Rhiannon: Curse of the Four Branches
First posted on 06 October 2008. Last updated on 10 August 2009.
Mysterious or haunted houses are classic types of settings for adventure games. Being familiar and perhaps even cozy on the surface, yet strange and sinister on closer inspection, these settings can offer a potentially ideal venue for suspense.
A worthy newcomer in the "haunted house" subgenre is Rhiannon: Curse of the Four Branches, the first game release from the independent Welsh developer Arberth Studios. Bringing an ancient Welsh myth into modern times, Rhiannon: Curse of the Four Branches (originally titled Rhiannon: Beyond the Mabinogion) stands out for believable writing and voice acting, immersive and spooky graphics and sound, and multilayered puzzles that encourage exploration. While the game contains no conventional character interaction, it offers many other subtleties that enable it to deliver ample suspense without gore.
During the game's opening sequence, the protagonist, Chris, arrives in rural Wales to housesit an old, half renovated farmstead called Ty Pryderi. The place belongs to his friends (or maybe relatives) Jen and Malcolm Sullivan. The Sullivans, Jen tells Chris in an email, are worried about their 15 year old daughter Rhiannon, who seems to be adjusting poorly to their new home. Thus, they are taking her away for awhile. Jen and Malcolm leave clear instructions about finding the house key, flipping on the electrical breakers, feeding the cat, and even firing up the wood-fuelled water heater. From further exploration and reading, however, Chris learns that Jen and Malcolm are not telling him everything. Rhiannon's problem with Ty Pryderi is that she hears menacing voices and she knows of an ancient Welsh myth that fatally links the names Rhiannon and Pryderi. The trouble is that Chris hears the voices too!
Rhiannon: Curse of the Four Branches plays in a first-person perspective, with pre-rendered 3D graphics for the backgrounds. From the very beginning of the game, numerous outdoor and indoor scenes are accessible for the player to explore. The graphics' mood is often foreboding, yet the scenes are varied and detailed, rather than stark. The farm's unkempt grounds are strewn with boulders, branches, overripe apples and fallen leaves, as befitting the game's October setting. The house and outbuildings contain the old and new debris of renovations, as well as art prints, illustrated reading materials, and gadgets that reflect the Sullivans' professions and pastimes. The texturing features rich and subtle patterns—for instance, on mossy rocks, shiny and bumpy paint, and wet stainless steel. The outdoor modeling and lighting tend to show sharper edges and shadows than is realistic, yet indoors there are many softening effects, where appropriate.
Smooth animations for water and steam enhance several of the backgrounds. Cut scenes incorporate aura-like special effects, both in the manipulated video footages and in the rendered graphics. Apart from ghostly shadows, there are no character visuals, as no individual ever comes to aid Chris in person throughout the entire game.
Rather than dialog, the player learns about other characters from emails, voice messages, notes, diary entries, and paraphernalia around the house. The writing is naturalistic and believable, whether in the tone of an arborist's business letter or of Rhiannon's wry diary. The developer's skills of observation and research are also apparent in the style and content of in-game documents on nature, mythology and pseudoscience. Thanks to the fine writing, these in-game documents are fun and interesting to read, rather than being merely functional parts of the puzzles.
The game features voiceovers for a few of the characters. The performances for the present-day characters seem true to life. The ghostly voices are more stylized but fit well with each other and the sound track.
An ambient sound track of wind, water and crow calls reinforces the atmosphere of the outdoor scenes. Sometimes, whispers of "Rhiannon, Rhiannon" are blended into the wind, an eerie touch. Several other sound effects also come as surprises that make the player look around—a cat is heard running out the pet door; a horse whinnies somewhere. All the commonplace (doorknob and light switch) sound effects are also realistic.
Theme music plays in sync with certain plot advances, such as chapter openings and ghostly visitations. The type of music ranges from simple traditional songs on piano or violin to modern mixes on piano, drums and flute. As some of these styles are seldom heard in games, they contribute to this game's unique atmosphere. On the other hand, the game has little ambient music. Ty Pryderi's indoors, having neither ambient sound effects nor ambient music, is strangely quiet. This silence is inconsistent with Rhiannon's diary entries about strange noises in the house, though it perhaps contributes to the surprise factor that some of the incidental sounds and cut scenes carry.
