The Secrets of Da Vinci: The Forbidden Manuscript
First posted on 15 April 2009. Last updated on 10 January 2011.
The game is available at GamersGate.
The year is 1522, 3 years after the death of Leonardo da Vinci. Valdo, a young artist who has studied under a student of Leonardo, is sent to Cloux Manor, Leonardo's last workshop. Playing as Valdo, your mission is to retrieve an important codex that has been hidden there by Leonardo.
The chateau is near King Francois' residence, and the mistress of the chateau, Marie de la Bourdaisière, is having an affair with the king. The king's agents, and others, are keeping an eye on the place and are also looking for the codex. While there is a potential for lots of political intrigue, little is done with this part of the story that affects play. However, it plays out nicely in the cut scenes.
Marie and the groundsman, Saturnin, are the only characters you have significant interaction with, and even they are not well developed. They are mostly ciphers, feeding you information or triggering plot developments. As with the intrigue, you are more frequently told their character than witness it firsthand.
The same trend extends to elements of the backstory. When you accomplish some task, you are rewarded with a cut scene that magically shows you images of the past. This may make some sense if the task is related to the content of the scene, but here it does not. This magic also appears in a few metaphysical puzzles. For example, you solve a piping puzzle by playing with an animated drawing of a fountain mechanism in a book, rather than with the actual mechanism directly.
Certain actions will trigger a cut scene and advance you to the next stage of the story. This is often unexpected, where an innocuous action will lead suddenly to the next day. It is never fatal, but it can force you down an alternate path from the path you may be hoping to try.
The net effect of these play mechanics is that your game activities feel disconnected from the story. There is a decent story, but it is told to you as you play this game, rather than the game becoming the story.
While the story may be disconnected, the puzzles are usually connected to the game world. There are a few more abstract puzzles, but they are usually standing in for actions that are too complex to model in the game, such as painting a copy of the Mona Lisa. Some others use the excuse of Leonardo's fondness for invention, though the developer has restrained itself and has not overused this excuse.
Several of the puzzles have alternate solutions, and I am sure there are many more that I have missed. There are many items to gather in your inventory, and many get used multiple times. You can also combine items in the inventory. Together, this gives you a sense of freedom in the game world, that you are not constrained to behaving exactly as the puzzle designer thought you should. It is an illusion, of course, but it is still important to the enjoyment of an adventure.
An uncommon device included in the game is a conscience meter. Certain actions will raise or lower your good or evil rating. This in turn can allow or disallow other actions, so that puzzles have to be solved in different ways, or cut scenes play out differently. Similarly, there is also an indication of your standing with Marie, so that the game can play out in slightly different ways depending on how much she likes you. The idea behind this implementation is good, but I have never noticed much effect on my play. If you like replaying adventures, it may be interesting to try out different play styles (naughty versus nice) to see how the game changes, but it is hardly noticeable on a single play through.
There is a notebook to collect papers that you find. There is also a diary that is automatically filled out as you proceed, which keeps track of the story, what you have done, and, most importantly, what you have to do next (but only in a general sense, so it does not spoil the game by telling you exactly what to do).
All together, the game's designers, Marianne Tostivint and Olivier Train, have put a lot of thoughts into making a flexible interface for the inventory, journal, notebook, conscience meter, relationship indicator, and a few other little things. It is well done.
The presentation uses pre-rendered, 3D views of locations. You move from a fixed point to another, and at each point you can look all around and up and down. The cursor is fixed in the middle (which makes me motion sick when exploring!). The characters are the standard 3D models. They are attractive, but they look like stiff mannequins. Both the voice acting and music are decent but not exceptional.
The game is co-developed by Kheops Studio and Totem Studio, both founded by former employees of the now defunct Cryo Interactive Entertainment (a major adventure game developer in the mid 1990s).
Overall, The Secrets of Da Vinci: The Forbidden Manuscript is a solid, enjoyable adventure. There is a good setting, a good setup, a good interface, and an attractive presentation. The story moves the game along, though it is not as engrossing as it can be given the historical setting. The puzzles are not notable, but they are not bad, either: they keep you occupied, and they keep thinking about what is going on.