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SummaryA game you can like without really enjoying it?
The GoodTo get one thing out of the way: I have not yet seen the TV series that this little game is based on. From what I could gather, it takes place during the show's third season, but tells its own, independent story. You witness a lot of conversations with regular characters from the show, which are represented using photographs of the original actors, while others are unique to the game. A lot of care obviously went into making the portraits of these additional characters fit the style of the original ones. Before checking IMDb to see which characters aren't listed for the show, I didn't suspect that some of them weren't actors from the series. The same care for stylistic consistency also went into the backgrounds and the soundtrack, which I suspect are taken from the show's original sets and musical score respectively.
The Tudors is a game that is very hard to like. I was curious when first starting to play, and quickly started to hate it. By the end of the first of 3 acts, I could barely convince myself to continue playing. When it was over, I had to admit that I somehow liked it after all, although probably for all the wrong reasons. It's not very good as a game, and only in the final chapters will you start to discover what, retrospectively, will keep you from considering the game to have been a complete waste of time.
Mechanically, the game itself is a collection of mini-games, about half of them based on the genre-traditional search for hidden objects or differences between two pictures. Other activities include some very simple inventory riddles, logical puzzles, and two rather unique developments—a game of mixing potions, and a quiz on the relationships between characters. The quality of, and fun to be had with, each type of activity varies wildly, but more on that later.
I have already implied that one of the things the game does really well is atmosphere. Although I often find photographic backgrounds in a game to look cheap, this was not so much the case here. The character portraits are a bit shocking at first, blown up to full screen size—apparently, when playing a computer game, seeing real-life people is unexpected and somewhat unsettling—but again, I was surprised to see how the developers prevented them from giving everything an all too cheap look. And the background music is absolutely fantastic. Professionally produced and always applied well, it is at times clearly one of the factors that keep you from giving up on the game entirely. There is no voice acting, but all in all, the look and feel of the game's dialogues is great.
And quite a lot of dialogue there is. The game is probably about 6 hours long for the average player, and at least 2 of them are spent reading conversations. I expected the writing to be cheesy, so that's the way it felt at first—and at some points, it really is. But the game soon made it obvious that there also must have been some capable writers involved. It feels era-appropriate, without rubbing it in like some other period games. And there are actually some really witty and funny moments. As an old Adventure game fan, I was really surprised to find that this little game's writing surpasses quite some full-price Adventure games I've played. It only really starts to read awkwardly when it tries to lead directly into or out of the mini-games. There also aren't any grammatical or spelling errors that often mar these low-budget titles. At least none that I noticed, and I usually do.
I didn't forget about the story itself! You take the role of Elena Sedgrave, a young woman who, through her presence of mind, one night saves the lives of both the new Queen and a servant to the court of King Henry VIII. This grabs the King's attention, and he decides to hire Elena as a royal spy for her talents of perception. He commands her to accompany her father on his journeys to mainland Europe, and keep her eyes and ears open. Struggling at first, Elena soon starts to like this new and exciting life, and uncovers a multi-national plot to overthrow the Protestant King Henry and restore England to Catholicism.
And this story is by far the most surprising aspect of the game. It starts out pretty average, but by the third act takes on such depth and complexity that I have rarely seen in any game. There are eighteen chapters, and each one of them has its surprising twists, and uncovers additional layers of the intrigues and conspiracies. Fooled by the low-budget nature of the game and the often disappointing quality of the mini-games, I expected a lacklustre formulaic story, and because of that probably didn't pay enough attention. I was quickly lost in the sea of characters, alliances and betrayals, lost track of who hated whom, who served whom, who pretended to be what and what they really were. A certain knowledge about the characters from the show would probably help, but I don't think it's essential—you just have to be attentive about what people say and write. Miss one important line, and much of what happens later won't make much sense to you anymore. By the end, I did what I had planned not to: I started to play the game a second time. This time, I want to know exactly what these people do. This time, I'm taking notes.