On balance, the game's story and environment are compellingly immersive. On first entering the house and seeing the Sullivans' piano in an alcove of the living room, I instinctively go over and play several keys—for no other reason than the game's opening scenario makes it easy to get in character.
I find myself taking longer to become fully comfortable with the game's interface, which has some awkward aspects. From most scenes, the first-person navigation system permits only 90° horizontal turns but not looking up or down. Moreover, the viewpoint fades directly from scene to scene, so the player can never see certain patches in between. Until after exploring and memorizing much of the game world's layout, the player has little sense of what may lie beyond the periphery of the active scene.
Hotspots are identified by icons such as a hand for picking up or examining something, a set of gears for using something from inventory, a magnifying glass for entering a close-up scene, thick arrows for walking or turning, or thin arrows for looking up or down. The differing thicknesses of arrows are easily mistakable, unfortunately, so this choice of icons is not as good as (for example) combining an eyeball with an arrow for the action of looking up or down. Otherwise, the point-and-click system is quite intuitive. A pull-down inventory menu allows for quick access to objects without obstructing the scene. An item's icon lights up if the player moves it over an appropriate hotspot.
For the benefit of players who are visually impaired, the game even offers options for text-to-speech synthesis and tabbing among hotspots. Effectively, the hotspot tabbing is an undocumented hint mode too, since any player can potentially use it to overcome difficulties with pixel hunting.
The game opens with several simple inventory tasks but progresses into more diverse and harder puzzles. A musical puzzle and a translation puzzle are examples from early in the game. Clues come in many forms—often thematic or symbolic but sometimes direct—and from many sources, human or natural or supernatural. Even though the player can access much of the game world from the outset, the next useful destinations are typically either nearby or strongly hinted. Thus, if you find yourself wandering aimlessly, you are probably better off to backtrack toward the site of an earlier clue.
A challenging and sometimes frustrating aspect of the puzzles is that the game offers no narration about Chris's success or failure. Seemingly reasonable actions, such as attempting to put a stepladder under a scaffold, elicit no feedback whatsoever. As far as the player can tell, the particular action may not be doable until later or it just may never be doable. Similarly, many hotspots may enable the player to examine an item but will not allow the player to pick it up or interact with it until later in the game. Even books change suddenly from not being portable to being portable. Chris, in such cases, seems to be in a deep ponder but he is not telling the player what he is thinking.
On the other hand, for many puzzles the player can find rich background information in the form of the in-game documents. A primer on deciphering ancient Welsh Ogam script (though the game manual notes that it is highly simplified for gameplay purposes) is deep enough to pique the player's interest in that subject. The game presents the player with the materials to either decode scripts by brainpower or to enter them into a piece of point-and-click translation software on Rhiannon's computer which the player can access. (These materials come to Rhiannon's email account from an academic, Jon Southworth, from whom she seeks information about the history of Ty Pryderi.) Ultimately, though, the player must take the point-and-click route in order for the game to accept that the puzzle is complete.
A final gameplay issue (which is by no means unique to this game) is that the interface and puzzles miss some opportunities to make good use of keyboard input. For instance, the navigation system is potentially well suited to arrow key shortcuts, while the translation puzzles are potentially well suited to parser input, if the player prefers to translate manually rather than via Jon's point-and-click translation software.
Overall, there is much to admire in this twisty story, its shivery environment, and its puzzles that spark curiosity. Although I usually hope for lots of face-to-face character interaction in an adventure game, the in-game documents and voice messages are well crafted substitutes in this case. The interface often leaves me taking the wrong turn or wondering why I may not use my keyboard (maybe I am aging prematurely!), yet it does become quicker with familiarity. The variety of character ages and the absence of gore also help to give this game a broader appeal. Nothing bloodcurdling happens in the story's present (except considering the perspective of mice dragged in by the Sullivans' cat), yet the sense of menace is there. The game is therefore suitable to play for even younger gamers.
Arberth Studios has an impressively polished first release in Rhiannon: Curse of the Four Branches. For an original and intricate ghost mystery, come home to Ty Pryderi on an October evening!