Trilby's Notes (PC) review
"I keep praising Ben Croshaw for his technical prowess, but, man, is Trilby's Notes one polished title. After two installments that frequently impressed but whose chinks betrayed their homemade origins, AGS developer and acclaimed smartass Croshaw has delivered a Trilby game that's wholly professional - and fun to play. Its storytelling choices render it not for everyone, but it's a grand showcase of independent programming. "
I keep praising Ben Croshaw for his technical prowess, but, man, is Trilby's Notes one polished title. After two installments that frequently impressed but whose chinks betrayed their homemade origins, AGS developer and acclaimed smartass Croshaw has delivered a Trilby game that's wholly professional - and fun to play. Its storytelling choices render it not for everyone, but it's a grand showcase of independent programming.
Casting aside the spacebound antics of its predecessor, Trilby's Notes returns to the era of 5 Days a Stranger for a more direct sequel to the first title. It's 1997, and cat burglar Trilby's past has finally, and in more than one way, caught up with him. First, he's apprehended by the authorities, who decide that his talent for theft uniquely qualifies him for government work and employ him as a secret agent. A sudden act of violence shortly afterward indicates that the curse of the old manor Trilby escaped four years ago has not been completely dispelled, so he decides to use his new post to trace the true source of the horror. The trail leads to the old Clanbronwyn Inn, with which Trilby feels a strange connection...and whose surroundings are less stable than perhaps preferable.
Croshaw makes several smart decisions off the bat. The intro's one of the most captivating I've played, starting with a clever double-take joke and continuing to a delightfully successful mimic of a film montage in adventure game format. The music seems to anticipate when the player will finish reading the text boxes, in effect synching itself with the on-screen events like a movie score. Don't think this prologue uninteractive, though; it pauses so we can play through the flashback hook for Trilby's new adventures, with concise and helpful yet unintrusive prompts guiding the player through the control system. The scenario serves as a tutorial but isn't a throwaway cakewalk; it presents a smart puzzle that leads to a stylish payoff.
Eventually, the game settles down to a structure influenced by Eternal Darkness and Silent Hill. Trilby searches the Clanbronwyn for clues to the DeFoe curse. Important discoveries will present him with visions of the past, whereupon the game will switch to the perspective of another character from the deadly DeFoe saga; play out the history lesson successfully ("success" here typically dictated by the appearance of viscera onscreen), and our hero thief gains further information to continue his quest. These interludes are not the only intrusion into Trilby's consciousness and sanity, however; he sporadically finds himself spirited from the comfortable Clanbronwyn to a hellish otherworldly parody of his lodgings whose guests are gonna have a heck of a time making 11 a.m. checkout. Add some randomly-generated surprises that, while not life-threatening, are effectively disorienting for the player, and - yeah, it's derivative, but it's effective as all get-out.
When I looked up one of the early games on Wikipedia and found it filed under the "Chzo Mythos", I rolled my eyes. "Mythos". There's this guy in a welder's mask who kills people. Homer it ain't. Fortunately, Croshaw here seems to have tired of the Welder himself, introducing another monster with a surprisingly strong design. In fact, the art in Trilby's Notes is in general a point of pride. Smooth character animation has always been a series highlight, and here it's paired with sharp scene direction; the game proves remarkably cinematic in its staging and pacing, Croshaw proving particularly skilled with the timing and editing finesse crucial for effective jump scenes. (That first one always gets me.) The artwork is rounded out with a number of loving little touches, like how the font mimics Trilby's handwriting in text bubbles that resemble pages torn from a spiral notepad.
This game involves a text parser - meaning, you'll be typing out all your commands, ā la the early King's Quests. This prompts much gnashing of teeth in some circles, but I find it refreshing - it allows for more complex, creative puzzles and eliminates the click-on-everything-with-everything mindset. Its freedoms aren't exploited as much as I'd like, but it does produce a couple neat puzzles. Trilby's Notes is also blessedly free of the synonym guessing games that can plague these titles, with one exception - simply remember that the author considers a SINK separate from its COUNTER.
Sound is not usually a selling point in low-res adventure games, and yet Mark Lovegrove's score is remarkably strong, from the notably complex intro music that nimbly skips from eerie to busily enthused to contemplative to a refined and haunting harpsichord composition, one of the best from an instrument long associated with spook. His panic theme is a simple masterpiece of building hyperventilation; the "dark world" theme is a melange of off-kilter notes thickly overlaid with whispers that provides long-lasting creep. Trilby's Notes is the first Trilby game with an original score, and the investment pays off mightily in atmosphere, revealing a composer who works well in both the traditional and the offbeat.
I have a few major reservations. First, the storytelling and gameplay are somewhat at odds. A good portion of the game is devoted to Trilby looking for an item to which he feels "drawn", whereupon we are sent to a mini "solve [problem] with [the sole item in your inventory]" flashback scenelet. It makes the gameplay goals on Trilby's end a bit predictable and the game's overall structure a bit repetitive. The "play through ancient history" tack is extraordinarily immersive, though, and does eke out a few good puzzles despite each flashback's small scope. The solution here is simply more game, which is never a bad complaint for a game designer to have.
Second, Trilby's Notes has carried the "bleh surroundings" problem over from 7 Days a Skeptic. The hell world, of course, is mostly flayed bodies and messages scrawled in blood on peeling plaster, but the hotel is bland and, as the game notes, decorated in Pepto-Bismol colors. With no interesting places to go or people to meet outside the flashbacks (this is the Clanbronwyn's off season, it seems, and the few guests present are dull dishwater), the game's appeal is diminished. I'm not expecting Candy Land in a horror title, but think of the mansions of the first Resident Evil and Clock Tower, the eponymous Silent Hill, the time-shifted locales in Clock Tower 3 - all places no less disturbing and spooky for their visual intrigue.
I disliked the excessive gore in 7 Days, and Trilby's Notes is far worse still. Somehow, though, I didn't mind as much - either the game presents so much that you become inured or the violence has as art to it, instead of 7 Days' "hey, look! Guts!". It's an inarguable step to the Hellraiser side, though, for a series that could've gone in several more rousing and palatable directions with its intrepid master thief - dashing adventure, drawing-room mystery, something tastefully Lovecraftian that still allowed for tentacled monstrosities. To build an engaging (*ahem*) "mythos", you gotta populate it with more than insane murderers.
Therefore, for all my admiration, Trilby's Notes falls a little too much to the schlock side for me. Perhaps your tastes will differ. The game's extraordinary presentation and craftsmanship, though, transcend the limitations of its chosen genre. It's a love note to horror and a testament to the possibilities of indie initiative.
The special edition of Trilby's Notes, available for $5 at http://www.fullyramblomatic.com/notes/, includes an entertaining and genuinely informative commentary by Croshaw, sound files of Lovegrove's complete score plus track-by-track composer's notes, and a compilation of the deftly-written cultist scripture from the game.
Featured community review by Synonymous (November 02, 2008)
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