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THE 7TH GUEST / Trilobyte / PC
I was very much a PC gamer when The 7th Guest first came out, and while it took me a while to get a PC capable of running it, I recall playing it at the houses of friends not long after its release. The two things I remember most strongly from those halcyon 1993 days — the game genuinely had a creepy vibe that disturbed me a little bit, and the puzzles were fun to solve.
A lot changes in fifteen years. Having not touched the game since then, I picked it up again in July 2009 for a run-through for review purposes and ... well, it's certainly aged fifteen years and shows it.
To be expected, I guess, from one of the first CD-ROM games, and the first CD-ROM game that was actually impressive and popular enough to get people dropping large change
for the then-expensive peripherals. The hardware price you paid at the time was that the game was horribly slow unless you had a top-of-the-line machine (which at that time would have been a mighty Pentium 100 or better). These days, that's not so much of a problem, but even if you emulate it in DOSBox the game is designed in such a way that moving about still drags a bit, and picking through the house for puzzles and video clips can be a bummer.
I'm against the mainstream grain in liking the sequel (
The 11th Hour
) a little more than this one, but that's one advantage The 7th Guest has — there's less fishing about for obscure stuff here than there is in the sequel. The whole of the game consists of fairly easy-to-find puzzles, with one exception at about the halfway point (which throws a lot of gamers for a loop) where you have to go into a previously useless room to witness an automated cut-scene before the rest of the second floor gets unlocked to you. This is actually an important point of demarcation that I'll come back to in a minute, but first let's get down to the nitty and the gritty of the game reviewing.
The 7th Guest was meant to function in three ways — to be a satisfying horror game, to be a satisfying puzzle game with a mystery twist, and to be an aesthetic
tour de force
to show off the new, unbridled powers of the CD-ROM as a gaming peripheral. It's eroded to varying degrees in all of these categories, but to start on a positive note, it is still an extremely aesthetically pleasing game. Using pre-rendered shots to imitate 3D may have come off as a bit of a cheap trick, but it allows for high-res backdrop graphics that aged well.
I think the biggest triumph of this game is atmosphere, which is creditable to several factors working in perfect tandem —
the Fat Man
's absolutely perfect soundtrack, the design of the mansion, and Robert Hirschobeck's delightfully manic and over the top performance as Henry Stauf. All of these things are great and can be appreciated into infinity.
It's fortunate for the game that it is so long on atmosphere, though, because it does wonders to cover up the flaws in the other two functions. As a horror game, the 7th Guest is mostly laughable. Disturbing memories of my youth came solely from the optional "supernatural events" one can see in various rooms, some of which are still a bit off-putting, but these little one-offs are few and far between. The FMV acting is what is really meant to frighten you, but the incredibly hammy and barely professional work of the actors turns it into more of a B-movie laugh fest than anything else.
There's this one moment that really encapsulates it all — you walk into a room and the ghost of a creepy clown is supposed to scare you, but the way he yells "RED BALLLOOOON" and then
randomly starts jerking around like he's doing The Robot
made me laugh harder than anything I've seen in weeks. That's the essence of the acting in The 7th Guest to me. It takes you out of the atmosphere rather than meshing with it, but everything else is done so well (the Fat Man and his score deserve the biggest kudos here) it all manages to get by all the same.
The mystery of the game has basically been trampled and ruined by almost two decades of writers now, and that's a shame because the game was really meant to be gone into knowing as little about it as possible. Trudging through all the puzzles is more satisfying that way and gives you more of an impetus to be bothered spending time on them.
And you'll need a nice impetus because the puzzles (the crux of the game) are just by and large not all that good. Remember that point of demarcation I mentioned before, where about halfway through the game you have to traipse down to the previously empty study to watch a little movie before you can proceed? There are fourteen total puzzles in the game, and about half have to be completed before that point while the others cannot be accessed until after it has occured. The early half puzzles are way too easy, while the latter half puzzles have such obscure rules and counter-intuitive moves available that they eventually become a major drag and a chore and if you aren't sucked in by the plot, you'll likely quit at some point before you finish up the game out of sheer tedium.
Nearly all of the game's puzzles are recycled from some other source, some of them very old. The ones that are challenging only become so because the rules - which are never given prior to attempting the puzzle, and must be interpreted by you through trial-and-error - either have some out-of-nowhere twist you won't expect unless you try it at random in desperation, or are just so vague that even with clues you can't figure out what the hell is intended. The two worst offenders are the chapel floor puzzle, which to this day I still don't understand the rules of (or how one is supposed to interpret them without outside help), and the widely maligned microscope puzzle, which is the only one where you face off against the computer AI (in a variant of Go where you basically have to be a master-level player to win, because the computer plays an absolutely perfect game every time.) The game dodges a bullet here with a "magic book" in the study that first dispenses two (usually non-helpful) clues to the current puzzle you are working on, then solves it outright for you on the third consulation, allowing you to skip anything that is maddening you. Of course, the flip side to this is that a lazy player can also skip virtually the entire game.
And after all this, you get a very short and rather vague ending, that seems to turn out to not matter at all anyway in light of the events of the sequel. So what reason is there to play The 7th Guest? To experience the atmosphere, and listen to the music, basically. If you love puzzle games and are hard up for one you may like to give it a try, but be prepared to be frustrated by recycled notions and not-so-thoughtful implementation. Otherwise, the game is just one of those little "slice of history" things you might play just to say you've played it, or just to spend some quality time being yelled and cackled at by Crazy Old Man Stauf.
Final technical note: if you play this on DOSBox on a modern PC and the game seems to be moving really slowly, tap CTRL-F12 as many times as you need to to get it up to speed. From what I understand, ScummVM has support now but the MIDI music is jacked up, which really kills any reason to play the game. Generic Soundblaster support is acceptable in DOSBox.
(much better than anything at GameFAQs)
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