Crowalt: Traces of the Lost Colony

30/01/2022

Fortunately, It Was Just A Nightmare

Being a young sprout, such as I am, this was my first foray into the point and click adventure genre as I had never played one before Crowalt: Traces of the Lost Colony. Upon completing the game I can report that my premier experience was anticlimactic, to say the least, but an intriguing journey nevertheless. 

Clearly inspired by the Sierra classics of old, Crowalt tries to deliver an original tale filled with mystery and wonder with some amount of success. You assume the role of adventurer, and irreverent thrill-seeker, Hugh Radcliffe in a quest to uncover the enigma surrounding the isolated town of Crowalt and the Lost Colony that inhabit the island. Whilst you launch your investigation you will be met with various obstacles and puzzles that you must overcome to unravel the secrets of this strange land as well as quirky characters that will help you along the way. 

Traces of the Lost Colony is touted as a game that "merges traditional storytelling with modern-day pixel art graphics" by first-time developers Madcraft Studios. They also highlight that the "choices players make will affect the course of events and in this way, they'll draw their own paths towards the curious ending of the game". Whilst the ending is indeed curious, the choices that are presented to the player don't have as much consequence as they would have you believe. 

Crowalt is a charming game. Its strengths definitely lie within its storytelling and written dialogue. The pace at which the story unfolds is engrossing but the climax is a little jarring. The town and its inhabitants are genuinely interesting and some of the background art in the game can be particularly pleasant on the eyes. Despite all this, the gameplay does contain some serious flaws, not least of which being its extremely primitive puzzle-solving mechanics and the tedious fetch quests featured within. The best analogy I can conjure up to summarise the puzzle formulae is this:

Imagine you're trying to put together a jigsaw in your living room, but you store all of the pieces in a locked basement and you keep the key in the attic. This is Crowalt: Traces of the Lost Colony in a nutshell.

That is to say, often you will have to jump through several hoops to achieve the simplest of tasks. This would make sense if the overarching questline required you to perform various feats in order to make progress, but instead, you're forced to backtrack to and fro the same locations for menial errands. 

Traces of the Lost Genre 

As previously mentioned, Crowalt is a point and click adventure game but its limitations are evident from the offset. First off, you're restricted to a two-dimensional plane so points of interest, items and objectives are painfully obvious and easy to identify. It also renders the traversal mundane and boring as you'll be constantly mashing the bottom right or left sides of the screen to move Hugh. Too often will it have you trek to the far corners of the map and all the way back again to either relay some information, retrieve something or deliver something. This quickly becomes tedious, especially considering that most of the solutions to puzzles in this game feel arbitrary, to say the least.

Furthermore, some solutions or items are locked off until activated by the problem itself subsequently stifling proactivity at times. Instead, you'll have to retrace your steps and try old sources again to see if they have become obtainable. This is exemplified by a voodoo doll you discover very early on in the game that you can't pick up until you've met the witch that's bound to it. Hugh is quite happy to pick up other random bits of rubbish scattered throughout Crowalt so why not everything? 

The only aspect that stood out in general problem solving was the ability to approach a problem in multiple different ways. For example, after Hugh's first night at the town's inn, he is forced to pay a fee for their services. Having only 1 coin to his name and needing 2, you must investigate the bar and find a way to raise the money of which there are a few options. Seldom have I seen this level of agency in gaming and it was a welcome surprise. Unfortunately, it never amounts to anything meaningful but it is still appreciated all the same. 

Another aspect that was refreshing, but ultimately failed in its execution was the various "minigames" sprinkled throughout the game. The first mini-game featured here piqued my interest for its apparent inventiveness and if that was to establish the precedent then this title could have had promise. Hugh must gain the trust of the Inn's owner and in order to do so he must tend the bar whilst she runs an errand but with the caveat of only having limited stock. So, you must ration out the alcohol by deciding the ratio of beer to water depending on how the customer orders the drink. A pirate who has lost his finger in a game of five finger filet may need a particularly strong drink as opposed to the town beggar who can only afford the one drink so he'll consume whatever he's given. Whilst these 2 examples work as they're on the opposing ends of the spectrum, the other 8 orders are so vague and hard to judge that it devolves into guesswork. It was a really good idea but a poor execution.

Despite hundreds of examples over many decades, Crowalt never manages to innovate on a genre that has seen so many stellar games. It's a shame too because it showed glimpses of doing so. Maybe if it had focused more on the dialogue-based mini-games, open-ended quests and varied up the errands significantly, this could have been a solid game.

From Delivery Boy to the Chosen One 

Although the gameplay falls short of expectations, the story and characters embedded within this title are actually quite riveting... relatively speaking. I was surprised to discover that this game was inspired by true events, creating a fictional tale around a failed attempt to create the first-ever permeant English settlement in North America. Madcraft Studios obviously take liberties with the source material but that only adds to the intrigue as the overall story depicted here is pretty good. It doesn't execute its plot beats perfectly, nor does it ever feel as though you get information that's relevant to the larger issues at hand but it still creates an ominous atmosphere. It does a great job at dropping in nuggets of dialogue that allude to the ambiguity of Crowalt, but when considering the ending it's rather redundant, not that you'd know at the time though.

Crowalt's biggest crime is locking the mystery behind a character who knows all the answers. Instead of systematically unravelling the secrets of the island yourself, all that is required is that you appease this character with the aforementioned fetch quests until he spills the beans. 

Without spoiling too much, the revelation is that your character is none other than the "chosen one" but you needed to be tested to prove as much. Only you have the power to aid the Lost Colony, but a certain liaison you encounter throughout the story already knows where the Colony is, and how to save them. What he serves as is an exposition dump at the end of the game to explain the plot twist. A twist that would have been absolutely awesome had it been drip-fed to you throughout the story and revealed at the end a different way. In short, the story content is solid and makes the game worth playing. The writing is competent and it does a great job of conveying the characters as unique entities. However, it can still be cumbersome in its delivery, especially in its major plot points.

Crowalt's Last Hugh-rah 

Crowalt: Traces of the Lost Colony is evidently an indie game so its calibre is limited. For the most part, its presentation is commendable though. The background art and environments are particularly well crafted and fit the mood of the town excellently. Add to this some appropriately whimsical yet forbidding backing music and the atmosphere is established adeptly. 

However, Hugh Radcliff himself looks shocking. I despised his character design as well as the art design for all of the characters in the game. The quality is widely inconsistent. Forgetting the stereotypical depictions of the pirates and native Americans, all the characters look half-finished. Sometimes they will have cartoonish black outlines around their model, but only on some parts of their body. The backgrounds and items do not follow this style either so there is a huge disconnect between characters and the world. This spotlights the games poor graphical fidelity but it could have been avoided so easily by having better quality character models.

The animations are very basic but point and click adventure titles have never been renowned for slick animation anyways. It could have used some feedback queues for using an item incorrectly but that can be forgiven. I personally would have enjoyed seeing Hugh use some of the items I collected in realistic ways, but they do a good job at compensating for this with dialogue commentary. 

These niggling issues compounded with the irritating fetch quests and the strange delivery of the ending make for an underwhelming experience. It's not a bad game by any stretch but it does leave much to be desired. It appears to be the first attempt from Madcraft Studios and if this is what they can produce at the first time of asking, they have a bright future in the industry. I look forward to seeing what they can create now that they have some serious experience under their belt. If they take a little more time and make their next project slightly more polished, I think they can produce something special within the indie space. However, this time they just fall short of the mark. 

Joe Wilcock