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Chris Jones' Adventure Game Studio is the platform of choice for some of the greatest adventure games in recent memory. It has been the bread and butter of developers like Wadjet Eye Games, Cloak & Dagger Studios, Harvester Games, Screen 7, Blazej Dzikowski, and many more. The AGS community is a lovable bunch, always happy to play each others games, help troubleshoot issues with development, and give a respectful critical eye. Their ability to create independently and cooperatively - individual projects complemented by the likes of Reality on the Norm, a chain game started by Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw in the early 2000s - creates a sense of cohesion and team spirit between this ragtag group of indies.
One of these indies was Francisco Gonzalez, aka Grundislav Games, the one-man show behind the Ben Jordan series. Ben Jordan has been a consistent staple within the AGS community from 2004 to 2012. Now, it's not the most outstanding series to ever arise from the medium. The graphics range from mediocre to eyesore, the stories fun but simple, the characters fine but rather flat. But it is one of the most representative of all the things the AGS community holds dear. There is something undeniably interesting about Ben Jordan. From a community perspective, it is perhaps the most notable and largest freeware series released through AGS, the last of its kind before companies like Wadjet Eye and Screen 7 took it into the professional market. Ben Jordan is then a milestone in indie gaming, a symbol of the kind of games being put out pro bono by AGS developers in the mid-2000s.
From an objective videgame critic's perspective, Ben Jordan is the plain yogurt of adventure gaming. A standard, a starter. Not exactly bad by any means, but more a base to improve upon. It is an effective measurement device for adventure games. Any game better is great; any game worse, not so great.
To preface, let it be known that Francisco Gonzalez has, despite the flaws in these games, grown into a fantastic developer. Game making is a tough hobby, one that requires a huge amount of dedication and fortitude. The fact that these games were written, designed, coded, and altogether conceived by him is quite the achievement.
After this extensive journey in freeware, his first commercial game A Golden Wake proves to be way more than plain yogurt. Anyone who can take 1920s Florida real estate history and turn it into a thoroughly compelling game deserves some kind of award. And now that Shardlight, his second project under Wadjet Eye Games, codeveloped with friend and lauded pixel artist Ben Chandler, has been released, we know for sure he is capable of creating some truly remarkable adventure games. If he hadn't made Ben Jordan then he wouldn't have made those first steps toward achieving that.
At the center of these games is, of course, Ben Jordan. He is a recent college grad with a love for the paranormal. He decides to follow through on his interest and become a full-fledged paranormal investigator-website and all. His grandpa is the only member of his family who every supported his love of the paranormal. Aficionado of green pants.
Percival Quentin Jones
Introduced in Case 3, Percival is the resident exposition man. Criminology Professor at Oxford. He starts out as the Scully to Ben Jordan's Mulder, albeit in a hostile and condescending dynamic. He becomes much more friendly and protective toward Ben as the series progresses. May or may not have mysterious secrets.
Introduced in Case 4, Simon is an English lad who effortlessly becomes best friends with Ben. A ghost hunter from Birmingham, Simon is an all around amiable guy. He likes teasing Ben about his affections for Alice. Oftentimes egregiously so. Resident right-hand man, defined principally by his trustworthiness and occasion comedic relief.
Love interest alert. Also introduced in Case 4, Alice is a Harvard parapsychology student who immediately pals up with Simon and Ben, completing the brunette buddy trio. She and Ben become increasingly more affectionate as the series goes on. Like Simon, her personality is mostly defined by her relation to Ben. Seems to have her life more in order than either of her two friends though.
Each case of the series focuses on a different urban legend. The first features the Skunk-Ape. In case you aren't a cryptozoology buff, this creature is said to dwell in the swamps of the southeastern United States. It is described as big and viscous. Basically a smellier counterpart of Bigfoot.
Case 1 is set in the Everglades, in Gonzalez's home state of Florida. A man has been murdered, the conditions of which are too vicious to have been made by any human or typical animal. The rangers hire Ben Jordan to cover all their bases-perhaps it really is the work of the Skunk-Ape. As his first big break as a paranormal investigator, Ben is beyond excited to get going and solve the mystery. If he can get out with his skin still intact, that is.
As a first release, one shouldn't go into Case 1 with grand expectations. There is little by way of character development or overarching plot here. Basically a monster-of-the-week episode. It has some little quirky charms for sure, such as the awkward side characters, and an interesting end-game plot twist. Mostly though it plays as a straight paranormal mystery story with little nuance. Ben Jordan has not yet been given a lot of backstory beyond the basic setup.
Regardless, Case 1 sets up the template for the series-intro, mystery, adventuring, twist, resolution. The puzzles are mostly inventory-based, not too difficult nor too easy. There's nothing quite wrong with it, but nothing outstanding either.
A word on the interface: the whole Ben Jordan series is guilty of way too many icon options. There are even two different speech icons, one for questions ("?") and one for small talk ("!"). It isn't too awful to deal with for those used to Sierra and LucasArts adventures, but in this day and age with the two-button mouse-click interface as the standard it can feel like a bit much.
People have purportedly seeing a Spanish Galleon sunken into the deserts of the western United States since the latter half of the 19th century. These claims essentially boil down to the tall tale of an old conquistador who stored untold treasures in his galleon and who tragically drown after the ship sank in one incident or another. Then, after the sea in which it sank dried up, this galleon was buried and lost in sand. After years of winds blowing to and fro, the galleon is apparently uncovered, sparking the interest of hopeful treasure hunters.
The second case finds our intrepid hero Ben Jordan in Dunesberg, California, having been called to action by a woman who believes that her husband has gone missing in search of the Lost Galleon. In order to find the missing man, Ben must go on the trail of the galleon as well.
