While taking a friend’s daughter to her grandmother’s, a traveler is trapped at a roadside motel haunted by tragedy.
It’s unusual for expert adventure game makers ERS Game Studios to stumble. The company’s a well-oiled machine, cranking out top-selling hidden object adventures at an unbelievable rate. Perhaps it’s speed that’s to blame for the so-so success of its latest adventure, Dark Alleys: Penumbra Motel. Whatever the reason, this title, though exhibiting all the quality ingredients of an ERS production, never really comes together. In the end it does little justice to the ERS name.
Penumbra Motel’s somewhat convoluted story concept has you driving your friend’s daughter, Monica, to see her grandmother. The two of you are on the road when the usual ‘mysterious something’ happens, forcing you to stop at an abandoned gas station. The minute you stop, Monica is abducted. Rather than doing something rational like calling the police, you take matters into your own hands and decide to go after her. Tracking Monica’s kidnapper, you head through the gas station and on to the nearby Penumbra Motel: a once thriving, family-run business that went derelict in the ’50s after a series of violent events. The old place may be empty of guests when you get there, but boy howdy, it’s filled to bursting with ghosts.
Aside from adopting the cliche ghost concept, Penumbra Motel is unusual for a couple of reasons. First, its themes are darker and more violent than the majority of casual adventure games. Many games feature ghosts, but few explicitly address how these ghosts were made. At the core of Penumbra Motel is nothing less than mass murder, and the story unfolds via one disturbing scene after another.
It’s not that violence is ever shown; it’s that by uncovering the aftermath of the violence, we learn something unsettling about the mental workings of a deranged killer. This graphic approach could be too intense for some people, and there are a handful of scenes that are likely to make the more sensitive gamers jump. Still, as a committed horror fan, I personally prefer a shocking, more adult kind of ghost story.
The second thing that sets Penumbra Motel apart from other games (and even from other ERS titles) is that it’s not a hidden object game. I’ve said for a few years now, that hidden object games are the entry drug to pure PC adventure, and with Penumbra Motel, ERS urges hidden object gamers to jump off the hidden object fence into full-on point-and-click territory. Of course, difficulty is handled a bit differently in the casual and hardcore adventure arenas, but the many similarities to old-school PC games are undeniable. The main one being that no time’s wasted digging through piles of random junk. This is about pure exploration and pure adventure.
Although you aren’t asked to spend any effort digging for hidden objects, Penumbra Motel has a unique attitude toward the items you do find. Although there are a good number of too-conveniently-placed items ready for collection and use, there’s also some occasionally creative item re-purposing. Generally in this genre, if you need a can opener, a can opener magically appears. Here, items are often put to more creative use.
Puzzles are pretty interesting, too. The best one—taking nearly the whole game to complete—entails gathering film reels (of real, live-action film footage) and using them to make a whole new film. Further, barring the typical “find a key for this door or this box”, the game’s puzzles are both graphically pleasing and fun to solve. There are, however, a few confusing puzzle contrivances that will probably force less experienced gamers to reach for the skip button.
These things are all to the good, but here and there, Penumbra Motel still manages to stumble over itself. As mentioned, one issue is the contrived puzzle solutions. Sure, it’s fine if you use a hint to solve a puzzle and think, “I should’ve seen that!” but it’s no good to find the answer and still say “I don’t get it.”
Another problem is the pacing that results from eliminating the hidden object element. As an old-school adventure fan, I wanted this approach to work, but found by the end of the game that pure exploration had gotten a little monotonous.
The problem is that in Penumbra Motel, items drive the game, not the story. When you enter a scene, you’re not trying to piece clues together; you’re scanning the screen, collecting everything in sight. Does this even make sense? You’re looking for a missing girl, entering crime scene after crime scene, and all you think to do is mindlessly fill your pockets with stuff that, down the line, could be useful? It makes little narrative sense and turns the game into a plodding exercise in repetition.
Other areas where I question ERS’s approach are its voice acting and plot. The game uses video of live actors (which I love), but there’s no attempt to sync the voices with the actors’ mouths. This could be an intentional stylistic choice, but I’m honestly not sure. To me though, it’s just weird. The story is as disjointed as the audio dubbing, especially when you get to the bonus chapter. Although the main story is guilty of ending on a hybrid wrap-up/cliffhanger, the bonus chapter lacks any kind of resolution at all.
If Dark Alleys: Penumbra Motel had been made by any other game company, it would be considered a success. Unfortunately, coming from a company known for making spectacular adventure games, it can’t help but feel sub-par. Although this collector’s edition has many good features and all the usual extras: music, wallpapers, screensavers and concept art, the game’s monotonous pacing, occasionally illogical puzzles and incomplete story structure make this an ERS game you can probably afford to miss.