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THE 11th HOUR / Trilobyte / PC
I like The 11th Hour a hair better than prequel
The 7th Guest
. I do say that with full awareness that The 11th Hour has a boatload of its own issues, though, and the change in atmosphere may alienate players who came for the psychological horror of the first installment rather than the puzzles.
The 11th Hour is a 4 CD beast, largely made so by telling the ongoing story via FMV video clips. Unlike the ghostly visions in the first game, the video clips here are full-screen, and largely take place outside the mansion, detailing events that happened prior to the start of the game. The plot apparently was drawn up to address the frequent complaints of confusing and muddled structure in the first game - it has a clear beginning, main character, and ongoing story arc.
The game moves forward to the present (1995, when it was released), and somehow the Stauf mansion has risen again in Harley after apparent asplosion in the previous game. A series of disappearances in the area of the house leads the producers of the television show Case Unsolved to plan an episode on it, and they send a young lady named Robin to go scout the area and the house out beforehand. Robin gets romantically involved with the host of the show, a rather skeezy dude named Carl, who gives her a very cold-blooded "it was just a one night stand" sort of treatment prior to her leaving for Harley. Of course, she goes missing, and soon after Carl gets a mysterious delivery of a gadget called a GameBook, which when opened shows a video of a crying Robin apparently trapped in Stauf's basement. So off Carl goes for a night of puzzle-solving and ghostly illusions.
It's a bit inexplicable as to why Stauf would put a Help button on the GameBook, but the condition of his mansion is even more inexplicable. The layout is almost entirely the same as in the previous visit, but the furnishings seem to have been updated a bit with televisions and push-button phones seen strewn about. Not only that, it's completely trashed, looking like hobos have been squatting it for a few decades or so. Carl must pick his way through via flashlight, not only solving puzzles this time but deciphering anagrams and word puzzles that Stauf throws at him via the GameBook.
Moving about Stauf's mansion and interacting with it are largely the same as in the previous game, though there are a few small tweaks. Carl moves about at a much zippier clip than the original game's protagonist did, and if you're playing on DOSBox on a modern system, you'll be pleasantly surprised at how fast you can zoom around now (you'll likely have to slow the game down some if you want to see everything while in motion.) Carl also turns in shorter increments, allowing you to explore rooms a little more thoroughly this time out, which is necessary for the new "treasure hunt" portion of the gameplay.
The "supernatural events" from the first game are largely gone, instead going with a more slasher-movie ambience in the FMV stories - wandering about Stauf's mansion feels rather dead and desolate compared to the cornucopia of weird stuff you could run into in the previous game (and this is the main reason why the game loses the "psychological horror" edge that the first one had).
There are 14 regular puzzles in the game, matching the grand total of the previous, but also six additional puzzles that are played against Stauf's AI in the manner of the dreaded
of the first game. Stauf is significantly toned down in ability here, but is still a stiff challenge in most cases, and he seems to be the beneficiary of incredible luck very often (more on that in a bit.)
On the whole I enjoyed the puzzles here much more than I did those of the first game, but unfortunately the first four or five are not very good, and seem almost as if they were designed to attempt to drive you from the game before completing the first disc. The game begins with only three puzzles accessible: a puzzle involving sliding books around, a chess-problem puzzle with knights that is reminiscent of the chess puzzles found in the prequel, and a puzzle involving balancing an ancient cash register.
The book puzzle is irritating because, though intended to be simple, the designers do not make it clear what exactly the final placement of the books is supposed to be, and the hints via the GameBook are of no help. The Knight puzzle is more interesting, but it would have been better served placed later in the game. With something like 40 minimum moves to solve it, it's too complicated and headache-inducing for the very beginning of the game and is a very rough introduction for players not already adjusted to the style of the series. The Cash Register puzzle reflects a problem endemic with the puzzles of The 7th Guest; it isn't very hard once you know the rules, but you only sort the rules out via trial-and-error, and the process of doing so takes far too long - especially when the intuitive solution is the wrong one. There's less of this here than there was in the first game overall, but still enough to be "
The AI battles against Stauf are also problematic. He isn't nearly as omniscient as he was in the microscope puzzle, but he seems to get incredible breaks more often than not. At this point, the "psychic hint line" which can end the frustration of the other puzzles becomes useless; in Stauf AI games the psychic can only make "the best possible move" for you on each turn. As a test I tried letting the psychic play three games running against Stauf at the first AI puzzle you encounter (the Rat Maze), and she lost quickly every time. Coincidence, perhaps, but he seemed to continue to get the breaks throughout the later puzzles as well, leading me to believe the designers just intended for you to lose a number of times regardless of playing ability.
The most divisive point of this game, however, has to be the anagrams and word puzzles which supplement the normal puzzles. The normal puzzles tend to merely open up new areas of the house, while the word puzzles are the ones that give you new FMVs and advance the story. The very first puzzle is already pretty cryptic, but the game gives you a very small space to walk about in and few potential objects to try to push you toward the solution quickly - blundering into it is supposed to teach you that you should look at each one of these as a potential anagram and/or cryptogram, but apparently a lot of people didn't get the hint. Again, this is highly subjective. Some of us are naturally more inclined to language, some to math, and etc. I happen to be strongly a language man, so I both enjoyed these and didn't have overmuch trouble with any but a few (mostly the ones that involved figuring out how to translate a series of numbers.) If you prefer other types of puzzles and thinking, you'll probably hate them. Some people simply hated combing the mansion for the proper item, but I found that with the limited progression of rooms available there was never really a huge inventory of possibilities until the third disc or so, and by then the anagrams start laying out the solutions in the vicinity of where the next regular puzzles are anyway.
Further points in favor come from the return of The Fat Man with another great soundtrack playing off the motifs and style of the previous game, but with a whole lot of new songs. One point against, however, is the fact that you can't restore a saved game directly from the title screen, but must sit through several logos and some other unnecessary bullshit before you are allowed access.
The acting is overall kind of a wash; relative to the rest of the world, it tends to be wooden and not very good, but relative to the horribly hammy efforts of the previous game, it's a vast improvement. The story is certainly interesting enough to press on with, even if pretty much all of the characters involved are totally unsympathetic. The main plus here is that Stauf both gets more camera time, and is also way more chatty this time out.
Overall, both this and The 7th Guest strike me as creations that live better in your imagination than when they are in front of you being played. Though the balance is a little better here, the puzzles still tend to be either outdated and too easy, or cheap by having overly obscure rules or using cheap AI against you. There are also all the minor niggles with the interface, acting, etc. I'd love to see this IP returned to and updated for a sequel, or even possibly remakes, but the originals I can't honestly say are all that great beyond being an atmospheric experience and an OK set of puzzle games. The gaming world certainly does thank Trilobyte for the epic soundtracks and for the character of Stauf, who is really one of the most memorable villains the genre has seen.
- Some of the designers and the actor who played Stauf post here sometimes
"Making Of" Video
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