Shadows on the Vatican Act 1: Greed

Posted by Martin Mulrooney.
First posted on 15 June 2012. Last updated on 15 June 2012.
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Shadows on the Vatican Act 1: Greed
Conversations are accompanied by cartoonish representations of the characters to convey emotions.
Shadows on the Vatican Act 1: Greed
Scenes are drawn with great details but never really feel alive.
Shadows on the Vatican Act 1: Greed
The small but useful map can be used to quickly reach the different locations.
Shadows on the Vatican Act 1: Greed
The characters that James meets are all talkative, but none of them prove particularly memorable.
Shadows on the Vatican Act 1: Greed
The game's artwork is impressive, showcasing the rich facades of Rome.

Shadows on the Vatican Act 1: Greed is a short third-person point-and-click adventure game from Italian game developer 10th Art Studio. Originally released in Italian, the game has since been dubbed and subtitled into English and published by Adventure Productions. As the title implies, the game is the first act of a planned series to be eventually comprised of 4 acts. This explains the short length of the game and follows the recent trend in episodic adventure game releases.

A short notification at the beginning of the game informs the player how Shadows on the Vatican is loosely based on In God's Name, a book written by British author David Yallop and published by Bantam Books in 1984. It also makes the disclaimer that any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and that all references to historical and real people are just quotes from news stories already published by the Italian and foreign press. Presumably, this message serves a couple of purposes: it covers the developer from legal liabilities, but it also makes the player immediately become interested in the secrets that will be revealed in the game—whether factual, fictional, or somewhere in-between.

In the game, the player takes control of James Murphy, a former priest who is now a doctor. The opening cut scene, shown in a comic book style reminiscent of Beneath a Steel Sky, explains James' stark change of career choice: in 1996, James witnesses his mentor Dellerio being gunned down in Africa and as a result abandons the priesthood, disillusioned and distrustful of the church despite his unwavering religious beliefs. He returns to his birthplace, Chicago, and studies medicine instead.

In the present day, James is summoned to Rome by his best friend Father Cristoforo Ardemagni, who claims to have information about that fateful day in Africa 14 years ago. However, before he can meet with him, Cristoforo is violently attacked and falls into a coma. James is left alone exploring the city of Rome, trying to discover the truth and slowly uncovering a conspiracy that will strike to the very heart of the Catholic Church.

Comparisons to the Broken Sword series are inevitable. James, much like George Stobbart, is a handsome blonde-haired American abroad who is caught up in a religious conspiracy. However, Shadows on the Vatican stumbles where Broken Sword does not. This is apparent from the outset, where James describes baseball to the Italian barman Mario and says "baseball club" instead of "baseball bat". Immediately, the illusion that James is from Chicago is shattered. It works both ways too—although the voice acting is mostly passable across the board, the Italian accents with which the other characters speak are never quite right. Moreover, the 3D character models are stiffly animated and do not blend well with the 2D backgrounds. The illusion of reality is constantly broken.

Despite these shortcomings, the game has some genuine appeal. James is a likeable enough main character, and the mystery that the game wraps itself around is actually rather good. Being based upon a book has obviously given the developer a wealth of source material to work with and to use to its advantage. Furthermore, the locations are superbly drawn and look authentic. The game supports multiple screen resolutions, and the high resolution graphics are extremely detailed. The only drawback to the background artwork is the lack of small animations to bring the scenes alive. The game can often feel quite static at times and not very active, which is a shame when the locations themselves are so lush and authentic. It results in a clinical feel that is again not very immersive.

The puzzles vary in difficulty. Sadly, most of the challenge of the game seems to come from the player being unclear about what to do next. It seems the developer has specific solutions in mind, but these solutions do not always match with what the player is thinking. As a result, some of the puzzles descend into simply clicking every inventory item on every hotspot available in a location, and the correct answer does not always ring true even in hindsight. This is counteracted in other adventure games by progressive hints which are given whenever the player appears to be stuck. However, in this game, James is unfortunately silent when he needs to speak up most to offer hints to the player. A particular puzzle involving tailing a car takes the form of a top down mini-game, but its potential is squandered—it seems the only solution is to persevere through trial and error, which is never an ideal solution.

The game presents a reasonably compelling story, but it finishes before it has really gotten started. The production values vary widely. Although the idea of playing the game to explore a complex mystery appeals, the execution often falls slightly short. Often, it feels as if the game is missing that special finesse which makes the best adventure games soar, the absence of which is further exacerbated by small annoyances that quickly add up. For example, the sound during the cut scenes is louder than the main game volume. Also, a female character that is introduced near the end of the game is voiced with no enthusiasm at all. As this character is being positioned as a second hero alongside James in future acts of the series, it is slightly daunting to imagine listening to hours of her monotone delivery. Oddly, the M key is supposed to bring up a map, but the keyboard shortcut only seems to work some of the time. Finally, load times between locations are too long.

Shadows on the Vatican Act 1: Greed manages to remain reasonably enjoyable despite a few obvious shortcomings. Interested gamers may wish to see how future acts in the series pan out before becoming invested. There is much potential, but whether it will be harnessed by the developer is still as much a shrouded mystery as the story that the game tries to tell.

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