First posted on 08 August 2008. Last updated on 19 December 2013.
With its 2007 release of Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened, Frogwares has proven itself capable of producing chilling, cerebral horror games with exceptional production and gameplay. Now, a year later, can Frogwares deliver an equally unique experience with its next horror game, Dracula: Origin?
Like Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened, Dracula: Origin features rich, moody music and somber, detailed scenes (though in the form of 2D rather than real-time 3D backdrops). Moreover, Frogwares seems to have closely studied the original 1897 Dracula novel by Bram Stoker and endeavored to recreate dramatic roles for many of Stokers' characters, not just the infamous vampire. Still, in many ways, Dracula: Origin is a more conventional horror production and a more conventional game than Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened. The horror experience, this time, ultimately relies more on gore rather than on drama, and the concluding scenes leave many loose ends. Although a few puzzles are memorably clever, a lot are fillers with minimal context. Offering about 10-12 hours of play time, Dracula: Origin is also considerably shorter than most of Frogwares' previous game titles.
In Dracula: Origin, the player takes on the role of Professor Abraham Van Helsing, who is a doctor but also secretly a vampire slayer, living in London. During the game's opening sequence, Van Helsing learns that his former pupil, Jonathan Harker, has fallen victim to Dracula in Transylvania. Harker's fiancée, Mina, in London, is likely to be Dracula's next target. Can Van Helsing save her? He initially fails to act swiftly enough and, to deal with the consequences, he must travel to Cairo, then Vienna, and finally Transylvania in pursuit of Dracula and possibly the cure for vampirism.
The game's major characters—Dracula, Van Helsing, Harker, Mina, and Seward (another former student of Van Helsing)—all come from Stoker's original novel. Dracula: Origin, however, is quite different from the book in terms of plot. For example, Harker's death and the visit to Egypt are not elements of Stoker's work. A variety of characters, such as Duchess Orlowski, are also original to the Frogwares title rather than the novel.
Players may find the manual included with the game to be worthwhile reading, for it explains some of the more obscure features of the interface, including the easily missed built-in hint system, as well as the solution to the first scene of the game.
The writing and voice acting in this game are mixed bags. All the monstrous characters, including Dracula, have rather wooden lines and acting that leave the listener in no doubt about what an irredeemable, smug bunch of lustful bloodsuckers vampires really are. However, Dracula's and Harker's diaries (which are not voiced) are more nuanced renditions of evil and compulsion. Some passages appear to imply an interesting parallel between Dracula and Van Helsing as both self-styled crusaders and deceptive, secretive men. The dialog between the human characters (rather than vampires) sometimes seems closer to an authentic period style, while occasionally being enlivened by modernized dry humor.
The visual artists for Dracula: Origin truly have an eye for detail. Every quivering leaf, engraved stone, and bouquet of "beautiful roses" (as Van Helsing often whispers in an ominous tone) is crisp and contrasting. The characters are rendered with equally fine artwork, and their animations suit the roles well. For example, Van Helsing slowly but constantly studies his surroundings and shifts his hands, like someone deep in thought. Cut scenes, which feature even greater detail in the models, textures and animations, cover many of the game's pivotal moments, such as Van Helsing's confrontations with vampires. The only off-putting element of the graphics is that some areas of the game seem to be repetitively gory, just for gore's sake. Be prepared for gallons of blood and tons of flayed flesh if you plan to explore Dracula: Origin's rendition of Transylvania!
The music is suspenseful, melancholy, and consistently subtle, with an emphasis on string instruments (of either European or Middle Eastern origin, depending on the scene). A few bits of music are remixed from Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened, yet they certainly fit the mood in Dracula: Origin too. The ambient sound effects are quite few and (by default) most of them are very quiet. (This is perhaps not an unwelcome change for players who are tired of hearing constant, amplified footsteps in other games.) The music carries the ambiance instead and occasionally more forceful sound effects chime in for action scenes.
The interface used in Dracula: Origin is conventional point-and-click, with rollover icons showing the type of possible interaction in each hotspot: eye, hand/item, speech, or exit. A hint mode, activated by the space bar, highlights every hotspot in the scene. Such systems of hotspot peeking enable stuck players to bypass the process of pixel hunting if they so choose.
The game includes a variety of inventory puzzles and lock puzzles. The difficulty level, even without use of the hint feature, is notched down from the norm in most of Frogwares' titles. Quite frequently, the puzzles just require the player to hunt down the correct object among several similar choices (for example, a particular headstone among many) or find an unlocking combination by trial and error (for example, by repositioning each piece until it lights up, indicating the correct spot). The scavenger hunts and the trial and error tend to be time consuming, even though they are not conceptually difficult. As part of an otherwise short game, the slow puzzles sometimes seem to crowd out the character interaction and plot.
Another occasional snag relates to pixel hunting. Without use of the hint feature, sometimes hotspots are difficult to distinguish from each other because they are physically adjacent and conceptually related (watch out for the flies!). A stuck player is likely to move the cursor over a couple of closely positioned hotspots directly without realizing they are distinct.
On the other hand, the puzzle style evolves over the course of the game. This is especially true toward the finale, where several original brainteasers truly stand out. A decoy made from pretzels (among other materials) is perhaps the most memorable contraption. A combination code that is perhaps the game's most satisfying and challenging long puzzle requires multistep pattern matching: symbols to pictures, then to grid patterns, then back to symbols, and finally to colors. Just what Dracula exactly wants to defend with such an elaborate lock is among the mysteries that the player will solve in this game.
Dracula: Origins may not be long, but it certainly is packed. Even after the finale, it will take some time to digest the whole experience, to sort out some important plot threads, and to wonder what Frogwares is planning. Notably, the ending cut scene leaves few clues about what has happened to Van Helsing, Mina, and Seward. A sequel is surely implied but, even so, this first installment seems to shortchange the player in terms of opportunities to hear the characters' story.
Although Dracula: Origin has other fine qualities, its short to medium length is somewhat mismatched to the pacing of the puzzles and the number of twists in the plot. Within this length category, numerous competing titles from other game developers offer better replay value in the form of either alternative dialog trees (as in those from Telltale Games) or alternative puzzle solutions (as in those from Kheops Studio).
At the same direct retail pricing as Dracula: Origin, the much longer, real-time 3D, superbly scripted and voiced Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened is surely better value for adventure fans interested in horror games. Nonetheless, fans of vampire stories or games are also likely to appreciate the moody adaptation of Stoker's Gothic melodrama. Although Dracula's debut with Frogwares is not on par with the breakthrough horror title in the company's Sherlock Holmes series, the Count may have promising years ahead of him in his own series. After all, Frogwares provides an atmosphere that suits him quite well.