One of the best mini-games ties directly into that unexpected strength of the game. Once per act, you are asked to conclude what you have learned about all the main characters of the story. You are given a graph with spots for characters, and arrows with labelled relationships between them. You now have to place each character in the correct spot. This was hard given my limited understanding of the plot, but it is achievable if you reason very carefully. You can skip the puzzle, but you cannot request hints for it. But I loved these manual recaps, because they played to the focus of the game.
The other rather unique mini-game I really liked was mixing potions. Given a chart of colours resulting from mixing differently coloured potions, a set of flasks and potions, and a very complex system of funnels and interconnected tubes, you are asked to let the correct liquids arrive in the correct flasks. You can brute-force your way through this, but I found it addictively entertaining to solve the puzzles by really analyzing the systems of tubes, and would have wished for more puzzles of this kind.
The BadUnfortunately, the mini-games that you will spend the most time with are of much lower quality. Searching scenes for hidden objects, with minor variations to the concept, is well known. But alas, this is where the visual atmosphere of the game starts to break down, and show the problems of using photographic backgrounds: the objects are hard to "melt" with the background. And in many cases, the artists did a really bad job of it.
There are only a few objects hidden in each scene, and most of them are quite large. What is disturbing is that most are clearly discernible from their difference in lighting, perspective, and so on. This doesn't always make them easier to see though. Sometimes, it just makes it harder to see what they are. And in both cases, they just disturb the overall look of the pictures.
In other scenes, where you have to search for a number of similar objects, the developers crossed the line between "let's make finding these a challenge" and "let's make these darn near impossible to see". Thankfully, a rather swiftly reloading hint function can help you out, although that's no excuse for hiding objects in a way that I can really only call unfair. Sometimes, I had the hint option clearly circle an object I was still looking for, and I still couldn't see it! Only by randomly clicking the area, and finally seeing the object fly to the left of the screen, did I find out what exact part of the background I was supposed to recognise as the object in question. I think it is safe to say that no one will be able to get through this game without using hints a couple of times.
The inventory puzzles, finally, are nothing to write home about. The hints given to you are so clear, the objectives stated so directly, it is really just moving from room to room and clicking the correct (this time easy to see) objects. Most of them are very illogical, which is a pity, but not a problem since they are usually about combining the only two objects you can see.
The Bottom LineReaching a definite conclusion or verdict on this game is harder than in any other review I have written so far. Clearly, many of the mini-games you spend most of your time playing aren't well done, nor very fun. The hidden object scenes are sub-standard and not visually pleasing, the other puzzles are either too traditional (think puzzle collection à la The 7th Guest—you can skip the puzzles though), too simplistic, too absurd, or a combination of the above.
In my opinion, the developers should have reduced, or completely removed, these staple mini-games, and instead focus on their more unique creations. The potions and relationships games were great fun, so why do I only get to play 3 rounds of each? Especially since the latter relates so directly to what the game is ultimately about: a twisting and turning tale of friendship, love, betrayal, hate, intrigue, war and politics in 15th/16th century Europe.
And this is really the main point I want to bring across. While nothing more than a small, cheap, formulaic "casual" game on the surface, and not even an especially good one, it ended up overturning my expectations and telling me one of the better stories that I have witnessed in a computer game. Lacking animated characters, voiceovers, or even moving lips or facial expressions that more expensive titles use, it nonetheless used its limited means (i.e. a portrait, a text box, and emotionally appropriate music) as well as it could. I needed to play the game a second time, because I'm daft and I didn't get the story. But thinking back to some of the many revelations about the numerous characters, the way they made me pause for a few minutes to just ponder, to consider my thoughts and emotions about these characters and situations, I probably would have replayed it anyway.
And that is my complicated relationship with The Tudors, a game that was probably devised exclusively as a fan service to the viewers of a show I've never seen. If, like me, you enjoy a good story in a game, you might end up really liking this objectively mediocre game after your first hate-filled playthrough. The story feels like part of a big, living world, and I really liked its well-rounded ending. The game rises or falls depending on whether this story touches you. The Tudors definitely has its great qualities, they're just hidden so terribly far from view.