An enlightening darkness

The Dark Eye: Chains of Satinav is not a great adventure game. But it is a great adventure story, backed by gorgeous, hand-painted backdrops and dreamy music that all comes together to create a gripping, magical fantasy tale.

The Dark Eye series is one of the best-known RPG franchises in Europe, with a history that stretches back more than 25 years. Chains of Satinav, despite that pedigree, isn’t a role-playing game, but a fairly conventional point-and-click adventure set in the Dark Eye world of Aventuria. It’s an interesting, if somewhat unexpected, approach to the setting, and while I can’t say that it works flawlessly, it works well enough to be worth the effort.

In Chains of Satinav you play as Geron, a young lad from the city of Andergast who was cursed as a bringer of bad luck by the wicked Seer, moments before he was burned at the stake. Despite the curse that hangs over his head and the best efforts of a couple of local bullies, Geron wins a city-wide competition and an audience with the king, which in turn affords him the opportunity to show off his skills as a bird-catcher. It doesn’t take long for things to go dramatically wrong, and suddenly Geron is on his own, with the fate of the world resting upon his shoulders.

The story weighs him down with a deep moral conundrum, although the outcome is never in doubt. Chains of Satinav is an adventure, not an RPG, so your job isn’t to make Geron’s decisions for him but to figure out how to put the choices he makes into action. The resulting experience is very linear and, as adventures go, not too terribly difficult, either. Some of the later puzzles get a little esoteric, but for the most part, getting from point A to point B is a fairly straightforward process.

The game assists in that process with a “hotspot” locator that highlights all the interactive areas in a location, ensuring that you don’t overlook any small inventory items or important landmarks. The interface is simple and usable, and locales tend to be rather small, so everything you need to solve puzzles is generally close at hand. A world map and mini-diary keeps track of your overarching goals, but the map is purely eye-candy.  You automatically go where you need to be, and the diary is more of a mission statement, with nowhere near enough detail to be of any use in assisting with specific puzzles.

The Dark Eye: Chains of Satinav

Conversations between characters can be a little choppy, with very unnatural hopping from topic to topic, and the voice acting is middling at best. Character animations are uneven as well, with some movements displaying motion-captured smoothness while others look just awkward. It’s not bad, really, it’s just not particularly good, a not-quite-failing that seems far more pronounced when compared to the wonderfully lush visuals.

That’s where Chains of Satinav really comes alive. It’s no exaggeration to say that the game’s backdrops look like somebody took some really nice fantasy paintings off the wall and overlaid hand-drawn characters on top of them. They’re almost entirely static, but they look so good that it doesn’t matter. The soundtrack is subtle enough that you hardly even notice it, except during the moments when you pause to admire everything and suddenly realize how nice it is. When it comes to generating atmosphere, Chains of Satinav absolutely nails it.

The Dark Eye: Chains of Satinav

And the story is good, too, particularly when it starts to take a darker turn around the midway point. Things happen quickly, so details tend to be thin and large portions of Geron’s journey are glossed over, but it’s a style that helps draw players in without bogging them down in the nitty-gritty details.

It’s certainly not perfect. Aside from the less-than-stellar voice acting and rough character interactions, there are a couple of very minor technical glitches, like an acorn with an inventory description of “BLANK,” a stick that continues to lie on the ground even after you’ve picked it up and a tendency for Geron to flicker in and out of one particular scene.  Fans of the genre who enjoy hardcore puzzling-solving challenges probably won’t find anything here to quench that particular thirst.

As an adventure game, it’s pretty average stuff. But as a richly illustrated fantasy story, it is excellent. For that reason alone, The Dark Eye: Chains of Satinav stands out.