The Mystery of the Druids, from first time developer House of Tales, is sort of an odd adventure. It starts out looking like it’s going to be a gritty crime investigation, complete with forensic reports and interrogation records, but then it quickly switches gears into something more fanciful. It tries to maintain a dark and sometimes gruesome tone, but then it continually introduces silly and absurd situations. Finally, it has some genuinely good puzzles, but then it throws out some truly awful and bizarre ones. So Mystery of the Druids ends up all over the map, in every aspect of the game, and that sort of inconsistency might leave some gamers cold. But I think Mystery of the Druids provides everything an adventure needs to provide -- no more and no less -- and is therefore worthwhile to play for that reason.
In Mystery of the Druids you get to play Brent Halligan, a detective with Scotland Yard. You’re not the Yard’s best or brightest -- by a long shot -- but when the lead detective on the “Skeleton Murders” case arrests the wrong man, you’re assigned to take over. The “Skeleton Murders” involve victims being stripped of their flesh and left as a pile of bones, usually with the head removed, but since the name of the adventure is Mystery of the Druids, obviously the case isn’t a new take on the Headless Horseman, and it doesn’t feature your average, run-of-the-mill psychopath. No, there are at least a couple druids involved, and as you play your way through the game you’ll learn that the murders are just a side effect of some unpleasant rituals, and that the druids want to take over the world. Why? Because they’re evil druids, of course.
So, ok, the story is a little flaky, especially when you discover you need to go back in time to stop the druids. But Mystery of the Druids at least tries to develop a story during the game, which puts House of Tales ahead of a lot of other adventure developers out there. And, although the story is basically silly, it’s enough to keep you playing. I mean, if you get to go back in time, what else might happen? The only problem with the story is that whoever designed the game’s packaging gives everything away. Normally, I wouldn’t spoil a significant plot twist like going back in time, but not only is that fact listed on the back of the box, of the game’s three CD’s, one is labeled “The Past” and one is labeled “The Present” (the third is the install CD). Gee, thanks for the warning.
The game’s box also gives away that you won’t really be investigating murders; instead you’ll be investigating druids. That might make you hopeful that Mystery of the Druids would play like a Gabriel Knight mystery -- that is, be dark, supernatural and historically based -- but it isn’t. The game doesn’t have the same sort of depth as Jane Jenson’s games, I think most of the content about druids is simply made up -- druids didn’t really carry around gyroscopes, did they? -- and House of Tales had trouble deciding on a tone for the mystery. For example, two of first things you can do are visit a murder scene to examine some decomposing bones, and stick your face into a copy machine to create a self-portrait of yourself. That sort of dichotomy goes on all throughout the game, and it makes it difficult to take things seriously, even when you see something fairly yucky like a cannibalism sequence. Plus, you won’t get to do much in the way of investigating yourself. Mostly you’ll solve puzzles to allow yourself to do things you shouldn’t have to solve puzzles to do (like using a phone), and the people you meet will pretty much tell you everything you need to know.
But the backdrop tends to be a minor point in adventure games, and I think most players are there simply for the puzzles. If anything else works well -- like in The Longest Journey -- that’s just gravy. Luckily, Mystery of the Druids does a reasonably good job with the puzzles. There are a couple of mechanical puzzles, and there’s even a maze (blech), but 90% of the puzzles are inventory based, so you’ll spend most of your time picking up odd things and then figuring out what to do with them. And, as with most adventures that feature inventory puzzles, Mystery of the Druids has the full range of quality, from good to bad to bizarre, but since there are only so many objects to pick up and so many places to use them, you can probably get through most of the puzzles simply by using trial and error, even if they don’t make sense. Still, you’ll probably be surprised by some of the things you can do with, oh, scarves and case files.
Also, the puzzles in Mystery of the Druids are friendly in a LucasArts sort of way. There is one sequence in the game where you can get killed, but otherwise you’re free to experiment, and nothing you do can prevent you from finishing the game. The only real downside to the gameplay is that the interface isn’t as nice as it could be (you can click on lots of things and not get a response), and House of Tales handled conversations surprisingly badly (you have to talk to people over and over and over to exhaust all the information they can tell you). But, overall, the mechanics of the game are solid.
The graphics are also pretty good. The background locations look nice, and some places, like Halligan’s office, are great, but House of Tales made other locations look just a little bit too regular and symmetrical to feel real. However, they added lots of nice details to the locations to make up for it, like some books you can look at in a library, and a globe in one office that you can actually spin. But for some reason the characters don’t look as good as the locations. They tend to be blocky, and, if you look at the credits at the back of the manual, you’ll see the word “low-res” featured prominently in the titles of the character artists and animators, so apparently the less-than-exceptional appearance of the characters was a design decision. That’s too bad, but perhaps it was also the only way House of Tales could get Mystery of the Druids to have a reasonable set of system requirements.
The sound is also reasonable. The voice actors do a nice job with their lines, and Robert A. Graves and Emily Clarke are especially good as Halligan and Melanie Turner (the other lead character), respectively. The sound effects are also solid, but the background music is mostly forgettable, and I had to turn it way down so I could hear the characters and do the one sound puzzle in the game.
Overall, Mystery of the Druids is an average adventure. It is inconsistent both in tone and quality, but it has lots of places to explore and lots of puzzles to solve, it provides a friendly playing environment, and it gives somewhere in the neighborhood of 15-20 hours of gameplay. I don’t know that it’s worth $45 (Ed. The Mystery of the Druids currently retails for $30 USD at most stores), especially when so many other adventures are selling for $20, but it’s a nice enough first effort from House of Tales, and I’m hopeful that they can make enough money on this release to justify developing more adventures in the future.