Amber: Journeys Beyond
While the big name game companies turn an increasingly blind eye to the adventure game fan, more and more independent developers are cropping up to fill the void. Hue Forest, the development company behind Amber is actually husband-and-wife team Frank and Susan Wimmer. (A la Jeff & Karen Tobler of Riddle of the Sphinx and The Omega Stone.) Despite its meager origins, Amber looks and plays like it could have come straight from Sierra or (more accurately) Cryo.
Amber is a ghost story. Actually, it's three ghost stories wrapped up together in one over-plot. And boy do the Wimmers know how to tell a ghost story! (I'd love to go camping with them just to sit around the campfire and listen to their tales of the macabre.) Amber manages to be both sweet and scary, with moments of heart-breaking tragedy and sadness intermingled with enough creepiness to make your skin crawl. It is, in short, one of the most (maybe the most) emotional games I have ever played.
In classic adventure tradition, the game starts with you getting a mysterious summons (in this case an e-mail) from a friend who needs help. You jump in your car and race off to see what your old pal Roxy... errrr... Dr. Roxanne Westbridge (noted physicist and psychologist) is up to. But your rescue mission takes a twist when your car skids out of control and ends up half-buried in a frozen lake. Surviving the wreck, you stagger up to the house where Roxy is doing her research only to find the power out and no sign of your friend. Things don't improve much once you get the lights on; you eventually find Roxy in the garage... comatose and with her head wired into some gizmo. As you explore the house you eventually find out that Roxy was working on a method of tracking and communicating with ghosts. Now poor Roxy is trapped; her body in the garage and her mind/spirit in the netherworld.
In order to rescue Roxy from the result of her experiment, you will have to assemble and activate some of the machinery she devised. Then you have to visit the spirit world yourself and lay to rest the three ghosts that haunt the house: a 1940's housewife whose husband is off to war, a little boy who drowned in the same lake that is holding your car hostage, and a lovestruck paranoid-schizophrenic. One at a time you enter the spirit realms of these ghosts, joining with them in a bizarre frisson, both linked and separate. Each spirit has his/her own story, different chapters of the game. Only after you have seen the complete story of a ghost and helped it to accept its fate will it rest peacefully. When all three ghosts are settled, you can then work on waking Roxy back out of her coma.
This is a traditional point-and-click adventure. The view is first-person slideshow style. Movement is node-to-node with no panning. Like many older games, Amber plays in its own window, which only takes up about 70% of your screen. There is an inventory, but it is minimal. I don't think I was ever carrying more than 3-4 items at a time.
One of those items is your PeeK, a kind of paranormal PDA. You can use this to monitor the many video cameras scattered around the house and see all kinds of spooky things happening: doorknobs rattling, butcher knives floating through the air, etc. All these "visitations" are occurring in rooms you aren't in, but rooms that are sometimes so close to you that you are terrified to take a step in the wrong direction! But fear not, there is no way to "die" in Amber. At least not for you.
The interface is simple and intuitive: straight point-and-click. The cursor will change shape when over a hotspot. A menu bar for saving and loading games will appear if you move your cursor to the very top of the screen. Inventory items are always visible in a row under the game window.
Puzzling is a mixture of inventory and environment manipulation. There is one maze of sorts: an underwater ride in a toy Model T with a teddy bear. There is also one slider puzzle. Now, I hate slider puzzles, but I managed to breeze through this one. When a friend asked me for help her with it a year later, I went to a walkthrough to give her the exact instructions and found that the solution was 79 moves! I can't be certain, but I sure remember it being much, much shorter and simpler than that.
The graphics are photo-realistic and absolutely gorgeous. (All the more remarkable when you consider this is a "garage" game.) Most are static, but there are a fair number of animations mixed in. I was very impressed with the attention to detail. The sound and music were very good and helped set the atmosphere well, whether it was 1940's Big Band playing on the radio, a child's sing-song melody, or the the diabolical commands of a hive of evil bees. (No, that's not a typo!) Even the silence is used well... after poking around a quiet empty house for a while, you jump right out of your chair when you hear a floorboard creak!
One note: Amber is available for both PC and Mac. However, it absolutely will not play in WinXP or the other NT-based systems. No patch. No tweaking. No playing with an .ini file. It simply cannot be done.
I can't praise this game enough. It effectively draws you into the plights of the characters with its unique method of making you joined-but-objective with the ghosts. You really care for these troubled souls. I defy anyone to remain untouched at the end of Margaret's (the war bride) story. I was leaking tears. Actually, all three of the stories are very sad. At least one of them is also so creepy (living in the mind of a madman) that I felt like I needed a shower afterward.
The one quibble with the game that everyone has is that it is too short. This is only partially valid. Amber is so good that even at four times its length you wouldn't want to stop! As is, it takes some 6-8 hours to play, making it perfect for a long rainy day spent in an empty house. with no distractions except the occasional rumble of thunder.
It's a shame the Wimmers never made another game. Amber is an instant classic.
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