Dark Carnival

by Marshal Tenner Winter profile

Mystery/Horror/Humor
2013

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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Hardboiled carny case is vivid but the conversations don't go places, June 15, 2015
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: Lovecraft, Inform

2013 was a prolific year for this author. The first game by MTW I played was The Surprising Case of Brian Timmons, and in the same year he released all of Castronegro Blues, Ill Wind, Dark Carnival, The Vanishing Conjurer and The Voodoo You Do. Several of these are Lovecraft-meets-hardboiled period mysteries in which you play an anonymous (or at least unnamed) detective or dick. I feel like calling him the anonymous dick because he certainly can be a dick, and so can most of the NPCs he has to deal with in these amusingly profane games set in lurid environments.

You play the dick again in Dark Carnival, and are charged with investigating several mysterious disappearances at a run-down carnival east of town. The place is populated by a bunch of hopeless, cynical and foul-mouthed carnies, which might explain why I didn't see any customer NPCs on the premises. The carnies are very busy, as are all the NPCs in this game. There are tons of people wandering around, looking at you or the scenery, or doing carny things like yelling swear words. All this action plus the extensive carnival map (every exhibit has its own room, or series of rooms) makes for a great feeling of animation.

My main problem with the game is that the investigation isn't well integrated with all this content. From the word go, you've got five murder incident reports to ask NPCs about. That's a mountain of 'ask X about first', 'ask X about second', 'ask X about third', etc., to get through. And for the most part, people either have no significant information for you, or they just tell you, in their own colourful fashion, to piss off. But there are so many NPCs here it's hard to give up on the asking as you continue to hope to find the needle in the haystack.

I'm not sure I ever found a needle. It was only by thorough investigation of the locations that I stumbled into the hidden section of the carnival. The maze design and atmosphere down there were exciting, but when I solved the case, I felt it had been pretty much a case of 'and in a single bound, Jack was free'. All my conversation attempts had achieved little, mechanically. There's evidence that they should have achieved more for instance, some hidden portals in the game block the player and suggest one should do more investigating upstairs, first. But I only found these portals after I'd reached areas on the other side of them. Whether this was down to bugs or oversight, the consequences were the same.

Comparing this to Brian Timmons, that game was very well directed as an investigation game, if linear. Carnival goes in for a much busier world and a theoretically more interactive investigation model, but that world isn't feeding the investigation mechanics. Nevertheless, the whole is again vividly written in MTW's style, with the particular attitude of this series strongly represented.