Amber: Journeys Beyond
Despite the fact that horror games were a pretty well-tapped genre, Amber: Journeys Beyond manages to find a pretty unique angle. In the game, you play as the friend of a zealous paranormal investigator. She has purchased a reputed “haunted house” in the North Carolina hills, and has been working there feverishly on new equipment for her company. As the game begins, she has fallen out of communication, and the VP of the company has asked you to check up on her. Upon arriving on scene, needless to say, you find that things have gone wrong. The kind of wrong that has left you stranded at the house, and forced to remember the details of Poltergeist ASAP. Joking aside, the opening section to the game is quite strong, and reminds me of the corporate technology-toys-with-nature tale that Michael Crichton would pen. Regardless of what you think of his work, it’s saying something that the plot of a video game could hold its own against a multiple New York Times bestseller.
Without giving too many of the surprises away, you learn that the house is indeed haunted, your friend’s company has made some highly advanced tools to detect ghosts, and the house has been wired from roof to floor with them. Aside from audio recorders that let you isolate the mumblings of spirits, and video cameras that record some pretty freaky stuff when you’re out of the room, the point of the game is the namesake AMBER device. This is a headset that allows you, more or less, to enter the spirit world and experience the strange mixing of present and past that the ghosts are trapped in. You become a sort of spiritual guide, and it’s your job to help these ghosts come to terms with their deaths, and move on to a better place.
This sounds slightly hokey, but Amber pulls it off convincingly. The game begins with a typical haunted house show – flying objects, dim lights, spooky ghosts, etc. Yet after you’ve been frightened on that level, you then start to understand and appreciate the unique situations of the individual specters as you help them in the spirit world. The spirit world itself comes off like a pretty mean acid trip, and you’ll be reliving the past lives of the ghosts while crazy Twilight Zone effects go down from time to time. Amber deals with some pretty disturbing stuff, including murder, suicide, rape, and drowning, but all are handled in such a way as to be uncomfortable, yet tasteful. The point of the game is not to shock and scare you with one horrific image after the next, but for you to help the confused ghosts escape their personal purgatory. In doing so, you will work backward from their death to understand why they died, then put to rest whatever unfinished business keeps them from the afterlife.
The game is made up of a series of static screens with some animated elements mixed in. Yes, it’s a Myst clone, with lower budget renders. Still, it works pretty well for this game, and rarely hinders your exploration. Unlike a number of adventure games, Amber did an admirable job of allowing me to look at whatever I wanted to, and interact however I wanted to, even if the objects had no bearing on the story. The Myst system works well for this kind of gameplay, and was the best choice for the time when it was released.
Renders, as I said before, do not have the same polished look as the Myst series, especially the scenes outside. The house and interiors look good enough, but the lake and woods look pretty rancid. Nothing showstopping, but the visuals definitely betray the game’s age and budget. However, QuickTime animations do mix in to the static backgrounds mostly seamlessly, breaking up the static screens and helping the situations come alive. You’re limited to a medium-sized 640×480 viewing window, which may bother some, but after a few minutes of play, you hardly even notice. The frame for the view window even has a unique look based on your location, and the ghost whose story you’re following.
For an adventure game, Amber is not very difficult, and adventure aficionados should breeze through it in a few hours. The puzzles are simple – not childish, mind you, but so logical that they are immediately grasped and solved. To turn on power, you flip the breaker. To figure out the proper settings for a piece of equipment, you consult its manual. Things get only slightly more abstract in the ghost worlds, only because they function like dreams, and therefore give reality little more than lip service. Still, puzzles are never so convoluted that they won’t be solveable. In fact, the most difficulty I had in Amber was with one sliding block puzzle, which I’m personally not good at to begin with. The only other trouble spot was navigating a lake during a blizzard, as the cursor does not accurately dictate where you will go in this section. Other than that, the game controls like second nature, and the puzzles are engaging, and not ridiculous.
As far as adventure games go, and especially Myst clones, Amber is far from revolutionary. However, it is competent, enjoyable, and interesting if you are intrigued by the premise.
Enjoyable adventure, clever story.
Neither challenging nor dazzling.