One can expect minor improvements in Case 2. There are still too many command options, which can be distracting. The "!" is still largely unnecessary. It takes a bit too long to get to the juicy paranormal bits, and most puzzles are mundane obstacles-help a man finish a poem, get an indecisive man out of the way in a coffee shop. Ben Jordan as a character, too, is still too one-note.
Perhaps the most grating thing is that there is still an evident dichotomy between puzzles and story. It is tough to find the connection between the two at times, and a sense of the player progressing in their search for the galleon is lost in the tedious exercise of accomplishing all these insignificant tasks. In other words, the puzzles showing up aren't quite enough. They add little to the story, setting, or characters, an essential part of player ever getting invested in the game's universe.
Some of the comedy is more interesting than the first game-if not exactly funny, it is at least pleasantly weird. A sequence in which Ben helps a merman escape from his exploitative parent in particular welcomes comparison to Sam & Max Hit the Road. None of it is especially unique though, with the feeling that it is borrowing from other sources in a sort of awkward mishmash of inspirations. The medicine man ripped from the Sean Connery film of the same name is great, at least.
Case 3 finds Ben summoned to the small Scottish village of Smailholm, where a young girl has gone missing. The local townspeople suspect witchcraft is somehow responsible for this kidnapping. Another local girl is accused of practicing the black magic and thus arrested. Ben must both find the missing girl and prove the other girl's innocence.
Case 3 is when the series really starts to come into its own. It has a much better story than previous entries. Unfortunately, as it didn't received an enhanced rerelease like the previous two games, it has the worst graphics of the series. Ben's face is horrendously awkward and the backgrounds have obviously been tossed through a number of Photoshop filters and paintbrush styles.
But again, the narrative certainly offsets the drop in already-"eh" graphical quality. The general mood feels quite a bit like The Wicker Man - a sense of not quite fitting in with a village culture, a sense of something being slightly off and uncanny in the whole setting. The twists are clever, if somewhat expected if you're familiar with the source material, and altogether it feels much more cohesive.
Adding to the pleasant sense of improvement, Case 3 finally introduces non-throwaway side characters. Percival Quentin Jones in particular adds much needed flavor to the series. He works as Ben's foil, antagonistically attempting to solve the crime with zero faith in the supernatural. It makes Ben in turn seem more sympathetic, a Hey Arnold!-type Good Samaritan dork with innocent intentions. There is also a love interest who, while not especially interesting on her own, is at least another vehicle alongside whom Ben can express his budding personality.
The gameplay still isn't great, but it is definitely tighter. The smaller setting does away with the overmaps of the past two games, making it much more accessible, harder to get lost among the many locations. It mostly suffers from a general lack of direction-one instance in particular has Ben finding a crowbar in the flowerbed next to a house, when there is no sprite to indicate that it is in there and no suggestion that this is where a crowbar might most likely be found.
The soundtrack is also much better than the first two games. Andreas Slotte has some creepy tracks reminiscent of the score to the film Rosemary's Baby. The main theme in particular is quite good. It has weird minstrel vibe to it, string instruments combining to create whimsical melodies with strange undertones.
Case 3 is the only one in the series aside from the final case to have multiple endings. They are, however, very limited and the variable determining each ending is right at the end. It is also quite obvious which ending is canon.
50 Berkeley Square is reported to be the most haunted house in London. Urban legends concerning the townhouse are varied. The main story involves a woman who haunts the attic, having been driven to suicide by her abusive uncle. Her apparition is said to take form in a brown or white smoke, and she is apparently capable of scaring onlookers to death.
The thing is, no paranormal activity has been reported from Number 50 since the 19th century. In the Ben Jordan universe, this changes when two vagrants are found dead, thrown from the attic window and pierced through by the sharp fence in front of the townhouse. Ben Jordan and a number of spiritual experts are hired to get to the bottom of what the heck happened. They are locked into the house for the night, with the expectation that their presence will not be terribly welcome by the malevolent spirits who reside there.
Case 4 is the first game in the series that really stands out on its own. It has a varied cast of characters, who all have much more interesting interactions than the previous games. The plot and setting is established in a tight Agatha Christie setup. The puzzles are much more cohesive, an obvious interior logic behind their layout. Ben's wardrobe is better, not too distinct still but at least not painfully bland. The sound design is also good, with small touches like hearing cars pass outside the building and the sound of floorboards creaking. It helps to create a strong atmosphere, something that this series severely needed.
It isn't all good, however. The graphics share Case 3's bad pillowy pixel art, with giant rooms and pancake character portraits. The layout of Number 50 doesn't make sense either-the absence of a kitchen is kind of peculiar. And some puzzles still sour the overall experience. There is a bad phone-calling mechanic, in which the player is expected to remember entire phone numbers, and a lame trial-and-error puzzle to unlock one of the doors.
Simon and Alice are first introduced in this case. Neither is particularly dynamic or deep as a character, but the series' personality in general is improved by Simon's snarky sidekick qualities and Alice's collected intelligence. The writing isn't quite to par, but it certainly has some nice touches. The humor is on point at times. (In regard to a painting on the lounge wall, Ben comments, "It's 'The Third of May Shootings' by Goya. Who did they hire as their interior decorator, the Marquis de Sade?".)
Taken as a whole, it is still a much more entertaining experience than the previous cases. Good pacing, more interesting personalities peppering the scenes and a more fully-vital atmosphere (assisted again by Andreas Slotte's excellent soundwork) make this entry a lot better than its predecessors. Though it may feel at times like a watered-down version of 5 Days a Stranger (the two share a similar concept), at the very least Case 4 continues to follow the pattern of each Ben Jordan release gradually improving upon the previous entry.
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