Baron Wittard: Nemesis of Ragnarok

Posted by Martin Mulrooney.
First posted on 23 May 2011. Last updated on 24 May 2011.
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Baron Wittard: Nemesis of Ragnarok
The swimming pool in The Utopia has been unused for many years.
Baron Wittard: Nemesis of Ragnarok
The Utopia is slowly falling into disrepair.
Baron Wittard: Nemesis of Ragnarok
A map allows for quick travels through The Utopia.
Baron Wittard: Nemesis of Ragnarok
Some clues can be overly complex.
Baron Wittard: Nemesis of Ragnarok
The baron communicates through a magical amulet.

Baron Wittard: Nemesis of Ragnarok is a first-person puzzle adventure game created by Alan Thorn and Marlies Maalderink of Wax Lyrical Games. In this game, the player takes control of an unseen, unvoiced protagonist who is simply identified as a reporter for a magazine, tasked to explore a sprawling city contained inside a building known only as The Utopia.

Despite its indie production, the game begins with a dramatic opening cinematic, filmed live action in what appears to be the English countryside. The black and white visuals, offering snatched glimpses of fields and trees through rain speckled car windows, soon gives way to a trek through the woods that feels suitably ominous.

According to the magazine's editor Kate, Baron Wittard created The Utopia many years before. Its grand opening was supposed to have been a couple of years ago, but some mysterious chain of events left the city abandoned and empty. Local children had also gone missing. It was rumored that the building might have something to do with their disappearances.

The player is then told of the mission by the editor: to explore The Utopia and take as many photographs as possible for the magazine. Unfortunately, the moment that the opening cinematic switches to actual gameplay is a telling sign of the game's uneven production. The cinematics are all rather blurry throughout and continually fail to match up to the fidelity of the in-game artwork which is pixel sharp. Fortunately, the beauty of the first location the player encounters—the courtyard outside the city—takes away some of the disappointment at this lack of production values, and before long, the player has gained entrance to The Utopia itself.

The majority of the gameplay that follows is spent exploring the building and solving puzzles. This is a decidedly nonlinear game, meaning that the puzzles can be solved in any order and the game has very few trigger moments that typically signify narrative progress. At first, these puzzles are solved simply to gain access to new locations. Before long, however, the true objectives become clear: to find the 10 ancient rune stones, match them with their unique hidden dissolution devices, and figure out the ensuing puzzles.

The controls of the game are very simple. Only the mouse is used for navigation and interaction. The player can pan around the surroundings in 360° but must click in a specific direction to travel. This actually causes much annoyance, as it can take many clicks simply to transverse across any given scene to the next scene, with the world itself basically represented by a series of static scenes that are stitched together. Also, some items can only be interacted with from a certain position or vantage point, which can sometimes lead to missing an important clue or hotspot. Although the player is supposed to be a skilled reporter and photographer, there are no instances in the game where these skills are required. This omission continually feels like a wasted opportunity, as incorporating photography into the game will likely work well given the paranormal elements of the plot and including the ability to create notes to jot down clues will greatly cut down the monotonous task of collecting them in half.

The puzzles themselves are a mixed bag. All of them are challenging, but only a handful of them remain satisfying as a result. The majority of the puzzles are overly complex, relying on clues that may not even be particularly clear. An example is a view glimpsed early on showing some windows lit in different shades of light. Later, a complex puzzle involving a pair of electricity boxes, complete with various bulbs and valves, uses the same pattern as these windows for its solution. This makes little sense and is weakly justified by the baron's back story, as revealed near the end of the game in a huge overload of text via his diary. Regardless, this is a common reoccurrence, with the player, unable to utilize a camera, instead expected to have a photographic memory. The puzzles are continually obtuse and difficult, and their solutions often rely on vague clues that may or may not have been glimpsed many scenes prior. There is a map feature to help with this to some extent, though it can only be accessed when looking at a hotspot close up due to the nature of the controls. Even more bizarrely, only certain locations can be teleported to using this map. In the end, only the most seasoned and patient puzzle solving gamers can be expected to complete the game to its conclusion. For other gamers, the solutions to many puzzles will seem impossibly unfair. Furthermore, an overreliance on slider puzzles and other such brainteasers quickly starts to grate, feeling tacked on rather than part of the world.

The story itself is almost entirely throwaway. The Utopia is supposed to be enormous, but the player only gets to see a small fraction of it, with the rest of the world entirely inaccessible because of a broken elevator. Constant plot holes are also raised. For example, it is inconceivable that somehow the baron knows ahead what locations you will or will not have access, so that he can place his puzzles and hide the rune stones in just the right places! The baron himself speaks to the player directly via an ancient magical amulet, but he never offers much advice and instead simply implores the player to continue onwards unquestioningly. There is much talk of Ragnarok and the end of the world, but most of the moments designed to fright only do so with limited success. The continually mentioned Viking subtexts are mostly lost and also fail to fulfill their narrative potential.

The voice work is minimal. When it appears, however, it is clear and precise. Sadly, the voices of both Barron Wittard and Kate are rather plain, with little intonation, character, or personality offered when they speak. The soundtrack is more akin to a series of environmental building sounds than a true musical accompaniment, and it remains pretty forgettable in the end. The game does not offer a selectable screen resolution.

Overall, Baron Wittard: Nemesis of Ragnarok offers some impressive visuals for an indie game, but its execution is severely lacking. Knowing that a hidden switch must be pressed for a second time, before taking a specific path to cut behind a mechanical panel and ride a lift to a hidden location, is not intuitive or fun in the slightest. A sequel is strongly hinted at within the game's duel endings (both can be attained at the same point right near the very end). If the sequel indeed comes to fruition, the developer needs to work diligently to build upon this game's strengths rather than its numerous weaknesses. Diehard adventure gamers who like their games tough-as-nails may enjoy the towering challenge offered by this game. Most gamers, however, are advised to seek out a less punishing way to spend their play time.

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