Dracula 4: The Shadow of the Dragon
First posted on 03 July 2013. Last updated on 19 December 2013.
With the release of Dracula 4: The Shadow of the Dragon, newcomer and French developer Koalabs Studio seeks to resurrect the long-running Dracula series from Microïds (loosely based on Bram Stoker's fictional masterpiece of the same name). Previous games in the series, developed by Canal+ Multimedia (Dracula: The Resurrection and Dracula 2: The Last Sanctuary) and Kheops Studio (Dracula 3: The Path of the Dragon), have been well received by both fans and critics. Dracula: Origin, developed by Frogwares, is another game based on the same source material but otherwise unrelated to this series.
At the conclusion of Dracula 3: The Path of the Dragon, Janos and Professor von Krϋger are seen, dressed in Nazi uniforms, returning to London during World War II to try to reopen Dracula's crypt. Naturally, it is assumed that Dracula 4: The Shadow of the Dragon will follow both of these characters as they resume their quest to find Dracula. To my huge disappointment, once the game begins, it is immediately apparent that this is not a sequel in any way to the previous game from the series. The only connection between them is a fleeting reference to a couple of secondary characters (namely, Ioan and Luciana Hartner) from the previous game. In fact, the game presents itself more as the first part of a new episodic series than a standalone game for the running series, with the next sequel prominently hinted at the game's conclusion that will continue on with the new storyline.
In Dracula 4: The Shadow of the Dragon, you take on the protagonist role of Ellen Cross. Ellen is an art restorer working for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. She also has a terminal but undisclosed blood dyscrasia (how fitting!), needing to take special medications regularly in order to stay alive.
The game begins with a cinematic cut scene showing a cargo ship en route to America capsizing and sinking in the Atlantic during a violent ocean storm. Aboard the ship is a priceless collection of 15 prestigious paintings, belonging to Professor Vambery, that are bound for the museum where Ellen works. It is assumed that both Professor Vambery, who is also aboard the ship, and his paintings have been lost at sea. A short time later, however, a painting from the presumed lost collection surfaces in Budapest, Hungary. As the news of the recovered painting spreads, the director of the museum asks Ellen to travel there to authenticate the painting. Prior to leaving, Ellen visits her doctor to receive the last supply of her medicines which are no longer being manufactured.
After meeting with a local police inspector, Ellen verifies that the painting indeed belongs to the missing collection from Professor Vambery. Ellen then travels to Whitby, England to visit the Vambery Manor and meets Adam Stoker (again, how fitting!), a research assistant to the professor. Little does Ellen know, though, that her investigation will soon lead her to the trail of a mysterious and missing 16th painting from Professor Vambery's collection—a portrait of the infamous Prince of Wallachia, Vlad Tepes. All the while, she has to take medications to restore her continually declining health in order to continue on with her investigation.
The game comes with no manual but includes a tutorial in the form of a playable prologue that can be accessed at the beginning of the game. Upon starting the game, the main menu appears from which you can select New Game, Continue, Prologue-Tutorial, Load a Game, Options, or Quit the Game. The prologue gives some backstory of past events prior to Ellen's departure for Budapest. Completion of the prologue is entirely optional. From the Options menu, you can select Audio Settings, General Options, or Credits. Under the General Options, you can choose to play the game between 2 different modes: Casual and Adventure. Casual mode is best suited for inexperienced players, whereas Adventure mode is best suited for experienced players. As well, some puzzles can be skipped over when playing in Casual mode but not in Adventure mode. Subtitling is supported. Display of markers (hotspots) can be manually toggled but is also automatically toggled whenever the game mode is changed. Rotation of view can be switched between normal and reversed. The game does not allow for manual saving of your progress. Instead, periodic checkpoints are generated automatically with which you can use to reload the game. The game also gives you a choice to select between 5 different profiles when the game is started or resumed. Your progress is then automatically saved under the selected profile whenever you exit the game.
The inventory is comprehensive and can be accessed by clicking on the icon at the bottom right corner of the screen. There are over 90 items that you will need to collect and manage in the inventory. The inventory also includes a health indicator showing your current health, a diary that documents important clues you collect, a checklist of your current objectives, and a journal that includes a transcript of all of the dialogs in the game.
Gameplay adopts typical point-and-click adventure mechanics. Keyboard shortcuts are available to access the inventory (I key) and the main menu (Esc key). When marker display is disabled, the cursor will change when it is hovered over a hotspot to indicate what particular action (such as to pick up, to look at, to speak with, or to use on) is available. Navigation is node based. At each node, you can pan around (including up and down) to see the environment in fluid 360° panoramic view.
Alas, despite its pedigree, the overall experience delivered by this sequel leaves a lot to be desired. I find the game to be extremely short, much shorter than any of the previous games in the series. The game can be finished easily in 4-6 hours (or less). I also find the game's title to be a bit misleading. Even after some substantive time of play, there is not a whimper of the word "Dracula" to be heard in the game. As an example, early on in the game, you find a bust of Vlad Tepes (Dracula) hidden by Professor Vambery in a secret vault. Yet, no observation is being made by any other character—not even Adam, despite being a descendant of Stoker—to ever suspect Dracula to be involved. To me, the plot revolves more around a ring of perpetrators dealing in art theft and trafficking than around the archetypal vampire hunting his victims. Further, I find myself puzzled as to why the game even mentions that Ellen has a terminal illness. The mere fact that she has to take medications throughout the game is superfluous and irrelevant. Perhaps this is a story arc to be explored in the next sequel, but the present story gives no hint that it is more than just superfluous character development.
The graphics are a mixed bag. The character models are well done and look good. The décor within the professor's manor is well detailed, exuding opulence and grandeur that is synonymous with upper-class living. By contrast, the character animations are abysmal. When speaking, the characters show little or no body movement. Rather, they pose like wooden statues or rigid automatons. They also express little or no facial expressions. Their lips move when they speak but completely fail to be synchronized to the spoken dialogs (in the English localization). Sometimes, a voice is heard but no lip movement is seen. Other times, the lips move but no vocal sound is made.
The music is generally good and complements the mood of the game. I strongly advise selecting the lowest volume for the music, for otherwise the music will frequently drown out the voices. The sound effects are well done. The voice acting is competent but not spectacular.
The puzzles cover a good variety and are fair. Aside from the inventory based puzzles, there are some 17 major standalone puzzles to solve, such as wiring a fuse box and picking a lock. The puzzles are logical, except for the lock pick that is solved solely by trial and error. In fact, the lock pick can be a challenge to solve. There are no sliders, mazes, or timed puzzles. The game is very linear, in that even minor progress must be made in a strict order. Points are rewarded each time a puzzle is solved. Your current score (out of a maximum of 300 points) is displayed in the inventory. Likewise, trophies are rewarded for completing various achievements. There are a total of 20 trophy awards available to be unlocked. Your current trophies are also displayed in the inventory.
In sum, as a fan of the Dracula series, Dracula 4: The Shadow of the Dragon is a huge letdown for me. I expect a sequel matching the quality of previous games in the series. Instead, I find it to be a truncated experience that fails to satisfy the appetite of fans familiar with the series. I simply cannot recommend this game.