Three Cards to Midnight

Posted by Erik-André Vik Mamen.
First posted on 13 May 2009. Last updated on 09 May 2012.
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Three Cards to Midnight
Jess is a woman caught in the past, present, and future.
Three Cards to Midnight
Who is the mysterious tarot reader?
Three Cards to Midnight
Each tarot card leads to a fragment of Jess' lost memories.
Three Cards to Midnight
Which objects connect to Love, Sugar, and Ring?
Three Cards to Midnight
What is the connection with the Sidereal Zodiac signs?

When Chris Jones and Aaron Conners from the now defunct Access Software announced the development of a new game in late 2008, expectations from adventure fans were high. It was back in 1989 when the once successful developer released Mean Streets, the first adventure game to feature the hardboiled, bourbon drinking, and cynical gumshoe Tex Murphy (played by Jones himself). After Martin Memorandum, the developer released Under a Killing Moon—an ambitious but also the bestselling game in the series, featuring Full Motion Video and 3D Virtual World. This was followed by another worthy sequel, The Pandora Directive. Unfortunately, Tex Murphy: Overseer, released in 1998, was to be the last game for the series. Now, more than a decade later, the legacy of Access Software would live on in a new game production company founded by Jones and Conners themselves—Big Finish Games, and their company's first release—Three Cards to Midnight.

Three Cards to Midnight (also known as 3 Cards to Midnight) starts with the game's main protagonist, Jess Silloway, sitting at a table with a mysterious tarot reader (whose face is hidden initially from your view), with no memories of why she is there or how she has gotten there. The reader tells Jess that she has experienced some traumatic events recently, the circumstances of which have been locked away in her mind. Using a pack of tarot cards and a series of word association exercises as therapeutic tools, the reader promises to try to help Jess to regain back her lost memories.

Each tarot card represents an important event in Jess' life—some from her childhood, most from the present, and a few which she is pretty sure has not occurred yet. Are they only dreams? These memories surface in random orders, and she has to sort them out. She discovers that her parents have gone missing, learns the truth about her family line, and recalls hiring a shady private investigator. However, most of her answers seem to just open up more new questions. She gradually remembers more and more of her own identity, but these older secrets are replaced with newer mysteries.

After getting excited for so long by the pre-release hype for this game, the drop is rather large once you start playing. The game's default resolution is 1024x768 pixels. Although the game can be played in higher resolutions (even widescreen), the game simply uses letter boxing or pillar boxing to scale the screen to fit the new sizes. This, however, is a known limitation of Adobe Flash (on which the game is built) and not of the game itself.

All the memory flashbacks and action sequences in the game are played back as pre-rendered animated cut scenes. Once again, it is disappointing to see that these cut scenes are not rendered in full screen and only in a tiny window at the center. The animations are smooth and natural looking in most cases. Some are more detailed, such as the characters' faces when the camera zooms in. On the other hand, character movements (such as in a jump) are very jerky and robotic. There is an effort made to lip sync to the spoken dialog, though some inaccuracy is seen from time to time.

The rooms or scenes where most of the game takes place are generally static, though small bits of the backgrounds are animated from time to time—a branch sways in the wind, a bird flies over the horizon, or a scary shadow lurks over a window. These special effects do not play any role in the gameplay, beyond merely window-dressing to make the sceneries more interesting. The low resolution screens are definitely a big drawback, especially when you try to make out what the smaller objects are supposed to be. Fortunately, most of the objects are easy recognizable, such as a pair of scissors, a rose, or a pillow.

The game's music comprises of a singular arrangement with minor variations. There are also ambient background sound effects in most scenes and during the animated cut scenes. Both the music and sound effects really help to set the mood for the game and are never too distracting. The voice acting is rather good. It is great fun to hear Jones' voice as the private investigator Merryman. Not only does Merryman sound like Tex, he even looks like Jones—a clear homage for fans of both. Conners also stars as Jess' boyfriend, Daniel.

Three Cards to Midnight is more of a puzzle game than an adventure game. Each card takes Jess into a past memory of hers about a specific time or place. For most rooms, the objective is to locate objects on screen through word association. You are given 1 to 4 keywords, and you have to find other objects or words that connect to them. The keywords are thought out by Jess and are supposedly connected to her lost memories triggered by the tarot cards. For example, if a keyword is Note, you can choose a Key and a Book to form the words Keynote and Notebook respectively. The association can be made as either prefix or suffix to the given keyword. You are told ahead how many of such associations you must find in each room (indicated by the number of highlighted text slots at the bottom of the screen). It is a constant challenge to figure out what an object on the screen actually represents. For example, the keyword Bank can associate with a Pig to form Piggy Bank, but it also connects with a Note to form Bank Note. Other times, the association is much easier (such as Flash and Light). The greatest challenge comes from those words with tenuous or idiomatic connections, such as Moon that connects to a bottle of Honey to form Honeymoon. There are many times when I feel that there are no more objects to connect, only to discover moments later another new combination that sounds so obvious in hindsight. Lastly, it is incorrect to label this game as just another hidden object casual game: the objects needed for making the word associations are all there in plain sight, some of which in fact are so out of place that calling them hidden is simply lubricious.

Between many of the word association games are other puzzle games. These vary more—some are mathematical brain teasers, some are jigsaw puzzles, and some are message ciphers. For most times, after each puzzle is solved, a secret note or object is revealed which then triggers another memory flashback or raises a new question.

As the whole game is basically a set of mini puzzles, with an underlying interconnecting storyline that automatically unfolds itself, the control interface is rather minimal. In most cases, you only need a few mouse clicks. In other cases, you need to drag and drop pieces of a puzzle. There are a total of 7 chapters in the game, notwithstanding the intro and the finale. Each chapter has 3 rooms, and each room is represented by 1 tarot card. The game is automatically saved after each room is solved.

If you are stuck in a room, you can click on the hint button to reveal an object that is connected to the current keyword. You can also just try to click the objects at random, but each failed attempt is registered as a miss. After a certain number of misses, you have to start the room all over again. At the end of each chapter, you are presented with a chapter summary and are given a score of 1 to 4 stars for each of the tarot cards you have solved. A score of 4 stars is awarded if you have only few misses, if you do not require a restart, if you have not used any hints, and if you have not skipped the puzzle.

When you reach the finale, you have to choose 2 of the tarot cards you have collected to defeat the game. The card rating of each tarot card then represents the card's power, thus the strength of the card depends on how well you have solved the puzzles earlier. Once you have chosen the cards, the ending will play itself out. There are 3 endings (win, lose, or draw) in the game: how the game ends depends on what cards you have chosen and how strong you have made these cards.

There are also 3 difficulty levels in the game. At the Easy setting, you do not need to find all connecting objects, and you are given more hints and are allowed more misses. This setting is best suited for novice gamers and gamers who are not fluent in the English language. At the Challenge setting, you are required to all the connecting objects. At the Gamer (the most difficult) setting, you are required to find even more objects (including new objects), with fewer hints and double penalties for the misses.

It is hard to say if Three Cards to Midnight has succeeded in meeting the high expectation it has generated. The story and atmosphere are very good. The puzzles are entertaining, though a bit monotonous. The game clearly targets gamers who are nostalgic for classic adventure games but are open to experiment with other genres. This is a game where the puzzles show a lot of cleverness but where eye candy has also taken on a lower priority. Three Cards to Midnight may not become a cult classic puzzle game like The 7th Guest, but it is a solid title that proves entertaining games can still be made with a lot of creativity despite only a modest budget.

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