Three Cards to Dead Time
First posted on 18 April 2010. Last updated on 09 May 2012.
Three Cards to Dead Time is the sequel to Big Finish Games' Three Cards to Midnight. Picking up where the first game has left off, the story in the second game is an urban fantasy centering around a young women named Jess Silloway with a unique supernatural gift, as she tries to learn about the history of her gift and come to terms with the various supernatural forces that have a role to play in her life. In the previous game, Jess's goal is to learn about herself and figure out the mysteries hidden in her past. In this game, Jess is now forced to pick sides between all the people who want to control her future and influence the choices she will have to make. The gameplay and overall structure of the game follows the model laid out by the previous game in the series: you start out by picking tarot cards to choose a setting and go on pixel hunts for objects connected to a particular theme, with occasional standalone puzzles being included in a chapter.
The story in the previous game focuses on Jess uncovering the secrets of her past and learning about her supernatural gift, thanks to spiritual guidance from beyond the grave from her biological father. The story in this game, by contrast, centers on Jess going on a self guided tour of the supernatural world, revisiting old relationships and ultimately deciding who she can trust and what is the destiny she wants to fulfill for herself.
Three Cards to Dead Time (also known as 3 Cards to Dead Time) holds to the production values of the original. Story scenes are told through voice acting, accompanied by a series of still scenes of the characters without the benefit of animation, lip-syncing, or particularly detailed models. The principal puzzle solving elements of the game are comparable those of graphic adventure games of yesteryears, with a larger degree of clutter due to the layered objects and with some occasional use of animation or effects. The tarot cards introducing each chapter and some of the standalone puzzles are beautifully rendered, but the bread and butter of the game still relies on comparably modest production values.
Three Cards to Dead Time undergoes some gameplay changes from Three Cards to Midnight, and whether or not you think they represent an improvement likely depends upon how crucial you think the story is be to the game. In the original game, the tarot card puzzles are all based upon word associations that can occur before or after a keyword. For example, the word "note" may be paired with "book", "music", or "key" to form notebook, music note, or keynote respectively. After solving a particular set of associations, a cut scene associated with that key word then plays, and you can switch back and forth between a few keywords to find objects that may be associated with each. In this game, the word associations are not exclusively based upon generating a new word by simply combining a given word with the name of an object, so that each type of association you have to solve can be entirely different. You may be asked to look for objects that come in 5s or that are ruined by sunlight, or to fill in a grid of connections, such as being asked to fill in the blanks for a string of related keywords where "tigers" is the middle keyword, leading you to think of "lions, tigers, and bears". Similarly, you may be asked to fill in a grid of opposites, where half of the pair is already filled in for you. However, this additional complexity of the puzzles comes at a cost: the payoff cut scenes have relatively little to do with the theme of the objects for which you will be searching. While the new types of puzzles can rely on specific knowledge sometimes, such as knowledge of the planets, the tarot, the zodiac, or objects associated with a particular country, there is a greater variety in the kinds of associations you will be making and the ways in which you will test your creativity.
The disconnect between the puzzles and the overall story is problematic in some ways. Up until the game's finale you can completely ignore and skip through the story and will still have no trouble playing through the puzzles and enjoying them for what they are. In this sense, the game is a series of pixel hunts, broken up by simple standalone puzzles and storytelling scenes. In another sense, the game is a story paced by your ability to complete these puzzles. However, since the puzzles do not depend upon your understanding or engagement with the story, you can choose to cut out either side of the equation and still leave behind an experience that can be enjoyed. The game itself gives you a choice in scaling up or scaling down the difficulty of the puzzles and the number of objects included in the pixel hunts, which may be important for gamers whose native languages may not be English.
Most adventure games use the story as a means of explaining your objectives, in which the story presents you with the goals and you must accomplish them through the means of the gameplay mechanics. Here, the story seems as if it is strictly a reward for advancing through it, but the specific puzzles you solve have little direct connection with Jess's troubles. Still, this style of gameplay has its own advantages: most other games are a tangle of connected objectives in which you have to figure out how to solve, while this game is a sequence of puzzles that stand on their own and will not get you stuck.
The closest analogy to the puzzles in this game that I can make is crossword puzzles. They do not depend upon you understanding a specific story or making logical inferences like Sudoku. The puzzles depend upon your verbal skills and specific knowledge as well as your ability to recognize all the objects in a room and figure out the associations the developer intends for you to find. Like a crossword puzzle, each pixel hunt is a bunch of tiny puzzles going on at once, and unlike most games that require the full attention of a single person, it can be tackled by a group of people with diverse knowledge who can make headway in different directions. A few of the objects are unfortunately difficult to identify just by looking at them, and the knowledge and vocabulary required by the game on its hardest setting is vast, but the game offers hints and allows you to restart a puzzle, so getting completely stuck is impossible.
The gameplay is simple and intuitive enough on its own to make it rewarding to play, particularly if you invite a fellow gamer (as I have done) to join in on the pixel hunts to help make associations between the objects in ways that you yourself may not see at first, making the experience even more enjoyable. Appreciating the complexity of the story as it is told through cut scenes that interrupt pieces of gameplay is, however, a significantly harder task. I have found Three Cards to Dead Time to be enjoyable as a set of clever visual puzzles, and while I appreciate many of the themes it explored, I have found it less engaging as a story.