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5 Days a Stranger (PC) artwork

5 Days a Stranger (PC) review

"I feel a bit dirty reviewing 5 Days a Stranger, it having been brought to my attention via a tiresome fan board-spamming campaign. "

I feel a bit dirty reviewing 5 Days a Stranger, it having been brought to my attention via a tiresome fan board-spamming campaign.

"Hey, have you heard of this series? You gotta try it! It's just like Clock Tower! Really!"


That said: 5 Days a Stranger is a nice afternoon or two of mystery-horror adventure. From a technical perspective, it's an often-impressive piece of amateur programming, although, storywise, the artist's immaturity betrays itself.

Trilby (no first name, thank you) is a master cat burglar who has somehow continually managed to elude the authorities despite his habits of parking his cherry-red hatchback in the front yards of his crime scenes and forgetting his lockpicks in the car. Complications arise, however, when Trilby busts into his latest target and...can't break out. A supernatural force seems to have snapped shut every door and window in the DeFoe Manor - and Trilby's not the only prisoner...

5 Days a Stranger develops in the vein of the old Sierra point-and-clicks, and there are few if any cracks in programmer Ben Croshaw's graphical presentation. No one turns cartwheels, but the animation of the characters is very smooth. Environments are solidly rendered in the vein of the old King's Quest heyday; no corners were cut, and every bookcase in a library or bathroom bidet has dimension and heft. The animations that open and close the game are well-directed and boast sharp effects. All is polished and solid, and it's a delight to see someone in 2007 recapture the Sierra feel.

I'm afraid, though, that the frights could've used improvement. We have a few good stabs (I'm so sorry), but they're either over too quickly for the horror truly to register or are rendered in too small a size. (Croshaw might have taken a page from the original Clock Tower and included some close-ups at critical scenes.) They're also simply too few. (I will, though, compliment Croshaw on one death scene that's simply stated and artfully-arranged in monochrome; it makes a chilling impact without gore.)

I'm split on the story, but it has many strong points. In broad strokes, it contains a neat twist on the Ten Little Indians scenario in the nature of the culprit. The mystery is a true puzzle but doesn't cheat, and Croshaw makes a remarkably gutsy storytelling decision along the way. (I complain about the lack of scares, but the implications of this twist stick with you.) Like others, I enjoyed how the NPCs aren't static during gameplay but instead fan out about the manor on their own little agendas. A couple clues as to the nature of goings-on are thankfully subtle; the game doesn't hit you over the head but just lets them sink in after showing its hand later on. While the game is part horror, though, the antagonist was a little too B-movie for me, particularly given the stately nature of the environment. (There's also no reason, given the killer's origins, why they would choose _that_ costume, save for how the themed outfit is a must for today's fashionable horror villain.)

5 Days has a lot of dialogue, for which I'm grateful; Stranger doesn't treat words as a barrier to the action. In stretches, however, the game comes down with Golden Sun syndrome, where volumes of pleasantries are expended yet not much at all is said. Croshaw's sentence structure and word choice are often awkward ("Hampered by paranoia and suspicion, we'd only hinder each other"). It's like reading the work of a bright kid who'll write great someday but isn't quite there yet. (Obviously, with the machine-gun wit of the Zero Punctuation videos, Croshaw's arrived, but his efforts here are not nearly as accomplished. It particularly hobbles Trilby, who's supposed to be noirishly sardonic but, through the less-than-smooth dialogue, often ends up sounding like a bratty fifteen-year-old instead.) The word "retarded" also pops up in character conversation more than I'd like, which is to say that it pops up; while it is used to describe someone who is actually mentally impaired, it breaks the mood, particularly coming from the mouth of a suave "gentleman thief" and a smart, worldly TV reporter. I kept expecting "olol"s and cat macros.

There're also aspects of the scenario that stretch one's suspension of disbelief. Say you're trapped in a house. Would you scream? Panic? Try to bust the windows, make a SOS sign in the yard or on the fence? Our cast does none of the above, being unbelievably blasť about its situation; the characters wait several days before they try all the doors in the house, for heaven's sake. Trilby makes it a point to note that the refrigerator and, by extension, entire kitchen have no food, but our party, which is stuck in the mansion for five days or more, survives without sustenance with no visible ill effects. One of the captives is a national celebrity. Through a television that serves as a sporadic connection to the outside world, we learn that a) police have surrounded the mansion to search for her and are confounded by the house, but b) the world has already given her up for dead. Well, if this mysteriously-sealed house was the last place she was seen, then shouldn't she be considered trapped, not dead, and the search only intensified? Isn't the existence of this bizarre monster house that has seemingly eaten a popular TV personality cause for a huge media fuss?

I haven't mentioned the puzzles yet, have I? They're pretty good. I will complain that you often have to complete *everything* you can do in the house at a given point before moving on to the next necessary action. (I can't, for example, show a character an important piece of evidence and move the story along until I've read the newspaper clipping in the front hallway, which only repeats known information and has nothing to do with the task at hand.) There're also too many what-do-I-do-now stretches where one must wander the entire house with little guidance to find out what's changed or new and needs interaction for the story to proceed; the room-by-room searches get tiresome. That said, Croshaw comes up with several smart ways to circumvent the use-everything-on-everything method of adventure gaming. This makes for several conundrums that require actual active thought but are not unintuitive or unreasonably hard. A solution to a confrontation with the villain is remarkably deft; the final chapter is a single elaborate puzzle that hinges on planning, where the player must set all his pieces in the right places before triggering a trap to survive.

The interface is also notably smooth. Your cursor has several modes between which to switch. Click on one icon on the bottom taskbar, and the cursor becomes an eye with which to inspect items visually; click on another, and it becomes a hand with which to interact with the environment. The cursor stays in its current mode until switched out; it's a remarkably efficient method of exploring one's environs.

That said, though, the game can still be a bit schlocky (intentionally) and...well, to be blunt, dumb (unintentionally). Another part of its problem is that it's crossed the Uncanny Valley of Suck. The Uncanny Valley, you'll recall, is the recently-encountered phenomenon where automatons become so lifelike that they stop looking like cutesy robots with a few endearingly human traits and start looking like really off-putting, messed-up humans. Here, we've a homebrew title polished enough that we start to view it not as a plucky fan game with a few impressive features but as just a game, like all the other professional releases, with marked flaws. I'm giving 5 Days a Stranger a 7, but it's more like a 6.5; I'm just shy of recommending it to a general audience, as those flaws are indeed going to lead some folks to write off the game completely. Those with fond memories of the early adventure genre, though, will find enough to make the title worth a look.

Synonymous's avatar
Community review by Synonymous (October 09, 2007)

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