Platform: DOS, Windows, Mac, Linux
I really wanted to like this game. While I’m not a fan of Lovecraft’s stories, the mythos fascinates me. I would not expect it to, since it more or less boils down to cult worshiping of tentacled gods. But the appeal to me, I think, comes from the notion that humans can be driven mad if they dare to know too much about the universe’s power. It certainly helps that Anchorhead, one of the best games I’ve ever played, taps into these insecurities so well. Shadow of the Comet certainly does a fine job in this arena as well. Sadly, the ghastly user interface along with some intractable puzzle design left me mostly cold.
You play as John T. Parker, a British reporter who convinces his boss to let him cover the mythical horrors of Illsmouth, New England right when Halley’s Comet is set to return to our solar system in 1910. As is expected in such a story, many of the townsfolk are immediately wary of their guest, setting up roadblocks to his discovering of even the most banal town secrets. A few are glad Parker is there and support him in his quest to uncover Cthulhu’s cult and, naturally, to save the world from The Ancient Ones.
Immediately, players accustomed to Sierra and LucasArts will be utterly confused by the user interface. Parker can only move in the four cardinal directions, and he moves one block at a time with little precision. Not only does this cause problems when you don’t realize the block you’re moving to will send Parker over the edge to his death, it is also just generally clunky. Pointing the mouse on the screen does not send Parker to that point; it simply interprets what cardinal direction you want him to move in and will send him one block that direction. This renders the mouse pointless and I spent the majority of the game using the keyboard.
More frustrating is how Parker interacts with the world. There are four icons for talk, get, use, and look. Yet they provide no response from the game most of the time. While endless “you can’t do that” messages can get obnoxious, getting no response at all makes you wonder if there’s something wrong with you. There are keyboard shortcuts for these four actions, which again are simpler than dragging your mouse all across the screen for no feedback. Few responses to “look” is the most egregious. The games gives so little feedback as it is, and when you’re not even give a description of what you’re looking at on the screen, you’re left to blindly guess your way through puzzle after puzzle. There is an in-game notebook where Parker writes down clues and objectives, but he neglects to write down half of what is helpful, so you’ll need take notes as well if you don’t want to rely as much on the walkthrough.
One appealing feature is that if Parker gets close to an item he can pick up, a dotted line appears on the screen indicating that you should, indeed, pick up said item. This helps reduce some pixel hunting, but there were several times where I was standing right on top of something and the dots did not appear. This left me pixel-hunting in a different way.
Of course, when you do manage to pick up an item, the real horror awaits which is your inventory. Unlike nearly every other game where you can select an item, then drag it to where you want to try it, here you must select the item when you’re standing NEXT to the place you want to use it. And if you’re not standing in the right place, the game gives you no feedback whatsoever, again making you wonder if you’re even playing the game correctly. Worse yet, a few times you must combine inventory items, which requires selecting an item, then going back and selecting another item right away. I can’t imagine a worse way to do this.
The map is also not intuitive. Almost nothing is done with right angles, and it’s really hard to tell the difference between north/south and east/west. There’s a in-game map with a quick travel feature, a rarity at the time. But you can only quick travel to about 25% of the screens! It took me a long time to get a feel for the town and where to go.
Now, you may wonder why I even bothered to finish the game. It helped that I liberally used a walkthrough. And the game is gorgeous with a compelling story. The pacing of the horror is done just about perfectly, with the first day being safe exploration and risky moments slowly ramping up as Halley’s comet closes in. Conversations are generally tense and to the point, with the important ones showing massive (and well-drawn) close-ups of the characters. Music is foreboding, but sporadic, which keeps the mood a bit tense regardless of what’s happening. I really appreciate this, as many horror games give you constant obvious signals when something scary is about to happen. Parker is voiced quite well, which is a relief since he does most of the talking. Some minor characters are also pleasant to listen to, but many more are just dreadful and were clearly neither trained voice actors nor given any real direction.
You will die a lot while playing, which would be welcome if not for how poorly the game treats the player. There are only a couple of handfuls of save slots. And while you can save over previous slots, you can’t actually rename them, so good luck remembering. And given how many instant death rooms exist (without any clues to that effect), negotiating the save files is mentally exhausting. There are a couple of walking dead scenarios, but they are all contained within a brief time frame and only one of them that I found could be considered unfair. The game also crashed on me a few times, but that could very well be a problem using DosBox on a thirty year-old game.
Unfortunately, the best part of the game is the middle, as it’s where all the confrontation with other humans occur. While it’s fairly obvious to figure out who Parker’s enemies are, their presence always makes things uneasy, and the climax at the end of the second day is wonderfully done. Parker uses knowledge of Cthulhu mythos he’s gained throughout the first two days to save his life, and the puzzles were fair and intuitive.
The same cannot be said for the final act, which requires so many leaps of logic (especially since the game never gives feedback) that I sped through it by inventory spamming every screen and keeping the walkthrough up at all times. Most of the confrontations are with actual monsters, which are presented a bit cartoonish, dampening the horror. By the end, I was just glad the game was over.
There are many games I’ve given a low score to that I feel are completely hopeless. But if Shadow of the Comet were to ever be remade with a better UI and professional acting, it could be a potential Top 50 game for me.