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About the Story
You listen to the dame on the other end of the phone as she finishes her plight. "My brother has gone missing. I want you to find him." You promised yourself a vacation, but this broad sounds a bit dishy. Maybe one more case before your vacation won't be too much of a bother. . .
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A missing-person case draws a detective into a cultic mystery. The genre is Chaosium's familiar twinning of 1920s noir-flavoured detectives and the Cthulhu mythos; indeed, the author acknowledges that the game is based on a particular Chaosium scenario, The Secret of Castronegro. Rather than the standard Lovecraft New England, the action here takes place in small-town New Mexico.
Small-town New Mexico in the 1920s seems like a strikingly non-standard setting with a lot of potential, but Castronegro Blues is not very focused on descriptive writing, or character writing, or on prose in general. Some people have complained about the profanity in this series; while I generally don't give a fuck about that kind of thing, I kind of sympathise. It's not that there's a lot of swearing, really; it's that the rest of the writing is so utilitarian, so placeholderish, that the crassness really sticks out. Similarly, the protagonist is kind of an asshole: he's uninterested in and contemptuous of his surroundings in general and the people in particular (there are lots of NPCs, almost all of whom are one-line stereotypes). Now, asshole protagonists can absolutely work, if they're interestingly complex or have redeeming qualities or are just entertaining; but the nameless detective here is a blank, except for when he occasionally, suddenly comes up with something curt and mean-spirited - the entire description of a desk sergeant is "He looks like an idiot." So while I'm generally a big fan of asshole PCs, it was uncomfortable to spend time around this protagonist, and I didn't feel as if this discomfort was in service of anything.
(It's possible that he wasn't even intended as an asshole. Maybe he was intended as a gruff, laconic Marlowe type, and the author didn't manage to capture all the elements thereof. But what's left is pretty much just asshole.)
Player interaction is not a focus, either. The process of detective work is conspicuously just a framing device, and this is true of the game's approach to interaction generally. For much of the time, solutions spring into your hands in a great hurry; on the other hand, UNDO is forbidden, the game puts you in situations where death is hard to avoid, and there are no warnings about keeping saves.
What this game is focused on is story, the unfolding of a Lovecraftian horror mystery. But in its enthusiasm, it hurries: police and witnesses pour detailed accounts on you, helpful library books spring into your hand. Both mystery and horror are genres that are reliant on pacing, on the slow build, on taking care with the delivery of crucial information to the player, on the power of the unknown. It's more difficult to pull off when, as Castronegro does, it includes a lot of stock subgenre elements (creepy Indian tribes, old local families with human-breeding plans, secret cults); the result is that this game tips its hand way too early, before there's time to develop a sense of threat.
There's enthusiasm here, but that enthusiasm has yet to get translated into a labour of love. This section, from early on, tells you pretty much what you need to know:
There is a knock at the door but the knocker doesn't wait for an answer. The door opens and a beautiful woman walks in. "Thank you for seeing me, detective." You invite her to sit and she does.
That's skipping over a lot of annoying little steps - opening the door, greeting the woman, offering her a chair - that the author thinks are boring. And a lot of them are boring! But the baby gets thrown out with the bathwater: the character herself motivates the protagonist and thus the whole story, so she very much needs to not be boring. What we get really amounts to just a statement of her narrative role - 'you know how this kind of story goes, fill in the details yourself.' That's really boring.
(On the plus side, the titles are getting a lot better. The Surprising Case of Brian Timmons is pretty feeble as titles go. Castronegro Blues could be a Tom Waits song. Ill Wind is just great.)
Castronegro is a well written plot-driven mystery game with some vague Lovecraftian elements, featuring the same nameless main character of the author's previous IF, "The surprising case of Brian Timmons".
I did not encounter bugs, and there were no guess-the-verb situations. No hint system is implemented, though.
Although it is quite short, to complete this game a lot of exploration and examination is required, and taking notes is higly recommended.
The map may be divided in two sections, corresponding to two towns to be visited. The main one, Castronegro, after which the game is named, is the bigger one. Drawing its map may be useful.
The exits of every room are clearly stated in the description, with a reminder of where each exit leads, helping navigation.
There are a couple more of nice touches: most objects and locations have a customized description, like the PC chair in the initial room, and, still in the same room, the NPC Claudine (who assigns the mission to be accomplished) gives a comment if the phonograph is turned on.
The puzzles are quite easy till the PC arrives in Castronegro. The "tough" rating seems due mainly to how to get rid of monsters (or better, to how not to die by them), especially the final confrontation, where a (Spoiler - click to show)hide-and-burn approach is suggested. If the wrong way is chosen in these encounters, it's game over, so you should save before trying: the 'undo' command is disabled.
The final puzzle was satisfying, although I was expecting a slightly different solution: (Spoiler - click to show)one of the pictures in the mansion represents the main foe and its ring, which seems to keep a vague light even after the flashlight is off. So, I was expecting that after all the lights are off, the ring would be still visible, which would allow to locate him and therefore to attack him.
Overall this game is enjoyable, without really bad points. Apparently there was more playtesting this time with respect to the author's two previous IFs.
In my opinion, the only evident defect of the game lies in the interaction with the (friendly) NPCs, which is essentially limited to conversations which start almost always automatically. The game is a bit rough here, some more interactivity with the NPCs, being this a mystery game, would be wellcome, and would have gained it an higher initial rating. There are a few typos also, I spotted four or five I think, limited to punctuation.
I would rate it 3.5, considering the low NPC development, but to encourage the author, I round it up to 4 stars.
Note: I played the version released in this post on the intfiction.org forum where it is available for public download during the upload process here on ifdb.
This game features the same detective as The Surprising Case of Brian Timmons. This game is larger than that one, with less bugs, but also with a less compelling story.
You are investigating several disappearances, and are drawn to the town of Castronegro in New Mexico. There you explore a large map while unraveling a mystery. However, each location has only one (or none) interesting things, and each NPC can only say one thing.
The climactic scenes are often abrupt, and some puzzles are a bit odd in what works and what doesn't.
Overall, I didn't like this one as much as Brian Timmons, but it isn't bad. Like the previous game, it contains some derogatory attitudes towards women.
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