Rhiannon: Curse of the Four Branches is possibly the only adventure game you’ll ever play that’s based on the Welsh cycle of myths called the Mabinogion. Before this game is over you’ll have learned all about the folk hero Pryderi, taught yourself the ancient ogum alphabet, and become an amateur mage wise in the magical properties of trees. It’s a shame, then, that Rhiannon is held back by poor controls and even worse graphics.
The game eases you into the plot with a promising beginning. Your friends the Sullivans are going on holiday with their troubled daughter, Rhiannon, so you’ll be house-sitting for them. The Sullivans have recently moved into a very old estate called Ty Pryderi and can’t afford to abandon it while builders are still at work on the restorations. You’ll never see the builders, but you will notice very strange supernatural phenomena from the moment you set foot on Ty Pryderi’s twenty-acre grounds.
Rhiannon is an adventure game that prizes exploration, so you’ve got plenty of inventory space to work with and a little notebook that’s good at nudging you in the right direction. You need to solve a series of puzzles in order to exorcise Llwyd’s evil spirit from Ty Pryderi and save young Rhiannon Sullivan’s life, most of which involve gathering up items and activating devices. Annoyingly, you can’t pick up objects until you’ve done something to convince the game you need it. So, no picking up the hemlock twig that’s in plain sight until the plot says you need a dowsing rod.
Your tasks in Rhiannon are extremely linear, which makes the limitations on picking up items all the more confusing. The plot becomes outright baffling at some points, where understanding what to do next calls for reading lengthy in-game documents. There’s one puzzle that involves freezing emotions into water homeopathically and taking Kirlian photographs of magic objects, for instance, that’s probably going to send most people running to walkthroughs or making pages of notes about which color corresponds to what emotion.
The basic narrative in Rhiannon is interesting, but making progress isn’t very satisfying. More often than not you’ll find yourself fighting the game’s movement controls, which are possibly the least-forgivable thing for an adventure game made in 2008 to mess up. Moving around in Rhiannon is like moving around in a very old first-person shooter like Doom. You can’t turn around, you can’t even move right or left without first facing in that direction. There is no way to go backwards short of manually clicking your mouse three times to turn all the way around.
While the graphics aren’t quite as primitive as the control scheme, they’re still pretty bad even by the standards of budget gaming. Rhiannon could almost pass for a game released in 2003 or even 1998, as it relies heavily on low-res pre-rendered objects and nearly-flat polygons. The game’s use of audio is possibly even more primitive, as it seems to feature roughly six songs and precious few sound effects. Most of the game takes place in silence.
If you can get back Rhiannon‘s clunky and archaic elements, there are little flashes of brilliance to be found. There’s an MP3 player that works into multiple puzzles seamlessly, as well as a satisfying puzzle that involves poking around all the game’s pathways to collect various types of twigs. You solve the mystery of what’s going on in the game quickly, leaving you to spend most of the story working on a way to solve the problem. In too many adventure games, the problem tends to just solve itself once you’ve gotten to the root of it.
Little flashes of brilliance don’t make for compelling gameplay, though. Between Rhiannon‘s controls, graphics, and sound problems, it just becomes a chore to play. The temptation to abandon it during even the slightest bit of difficulty can be very strong. Adventure enthusiasts may be able to squeeze some fun out of Rhiannon: Curse of the Four Branches, but most players would be well advised to stay away.