s meant to be similarly ironic, the ham-handed translation makes that subtlety impossible to appreciate.
There a few wink-at-the-player jokes as well, but they seem derivative of better jokes in other titles. You meet a character whose only purpose is to stand in an alley and sell you an item you need. Hacker says as much, pointing out that there’s always someone like this in an adventure game. But it just seems played out. It’s 1996, people. Al Lowe wrote that joke on a napkin in ’89, decided it was passé, and blew his nose on it.
Speaking of the release date, the graphics aren’t particularly competitive for their time. The animation style reminds me a bit of Day of the Tentacle or Larry 6 which came out three years before Dráscula. This game is more a contemporary of Curse of Monkey Island which looked worlds more impressive, though admittedly it must have had a much bigger budget. But even compared to those earlier games, Dráscula’s art direction loses out, alternating between kinda sparse and kinda muddled. This actually hurts the gameplay in one instance, when opening a secret passage causes a bookshelf to completely block your view of a torch that you need in order to open a second secret passage. Incidentally, that’s two secret passages in one room, while two other rooms in the same area had no discernable function whatsoever. So, the level design’s not that hot either.
If you’ve played an American graphical adventure, you’ll recognize the interface. Your mouse pointer becomes one of seven different “verb icons” depending on the interaction you want to perform. Walk, Look, Take, Open, Close, Talk, and Push are all at your disposal. A glaring omission, however, is the normally all-purpose Use, which had all but replaced Open, Close, and Push in other games of the time. If you’re used to having it, you’ll definitely hunt for Use more than once while playing. The need for it becomes particularly apparent in one of the game’s final puzzles which expects you to employ Take in a completely illogical way.
Control is a bit troublesome. The game gets points for designing all the verb icons around Hacker’s hand (Close is a closed hand, Walk is a hand walking on its fingers, Talk is a hand mimicking a puppet, etc.) It’s cute and I don’t remember seeing it in any other game. But to keep consistent, the Look icon is some sort of weird hand with glasses and a cartoon eye. It’s a big, chunky icon with no clear point of interaction for you to aim with. This makes precision examinations difficult and contributed to my overlooking a few objects. Normally when you mouse over something important, you get floating text identifying it. But with the imprecise icon, you can fail to trigger this text and assume and object is just an insignificant part of the background.
Of course, there were also a few instances where float text didn’t appear even though I’m sure I was on the right spot. These seem to be bugs, but I don’t know whether they’re in ScummVM (and could be fixed in a future release) or in the game itself. I ran into a few other little bugs like this, but again I’m not sure who’s responsible for them.
This is no classic, but it wouldn’t be far from being a decent “more of the same” game if you were jonesing for a fix of adventure and not too discerning about the source. Unfortunately the poor translation knocks it down to “subpar” and the lack of originality in its puzzles or creativity in its presentation will place it firmly in the “not worth your time” category for most. It’s not awful, and it’s probably ten times better in Spanish, but I still can’t feel good about recommending it.
Has enough of what you expect from the genre to qualify as your next adventure fix. And it’s pretty likely you haven’t played it already.
The abysmal translation overshadows most of the potential enjoyment, which isn’t that enjoyable in the first place, since the story’s simplistic and the puzzles ain’t so hot.